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For a short stop on a Panama Canal cruise, Colón is a must. Colón is home to one of the largest duty-free shopping areas in the world called Zona Libre, so shoppers might need a second suitcase to take home all their local goods. Colón is a resilient city, building and rebuilding after fires, occupations, and economic recessions. Today, the city is making a concerted effort to revitalize its parks, monuments, and attractions.
On a cruise to Colón, Panama, leave time to see one of its most famous attractions—the Panama Canal. Or hop in a car for a day trip to it’s largest metropolitan area: Panama City. Explore Casco Viejo, the historic district, for a glimpse of Panama from another time, and some of the best restaurants in the area. Though Colón isn’t as flashy as other cities in Panama, it’s centrally located to get to any number of nearby excursions to stunning rainforests, national parks like Soberania National Park, and historic sites like the ruins of San Lorenzo.
The construction of the Panama Canal provided access to the Caribbean from the Pacific Ocean like never before, and Colón became the main entry point for imports from around the world. When you check out the Panama Canal on your cruise, watch giant cargo ships rise and fall as the Canal opens and closes from the observation deck. You can book a boat tour to experience the canal up close and personal, and many tours include multiple stops in Colón beyond the Panama Canal to deepen your knowledge of the area.
This artificial lake is part of the Panama Canal, and also happens to be one of the biggest attractions for tourists in the Colón area. Built from 1907 to 1913, Gatun Lake is a monument to human achievement. See Colón’s natural landscape for yourself, beautiful even when contrasted with a man-made structure. Gatun Lake act as a reservoir, enabling the canal locks to work properly.
Casco Viejo means “Old Quarter,” in Spanish, and this historic district of Panama City is a little over an hour’s drive from Colón. Casco Viejo has been called an up-and-coming destination for visitors, complete with restored Spanish-Colonial streets, tucked-away cafes and restaurants, and even a local fish market where you can find octopus, mahi mahi, shrimp, tuna, and more. Stop in at the Panama Canal Museum, located in a building dating back to 1874, for a quick education on the construction and history of the canal.
As the capital city, Panama City is a bustling center for politics, banking, commerce, and other industries. Over 1.5 million people call Panama City home, and it’s an excellent day trip from Colón. You can be there by car in a little over an hour, and you can explore Casco Viejo, or head to Panama Viejo, a museum and historic site in the area while you’re there. Plus, Panama City has some of the best dining, lined with cafes and bars down the skylined Avenida Balboa.
Zona Libre is the largest duty-free shopping area in the world, and here you’ll find goods and wares of all types for every kind of shopper. Over 1,600 stores are located in Zona Libre, and this massive shopping center helped kickstart the economy of parts of Colón during a bitter recession. If you have a short stop on Colón cruise with little time to explore outside the city, get lost among the plentiful shopping options in Zona Libre.
Take an hour-long drive northeast of Colón to reach tiny Portobelo, where you’ll see unique ruins and historic sites from the Spanish colonial period. Portobelo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take in Panama’s natural beauty with a trip to Portobelo National Park, complete with mangrove trees, lush rainforest, beaches, and plenty of activities like snorkeling, diving, and more. Sightsee the preserved ruins of not one but five Spanish forts.
The province of Colón contains many natural sites not far from Colón proper. See monkeys at the expansive Soberania National Park, where you’ll find over 55,000 acres of greenery and over 500 species of birds—some rare, others endangered—calling this area home. Climb the observation tower at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. You just might spot a sloth from the top.
Just eight miles from the center of Colón are the ruins of the Fort of San Lorenzo, where you can look out at an abandoned, rustic village along the Chagres River. Book a tour of the ruins with a local guide, where they often delve into the history of the area, including the fort’s primary goal of protecting trade routes from greedy pirates. They’ll making additional stops in the area’s rainforest and share stories of Panama’s famous history along the way.
Most of the top-rated spots are a short trip to the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood in Panama City. You’ll find good eats in downtown Colón, too. Here are few you might try while you’re there:
Lo Que Hay
Address: Calle 5 Oeste, Casco Antiguo, Panama City
In neighboring Panama City, Lo Que Hay serves high quality Panamanian classics in a relaxed, casual atmosphere, something of a hidden gem of the area. Don’t miss dishes like pork tacos, yucca tostadas, tuna ceviche, and much more.
Address: Ave. Central and Calle 11, Casco Viejo, Panama
You’ll need a reservation at this romantic, intimate eatery in Casco Viejo. Once your Colón cruise is booked, call up the folks at Donde Jose to secure a seat, because this 16-seat restaurant consistently makes “best of” lists. Chef José Carles welcomes diners each night and serves an eight-course adventure for you, paying tribute to classic Panamanian cuisine with unexpected twists along the way.
San Angel Restaurant & Lounge
Address: 84W4+2R Colón, Panama
Located within the Millenium Plaza shopping complex in Colón, San Angel Restaurant & Lounge offers everything from pasta and hamburguesa to fresh ceviche and salmon dishes.
Address: Calle 6a Oeste, Casco Viejo, Panama
This simple deli is perfect for a quick bite before you continue shopping, exploring, and seeing the sights in Casco Viejo. The casual atmosphere and cold air conditioning provide a respite from the heat. The simple, unpretentious menu has sandwiches, meats and cheeses, salads, and options for vegetarians and vegans, too.
During the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, many people decided to migrate vast distances to start new lives on the West Coast of the United States. Demand for a railroad connecting Panama and the United States grew, and interest in traveling to California from Panama—instead of trekking across the continent—skyrocketed too. Later, the French took over the city and built colonial structures and French architecture during their occupation.
Colón was founded in 1850, and was originally called “Aspinwall” after one of the founders of the Panama Railroad. When the Panama railroad was finished in 1855, Colón boomed instantly, but its notoriety and busyness as a city faded after the U.S. transcontinental railroad project was abandoned. Colón then suffered a terrible economic depression.
The French began building the Panama Canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Later, they sold the canal to the United States, who finished building and updating the Panama Canal Zone—everything from housing to infrastructure to water systems—during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt from 1904 to 1913. Fires in the late 1800s and mid-20th century devastated the city, and though it has since recovered, Colón is still in process of creating ways to share the city with the world.
On your cruise to Colón, Panama, the cruise terminal offers shops, restaurants, a 24-hour supermarket, and a casino to keep you busy while you’re at the Colón 2000 pier. Most excursions and tours will take off from the Colón 2000 pier. There’s also a pier called Cristobal, where you can typically find easy excursions to the Panama Canal. You’ll find a flea market along the pier.
Your cruise to Colón, Panama offers a variety of ways to get around Panama, primarily by bus, taxi, or train. You can get a taxi or private car to get from Colón to Panama City, which averages around $125-160 USD roundtrip. You can also rent a car and drive around Panama or head to Panama City as you wish. There are tolls on the way to Panama City, and the ride will take about an hour and a half.
If you’re trying to get to Colón from one of an excursion, you can take buses or trains to get there. Buses will drop you typically at the Albrook Bus Terminal. The train run every day, and a one-way ticket will cost about $25.
You’ll find the second largest duty-free shopping center in the world at the Colón 2000 terminal with endless opportunities to shop to your heart’s content while stopped in Colón. Of course, beyond the terminal are street vendors selling their goods and wares, and plenty of souvenir shops to keep you busy even if you spend your stop in Colón just shopping.
The official currency of Panama is the Balboa (PAB), along with the U.S. dollar (USD). One Balboa is equivalent to one dollar. Many places will give you dollars in USD and change in PAB. You can probably get by in Colón without exchanging currencies, since the dollar is so widely accepted. When at a restaurant or bar, leaving a 10% tip for your server is expected, but tipping taxi drivers for a short trip isn’t required.