The Panama Canal, one of man’s greatest engineering feats, is the most well known attraction in this region and the city of Colon is considered the gateway to the Miraflores Locks. Completed in 1914, this incredible canal linked the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean allowing a large numbers of containers and passenger ships through daily. While sailing through the canal aboard a cruise vessel is an experience like no other, viewing it from ashore and learning about the logistics and history can greatly enhance your Panama cruise.
With much help from the U.S., Panama was able to break from Colombia and then signed the treaty allowing for the building of the canal and giving the U.S. control over the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land running down either side of the Canal. Completed in 1914 the Canal, its surrounding area and the U.S. military bases were all handed over to the Panamanian government. Panamanians have recently decided to expand the Canal and with work well under way, it is meant to be completed in about 2014 and able to double the Canal’s capacity.
Panama’s massive rainforest is very unspoiled and home to unique animals like sloths, thousands of plant species and 900 species of birds, some extremely rare. The beaches on the Caribbean coast near Colon are beautiful and with year round warm weather, the Panama Canal and ports including Colon are a popular destination for cruisers.
Colon, located on Panama’s Caribbean coast, is the only an hour’s drive from major attractions like the Intercontinental Railway that connects the Caribbean to the Pacific and the Gatun locks of the Canal, as well as having white sandy beaches and blue waters that surround the port.
The city of Colon itself does not have too much to offer a visitor as much of the best shopping, good restaurants and even entertainment is found at the two piers of Cristobal and Colon 2000. There are some good beaches to be found along the coast, reachable by taxi, but the majority of the interest in this area surrounds the Panama Canal and locks, the Intercontinental railway, the city of Panama, the Spanish forts and the amazing flora and fauna found in this lush region.
- Getting around
The Panamanian government has regulated taxis in an effort to increase safety where possible so if you are planning on discovering Colon on your own make sure to use one of these registered taxis as well as following the safe traveller rules as usual; including such things like not wearing expensive jewellery ashore.
Taxis are only permitted inside the gates to pick up cruise passengers once the tour coaches have left, so expect a wait if you are hiring a taxi.
It is only a short taxi ride into the centre of Colon but wandering here alone is not recommended. However, the taxi drivers offer many day tours to take you to the local sights and attractions, all at regulated rates, or a tour of the city is about £30 for two people.
Since Spanish is the language spoken here, many taxi drivers speak little, if any, English so you will want to check if they speak English before you hire them for a day tour.
Hiring a car on your own is not recommended as traffic is often dense, there are many poorly maintained streets and traffic lights often do not exist. Flooding during the rainy season is very common and roads can be washed out. Arranging a regulated taxi is a much easier and worry-free way to explore if you are not already on an organized excursion.
- Beyond Colon
The charming, colonial town and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Portobelo, is situated along the coast from Colon. It has beautiful sea views, Spanish fort ruins and a 16th century colonial treasure house that was once the holding place for gold and other wealth that was seized before shipment to Spain.
The city of Panama is located about an hour’s drive from the Colon piers and is accessible by a fully paved road. The city itself is a metropolis with modern sky rises, excellent shopping and great restaurants. Surrounding the city are older districts each with their own charm and history and a tour to the city and districts can be quite interesting.
- Local activities
A tour of the Gatun Locks, open to visitors seven days a week, can make your Panama Canal cruise even better as you learn about the history and the engineering of this fascinating working structure. You can get the chance to watch a ship come through the locks and understand the challenges and manpower it takes to operate this canal on a daily basis.
Railroad to Panama City
For a full day adventure try a railroad journey from Colon to Panama City where a guide points out the highlights of the tropical rainforest as you pass through it and describes the Panama Canal and its history as you run alongside it. Also visit the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the Canal.
The perfect place for nature spotting
Great for active travellers, a kayak eco adventure tour is a great way to combine nature and the Gatun Locks into one excursion. Kayak the islands of Gatun Lake, which is home to over a thousand plant species, hundreds of species of birds and almost 100 species of mammals including monkeys. A guide can show you the flora and fauna of the area and then end the day with a trip to the incredible Gatun Locks.
- Local cuisine and drinks
Seafood is fresh, abundant and served in many styles including a local speciality, which is ceviche, a dish made from marinated fresh fish or try patacone which is fried plantains. Spanish influences are abundant with foods like the delicious Empanadas, pastry filled with cheese or meats. A blend of Latin, American and French are found in Panama cuisine creating many delectable styles.
- Where you are docked
There are two main piers in Colon, one being named Colon 2000, built at the turn of the millennium. It was created to encourage tourism and get cruise ships to dock here in Colon before going through the Canal to the Pacific side. With a clean and safe environment, cruise lines are now frequently docking here and passengers can take advantage of the selection of shops and cafes right at the pier. The more modern of the two piers, Colon 2000 has an overhead walkway that takes you to the shopping area where you will find electronics, luxury items, upscale boutiques and lounge areas and restaurants.
Located about 3 miles away is the Cristobal Pier, which is also the main duty free shopping area at this end of the Canal; a massive warehouse style building that has been transformed into a lovely and welcoming passenger facility. There is a market at one end, shops throughout, an Internet café and a sea-view bar. At this pier you will find local crafts like woodwork, linens and baskets as well as inexpensive priced electronics. There are often folk shows with plenty of seating to be enjoyed here also.
The piers are close enough to each other to visit both if you wish and will cost about £6 roundtrip via taxi. There are phone booths and Internet facilities in both piers.
- Regional weather
Colon experiences typically high temperatures throughout the year. A monsoon season falls during what can be considered the winter months running from May to November, although temperatures remain generally high. The warmest month of the year is usually May.