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Colon (Cristobal) Overview
Panama's Colon is best known as the gateway to the Miraflores Locks, where visitors can watch one of the world's greatest feats of engineering -- the Panama Canal -- in action. But, the famous canal is only one of the region's many attractions. Colon is home to the world's first transcontinental railway, and its magnificently juddering red and gold trains traverse Central America from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a single afternoon. The country's vast, virgin rainforest is home to sloths, 10,000 plant species and 900 species of birds, including harpy eagles.
Having regained control of its famous canal at the turn of the 21st century, Panama is now steering its own boat in terms of tourism. And, one of the main objectives of a £1 billion development program -- in addition to widening the canal and constructing new beach and eco-friendly rainforest resorts -- has been to persuade cruise lines to use Colon and Balboa (on the Pacific side of the canal) as base ports so their passengers spend more time -- and money -- ashore.
For that to happen, cruise passengers need to feel secure -- a feeling not facilitated by Colon's rather scary reputation for street crime. So, local authorities have made sterling efforts to keep cruise visitors safe. They've regulated taxis and provided good shopping and cafe facilities at the two main cruise ship docking areas, Colon 2000 and nearby Cristobal Pier.
Of the two, Colon 2000 is by far the more sophisticated -- smart, gleaming and modern. It's also a great showcase for the goods of Colon's 50-year-old Free Trade Zone, which is the second-largest in the world after Hong Kong.
Although Colon has the best shops and restaurants, Cristobal Pier gets high marks for its lively crafts market and folklore shows. But, regardless of where a cruise ship docks, visitors can experience both places, as the two cruise terminals are within easy reach -- and a $6, roundtrip taxi ride -- of each other.
While the nervous are best advised to confine themselves to ship-sponsored shore excursions, it is also perfectly possible to explore farther afield, as long as you're careful, use registered taxis and follow the usual safe traveler rules: let people know where you're going and when you're due back, and don't flash cash or flaunt expensive jewelry.
The province of Colon -- rich in history and endowed with pristine beaches and exotic plants and birdlife -- will certainly repay the effort. Yes, it has its problems, but there are as many good, honest, welcoming people here as anywhere. And, a visit to Colon gives you the rare opportunity to see a country that has been way off the beaten track for many years and is, in some cases, truly unspoiled.
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Other Panama Canal & Central America Cruise Ports:
Aruba • Belize City • Cartagena (Colombia) • Colon (Cristobal) • Curacao • Puerto Limon • Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera)
Mexico isn't the only place where margaritas reign supreme; they're popular in Colon and Cristobal, too. Try a melon margarita -- a mix of melon juice with tequila and lime -- for a refreshing twist on the classic recipe. It's best enjoyed on the sea-view terrace of Cristobal Pier's pretty blue-and-white bar.
Beautifully crafted wooden puzzle boxes -- shaped as fish, flowers, exotic birds and other animals -- make great collectibles or presents for the folks back home. They're made from the hard wood of the Cocobolo tree, which varies in color from black to reddish-brown and yellow. The boxes cost from $10 to $50 and are widely available at Cristobal Pier's flea market.
Spanish is the official language. Though some taxi drivers know a smattering of English, don't count on it.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency in Panama is the Balboa, which has parity with the U.S. dollar. To find current exchange rates, visit xe.com. Dollars are accepted everywhere, and the port shops take credit cards (though stallholders in the flea market do not). If you run short, there are ATM machines at both ports.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships utilize two ports for visits to Colon: Colon 2000 and Cristobal Pier.
As its name reflects, Colon 2000 was constructed at the turn of millennium to encourage cruise ships to bring their passengers into Panama, rather than heading straight through its canal. The port has succeeded in its aim because its creators have taken heed of what the cruise lines want for their passengers -- a clean, safe, protected environment, excellent shops and well-regulated taxi services.
Cristobal Pier is about five km from Colon 2000, the main port and duty-free shopping zone at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal. Regulated taxis run between the two, and the journey takes about 10 minutes and costs roughly $3.
Colon 2000: As soon as you disembark, you'll notice how sparkly clean the Colon 2000 cruise terminal is. It's got creamy, marble floors and a shiny elevator that offers quick access to an overhead walkway into the shopping center.
There you'll find attractive lounge areas, smart restaurants and gleaming shopfronts, displaying bargain-priced electronics, perfumes, cosmetics and luxury items like fine china and jewelry. You will also find some native craftwork here, beautifully presented in posh boutiques.
Cristobal Pier: A gigantic warehouse-cum-hangar has been converted into a pleasant, welcoming passenger facility with a flea market at one end and an Internet cafe and indoor/outdoor, sea-view bar at the other.
Here you'll find a range of wooden-fronted, well-stocked shops that sell local craftwork (such as embroidered sundresses and tablecloths, elaborate baskets and woodwork, produced by local Panamanian Indian tribes) and Free Zone goods, including sunglasses and electronics at bargain prices.
The shops are arranged around an indoor courtyard area that's dotted with wooden seats, tables and benches. There, local dance troupes give folklore performances -- the girls wearing elaborately tiered, lacy, white frocks and tall head dresses, the boys in baggy, white pants and richly colored waistcoats.
Taxis from both ports are plentiful. Drivers are regulated, and their runs are closely monitored. Taxi organizers will take your name, your ship, your departure time, your expected time of return and the name and number of the driver with whom you are traveling. Look for the central desk at the Colon 2000 complex.
They will also offer a printed tariff of fares: $3 will get you from either port to any point within the perimeters of Colon City, though wandering about on your own here is not recommended. Some cab drivers will offer lower fares than the official tariff if approached directly, but I'd recommend taking the official route for peace of mind.
Colon's taxi drivers offer a wide array of go-as-you-please tours, listed on a written tariff (so there should be no embarrassing haggling when you get there, though it's worth negotiating waiting time and investigating ferry fares or entrance fees in advance). Or, take a taxi-based city tour ($30 for two people, $10 for each additional person), which will show you the main sights of Colon.
Watch Out For
Your wallet! Street crime is a real possibility in Colon, so don't flash cash or laden yourself with expensive jewelry.
And, if you're going it alone by taxi (rather than taking a ship's shore excursion), be prepared to wait until the tours have departed. Taxi drivers can only pick up passengers from the port complex once the last tour coach has left.
Gatun Locks: The biggest locks in the Panama Canal are impressive and give great insight into the workings of this fabulous piece of engineering. (The site includes a small scale model of the Canal.) The locks are open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week, and you can negotiate a roundtrip taxi for about $30 for up to four people, or combine the locks with a trip to the lovely town of Portobelo for about $120.
Colon City Tour: Quite honestly, apart from the fascinating Panama Canal, there's not a lot to see in Colon city itself. A coach or local taxi-based city tour will show you the well-restored, pink-and-white-fronted Hotel Washington (where it's fun to have drinks on the terrace, overlooking the entrance to the Canal) then take you to see the stone-built Episcopal Christ Church cathedral, the monument to Christopher Columbus (for whom Colon was named) and the shopping mall at Colon 2000 -- and that's about it.
Been There, Done That
Portobelo: A picturesque, Spanish, colonial town and UNESCO World Heritage
Site just along the coast from Colon, Portobelo is worth visiting for its pretty sea views, the ruins of five Spanish forts and a Spanish, colonial treasure house (the Aduana Real), which was restored in 1998.
In the 16th century, the Portobelo Treasure House was the holding place for Peruvian gold and loot that was seized in Latin America for shipment to Spain. Spanish galleons came and went constantly until English pirates (notably, Sir Francis Drake) repeatedly raided Portobelo's treasures and dislodged the Spaniards.
There are two fine beaches a taxi ride away from the ports. For a quick dip, take a taxi to Langosta beach ($80 roundtrip for up to four people).
Or, head to Isla Grande, a small island about an hour's drive from Colon. It's worth the trip for the lush scenery alone. The island itself -- about a five-minute boat ride from the small village of La Guayra -- is one of Panama's most popular holiday spots and offers water sports, a relaxed Caribbean atmosphere and beach bars.
A taxi ride there should cost about $200 ($50 per person, roundtrip, for four people), and the price should include some waiting time and access to the island. Negotiate all of this in advance. Again, be advised that it's not a great idea to go off adventuring alone -- pal up with shipmates to stay safe (and save money).
Local dishes worth trying include patacones (fried plantains) and ceviche (spiced fish, cooked with onions and lemon juice). Do have a Colombian coffee -- it really is some of the best in the world.
In Port: The cafe at Cristobal Pier can rustle up tasty bar snacks. There are more restaurants -- notably Cafe Iguana and Aspinwall -- to choose from in the Colon 2000 port complex.
In Colon: The Washington Hotel has a waterfront restaurant, and the Grand Cafe on 10th Street offers Arabian cuisine. There's also a decent Yacht Club in Colon, at Shelter Bay Marina, near Fort Sherman.
Farther Afield: You'll find seafood places opposite Lagosta Beach. Yachties pile into Portobelo, so the restaurants around its boat-dotted bay are worth exploring. Again, go nowhere on your own, and have taxis drop you off and pick you up at a prearranged time.
Staying in Touch
There are phone booths and Internet cafes in both ports. Expect to pay about $1 for 30 minutes' Internet access.
Best for First-Timers: The five-and-a-half-hour Grand Tour of Panama combines an ecological cruise around Gatun Lake with a visit to an Embera Indian village and a coach trip to the Gatun Locks. It costs about $129 per adult, and the price includes soft drinks, snacks and the services of a guide, who points out indigenous flora and fauna on the boat trip.
Best for Repeat Visitors: The seven-hour Two Ocean Railroad Journey features a ride on the Isthmian Railroad from Colon to Panama City. En route, a guide points out the flora and fauna of the tropical rainforest and the highlights of the Panama Canal, which runs parallel. The excursion also includes a bus tour to the Miraflores Lock on the Pacific side of the Canal. Return to Cristobal Pier is by bus. The price is about $129 per adult, and a snack and drink are included.
Best for Active Travelers: The four-and-a-half-hour Gatun Lake Kayak and Eco Adventure tour starts with a short bus trip to the Sol Melia Resort, where passengers climb into kayaks for a tour around the islands of Gatun Lake -- home to 93 species of mammals, 366 species of birds and 1,368 species of plants. After kayaking, passengers board a bus for a trip to the Gatun Locks. The cost is about $64 per person.
Best for Families: The five-and-a-half-hour Gamboa Aerial Tram tour includes a thrilling, hour-long ride through the rainforest canopy (home to two-thirds of Panama's indigenous wildlife) aboard a comfortable aerial tram. It costs roughly $99 per adult.
For More Information
Panama Tourist Bureau: www.visitpanama.com
Colon City: www.coloncity.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Panama Canal (boards.cruisecritic.com)
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Central America (boards.independenttraveler.com)
--by Maria Harding. The work of England-based Harding, a journalist and broadcaster, has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express.
For More Information