Colon (Cristobal) (Photo:Don Fink/Shutterstock)
3.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Gina Kramer
Cruise Critic Editor

Port of Colon (Cristobal)

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.

About Colon (Cristobal)


Pro

You'll find it all -- from duty-free goods to encounters with indigenous people -- right at the port.

Con

Until its urban renewal project is complete, Colon remains a somewhat shabby city with few central attractions.

Bottom Line

Colon is the gateway to the Panama Canal and conveniently located one hour from Panama City.


Find a Cruise to the Panama Canal & Central America

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 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.

Language

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.

Shopping

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.