Panama's Colon is best known as the gateway to the Gatun Locks and newer Agua Clara locks, where visitors can watch the Panama Canal -- one of the world's greatest feats of engineering -- in action. (The equally magnificent Miraflores Locks also are a roughly one-hour drive from the city.) The canal is only one of the region's many attractions, however. Colon, situated on Panama's Atlantic side, is home to the world's first transcontinental railway; 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 (its second-largest economy after the canal). Significant development programs over the past several years have welcomed new beaches as well as several enhancements to Balboa (another major port, on the Pacific side).
Colon itself is in the middle of an approximately $500-million urban renewal project aimed at improving the city's image and boosting tourism. (Most cruise passengers that begin or end their journey in Colon stay in Panama City instead of Colon, due to the city's reputation for street crime and lack of central attractions.)
The project includes the development of a new duty-free shopping center at one of Colon's main docking areas, Colon 2000, as well as park restoration and the construction of a new retail mall, bus terminal and hospital. Colon 2000 currently offers only a couple shops, restaurants and bars; there is also an ATM on site. Although the project's initial plans estimated its completion to be in 2019, the city still has a long way to go.
Colon's other docking area, Cristobal Pier, is smaller but offers a 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 those who aren't comfortable with exploring on their own are advised to stick with the ship-sponsored shore excursions, it is perfectly possible to explore farther afield as long as you're careful. This means using registered taxis (Uber is also an option) and following 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 its future is prosperous and 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 are truly unspoiled.