Port of Colon (Cristobal)
Find a Cruise to the Panama Canal & Central America
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.
Top Colon (Cristobal) Itineraries
Silver Wind10 Night Caribbean CruiseColon , Roatan, Santo Tomas de Castilla, Belize City, Cozumel, Key West, Fort LauderdaleNow
Wind Star7 Night Costa Rica CruiseColon , Isla Parida, Quepos, PuntarenasNow
Star Breeze7 Night Costa Rica CruiseColon , Isla Parida, Quepos, PuntarenasNow
Crystal Symphony11 Nights Caribbean SerenadeColon , Colon , Cartagena , Aruba, St. Barts, St. Barts, Key West, Fort LauderdaleNow
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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.