Panama Canal Tour
Food and Drink in Colon (Cristobal)
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.
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.
In Port: The cafe at Cristobal Pier can rustle up tasty bar snacks when cruisers are in port. There are more restaurants -- notably Arrecifes and Rotana Cafe -- to choose from in the Colon 2000 port complex.
In Colon: The Grand Cafe (Calle 11 and Ave. Bolivar) offers Arabian cuisine, and Restaurante Nuevo Dos Mares (Calle 5 and Ave. Central, in the Paseo del Centenario section) is a great option if you're looking for authentic Panamanian cuisine. There's also a decent mini-market 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.
Beaches in Colon (Cristobal)
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. Isla Grande is worth the trip for the lush scenery alone; the island is about a five-minute boat ride from the small village of La Guayra, one of Panama's most popular holiday spots offering 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.
Don't Miss in Colon (Cristobal)
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.
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 the Royal Customs House of Portobelo (the Aduana Real), which was restored in 1998. In the 16th Century, this now-museum 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.
Colon City Tour: 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 New Washington Hotel, 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).