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Colon (Cristobal) Overview
Panama's Colon is best known as the gateway to the Miraflores Locks, where visitors can watch the Panama Canal, one of the world's greatest feats of engineering, in action. The famous canal is only one of the region's many attractions, however. Colon is home to the world's first transcontinental railway, and its magnificent 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. One of the main objectives of a £1 billion development program, in addition to widening the canal and constructing new beaches 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; it's 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's.
Although Colon has the best shops and restaurants, Cristobal Pier gets high marks for its lively craft market and folklore shows. Regardless of where a cruise ship docks, visitors can experience both places, as the two cruise terminals are within easy reach 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 bird life, will certainly repay the effort. Yes, it has its problems, but there are as many good, honest and welcoming people there as anywhere. Plus, a visit to Colon gives you the rare opportunity to see off-the-beaten-track parts of Panama, some of which is truly unspoiled.
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Other Panama Canal & Central America Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Aruba • Belize City • Cartagena (Colombia) • Colon (Cristobal) • Curacao • Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo • Manzanillo • 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 and reddish-brown to yellow.
Other great options are Panama hats, which came into popularity in the early 1900s when President Theodore Roosevelt wore one on a visit to the country as the canal was being constructed. You can find them in various sizes, colors and styles at shops all over the immediate port area. Browse a bit first, though, to be sure you're getting the best price.
Spanish is the official language. Some taxi drivers and shop owners speak enough English to have a conversation, as do several employees at the grocery store in port, but the majority know only a few words. Be sure to bone up on common phrases before leaving home, download an app to your smartphone, or bring a phrasebook.
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 www.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 providing what the cruise lines want for their passengers -- a clean, safe, protected environment; excellent shops; and well-regulated taxi services.
Cristobal Pier is about 3 miles 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.
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 shop fronts, displaying bargain-priced electronics, perfumes, cosmetics and luxury items like fine china and jewelry. You will also find some native craftwork, 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.
There you'll find a range of wood-fronted, well-stocked shops that sell local craftwork (like embroidered sundresses, 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 folkloric performances -- the girls wearing elaborately tiered, lacy white frocks and tall headdresses, the boys in baggy, white pants and richly colored waistcoats.
By Taxi: Cabs 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.
Drivers 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 we'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 an affordable taxi-based city tour, which will show you the main sights of Colon.
Watch Out For
Protect your wallet. Street crime is a real possibility in Colon, so don't flash cash or wear expensive jewelry.
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, or combine the locks with a trip to the lovely town of Portobelo.
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 you'll 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. 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, 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.
Embera Villages: If you'd like to learn more about Panama's indigenous people, visit an Embera village, where you can meet its inhabitants and explore their culture through canoe rides, music, dance and activities like weaving and jewelry-making.
There are two fine beaches a taxi ride away from the ports. For a quick dip, take a taxi to Langosta beach (also known as Playa La Angosta), 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 is expensive, but you can split it with interested fellow passengers. Plus, 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 when cruisers are in port. There are more restaurants -- notably Cafe Iguana -- to choose from in the Colon 2000 port complex.
In Colon: The Grand Café (Calle 11 and Ave. Bolivar) offers Arabian cuisine, and Dos Mares (Calle 5 and Ave. Central (Ave. Justo Arosemena) is a great option if you're looking for fresh fish. There's also a decent minimarket at Shelter Bay Marina, near Fort Sherman.
Farther Afield: You'll find seafood places opposite Langosta 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
In the immediate area near Colon 2000, you'll find Japanese restaurant, Oishi, which offers free Wi-Fi.
Best for First-Timers: The five-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. 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: If you've already been to Colon and learned the history of the Panama Canal, get a glimpse into how it exists today and what's going on with its expansion. The four-hour "Expansion of the Panama Canal - the Present and the Future" tour starts at the Gatun Locks and offers an explanation of construction that's currently underway to deepen the canal, add additional access channels and widen the canal with a new lane and new locks.
Best for Active Travelers: On the 3.5-hour "Gatun Lake Kayak and Eco Adventure" tour, 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.
Best for Families: The five-hour "Gamboa Aerial Tram" excursion includes a thrilling, hour-long ride through the rainforest canopy (home to two-thirds of Panama's indigenous wildlife) aboard a comfortable aerial tram. The cost also includes stops at a frog exhibit and the Serpentarium, which showcases several varieties of poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes.
For More Information
On the Web: Colon City
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Panama Canal
Independent Traveler: Central and South America Travel Guide
--By Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Ashley Kosciolek, Copy and Ports Editor