Colon’s early history is woven together from aspects of grand colonial settlement and daring pirate invasions. The more modern chapters of its stories are all based around one of the most incredible feats of engineering ever achieved by humans – the Panama Canal.
Colon sits at the Caribbean end of this wonder and is today a vibrant and bustling port city made up of a population of incredibly diverse ethnicity. Included in that mix are many with Afro-Caribbean roots – the descendants of the very workers who played a role in the canal’s construction at the beginning of the 1900s.
Quite how you fill your Colon day is up to you with options that include a luxurious railway ride through the jungle, up-close encounters with the shipping giants of the ocean which traverse the canal and the chance to explore historic leftovers such as the fort of San Lorenzo.
A Morning in Colón
Colon’s rich heritage is woven from stories of warring pirates and conquistadors and exploring one relic of this time – the San Lorenzo Fort – is how your Colon adventures will begin.
After this you can head to Panama City to discover the original old capital, now a complex of evocative, abandoned ruins.
Fort San Lorenzo
The ruins of Fort Lorenzo which date back to the late 1500s are located on the Chagres River mouth, 13 kilometers from Colon’s center. During colonial times and long before the advent of the Panama Canal this waterway, which spills out into the Caribbean, played a highly significant role as a goods route. It allowed the conquering Spaniards to move their plundered South American gold from the Pacific side of the continent to the Caribbean coast and thus ready for the long journey back to Europe across the Atlantic.
Such a continuous movement and presence of riches couldn’t escape the attentions of the area’s pirates for long and raids were a common event. Finally, in 1670, an attack under the orders of the notorious Captain Morgan left the original fort in ruins. A decade later the fort – now incorporating a drawbridge and moat – was rebuilt and this time from a more easily defended lofty perch on the cliff. Eventually the routes of the Spaniards changed and the fort saw little use from the mid 1700s as a military defense, serving instead for around 100 years as a prison.
Today, this peaceful and atmospherically crumbling site with its fine 17th century military architecture and abandoned cannons makes up part of the UNESCO World Heritage’s ‘Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama’ collection. Its draw for visitors is not simply the opportunity to explore historic ruins but because the views of the sparkling Caribbean and surrounding national park land from here are particularly stunning.
The site doesn’t have any kind of visitor interpretation information so if you really want to know what you are looking at it pays to grab a map from one of Colon’s tourist information centers before making your way here.
Morning Coffee in Colon
Colon doesn’t have a flourishing cafe scene but that doesn’t mean you can’t find somewhere to take a morning pause with decent coffee if you know where to look.
Cappuccinis Coffee House
Leading the options for those who are discerning about their coffee is Cappuccinis Coffee House which has both great atmosphere and service. If you need a little energy injection before continuing you Colon adventures this cafe has a great range of muffins and artisan cookies to accompany your choice of drink too.
No website – Address – Plaza Sobeys – to the side of the Pharmashop, Margarita, Via principal
Istmo Coffee and Bakery
Another choice for quality is the Istmo Coffee and Bakery which has a simple but charming interior decor of wood and exposed brick.
While cafes as such are a little thin on the ground many of the restaurants are open from breakfast time and are happy to serve just drinks and coffees for anyone who strays their way. Also scattered around are a choice of ‘fondas’. These are typically simple and unadorned options where the prices are low and you will be able to enjoy your morning pause surrounded by only locals.
Once suitably refreshed you can spread your wings a little and swap Caribbean for Pacific by heading to Panama City – just an hour away from Colon.
The most enchanting way to make this journey is by train on the Panama Canal Railway. Frequently described as ‘amazing’, this exceptional ride takes you through jungle and along the coast with views of the canal, lake, ocean, mountains and historic bridges. Running the same route for more than 150 years, today the restored wood-paneled coaches of this line offer a distinctive touch of luxury along with a glass-ceilinged car and an open-air observation section.
The timetable of this historic train ride though is limited so you may need to adjust your schedule if this is how you’d like to make the journey from Colon to Panama City.
As the capital, Panama City has, not surprisingly, many attractions but a visit to the ruins of Panama Viejo is a must. This was the original Panama City and the very first permanent European settlement of the entire continent’s Pacific side, erected around a site which had known human habitation long before the conquistadors arrived. Founded in the early 1500s by the Spaniards, the settlement grew to a flourishing city with 10,000 inhabitants before being attacked and all but destroyed by the pirate Captain Henry Morgan in 1671.
Abandoned from that point on, Panama Viejo today – part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is an extensive collection of buildings which offer a glimpse into a grand colonial past. Once filled with opulent private residences of the elite and local government, a customs house, the royal treasury and more, today you can wander in the footsteps of friars and powerful governors amid convents, churches, bridges, a hospital and many other buildings which despite suffering pirate lootings, earthquakes and fires still stand, albeit in ruins.
The best preserved of all the city’s ancient structures are the cathedral which was built in 1619, the sprawling Casa Alarcon – a large private house dating from 1640 – and the Puente del Rey which at more than 400 years old is believed to be the America’s oldest surviving bridge.
Lunch in Panama City
Not surprisingly Panama City has a huge diversity of choice for lunch venues but arguably the most charming and picturesque area is Casco Antiguo.
After Henry Morgan had all but destroyed the Spaniard’s first capital a ‘new’ city was built at what is now part of the north-west suburbs of the modern-day Panama City. Hemmed in by ocean on three sides, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Casco Antiguo is a beautiful labyrinth of narrow lanes, old colonial buildings and majestic churches. Among all this charm can be found some highly atmospheric restaurants and cafes, offering everything from cozy and casual to fine dining choices.
Fonda Pritty Pritty
If you prefer the authentic and the chance to enjoy a typical home-cooked Panama lunch surrounded by locals head to Fonda Pritty Pritty.
Fondas are not formal restaurants but instead casual eateries where more often than not you prop yourself on a stool at a counter and tuck into such things as rice, plantains and bowls of sancocho – a national stew-like dish of spiced chicken and vegetables.
No website – address – corner of Avenida Central and Calle 3
American Trade Hotel
At the very opposite end of the scale is the American Trade Hotel for those who are looking for more refined surroundings. A gorgeous light-filled space filled with plants and a pale-toned decor, everything at the ‘Dining Room’ restaurant is a study in elegance – from its mosaic floor to its fusion-focused cuisine.
If you choose to lunch here not only will your taste buds appreciate it but you also get to live something of the city’s history. Now more than a century old this colonial-style building – once the haunt of powerful city gang members – was Panama City’s original skyscraper although today the modern city’s high-rise structures to the south-east tower well above this beautiful five-storey building.
An Afternoon in Colon
Colon’s biggest draw card and arguably that of the entire country is the Panama Canal. Now over 100 years old this mighty engineering wonder has recently received new extensions to its lock systems which allow some of the largest cargo vessels in the world to pass through. Exploring this incredible aspect of the country is a fascinating and awe-inspiring way to spend an afternoon.
The Agua Clara Visitor Center
It is unthinkable to come to Panama without experiencing something of the exceptionally impressive Panama Canal. This marvel of engineering totally revolutionized trade on a world scale when it first opened in the early 1900s, allowing cargo ships to cut thousands of kilometers off sea journeys and simply pass through the 82km waterway stretch instead.
In 2016 a modern-day extension to the current locks catapulted this famous landmark well and truly into the 21st century and in so doing created an easy and safe route between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (and thence into the Atlantic) for super-size container ships.
A visit to the Agua Clara Visitor Center just outside of Colon gives a front row view of this incredible new addition in full swing and is an experience which tends to leave all who see it speechless. While many come here simply to watch the behemoth-sized vessels – known as Neopanamax ships and some of the largest in the entire world – traversing the canal the center is in fact a total experience.
Head to the covered observation decks to watch ships passing and soak up panoramic views of the Gatun Lake and the original massive three-phase Gatun Locks which make it possible for ships to effectively climb many meters above sea level and so enter the lake. You will also see the new three-section locks from here.
Once you have had your fill of watching ocean giants cruising past you can explore the rest of the center which is full of exhibits and an incredible collection of Panama Canal history with some highly fascinating facts and figures. Be sure to check out the film screening in the projection room which will not only help you understand the history of the canal and the thousands of individuals who have been part of it but also explains about the most recent additions as well as what is planned for the decades to come.
For those who enjoy being outdoors there is a short but lovely rainforest nature trail which, if you keep your eyes peeled, may give you the opportunity for encounters with wildlife indigenous to the area such as howler monkeys, sloths and toucans.
An Alternative Morning and Afternoon with the Embera Indians
There are few times in life where you will have the opportunity of being welcomed into a deep jungle-located indigenous community and given a privileged glimpse into a way of life which has changed little in centuries.
However, with a day-long visit to the Embera Quera that is exactly what you will have. The adventure starts before you even arrive at the village with a journey through rainforest by dugout canoe. Bird-life is plentiful here and there is also the chance of close encounters with monkeys turtles, sloth and caiman.
You are greeted by the warm and welcoming village people with traditional music and dance. The rest of your time in this exceptional place is made up with learning about the Embera’s history and modern way of life, hikes into the surrounding jungle to gather medicinal plants, shamanic celebrations and a fish and fruit lunch which showcases how these ancient people have lived off the bounty of the land and water for centuries.
Your time in the village also gives you the opportunity to simply stroll, take photographs, buy beautiful hand-made craft gifts and ask the 1001 questions you will no doubt have. Few leave this experience without being deeply touched by their interactions with the Embera, all made possible by the warmth of the villagers who are both proud and eager to share their culture and traditions with you.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Colon
Colon is not well known for its dining scene and most while in the region will make their way up the coast to Portobelo or to Panama City instead where the options are diverse and plentiful. To really make an occasion of it hop on-board the beautiful and luxurious Panama Canal Railway. Departing Colon for the hour journey to Panama City at 5.30 pm, this historic ride allows you to enjoy stunning jungle, mountain and ocean scenery as you relax with a cocktail.
For those who do decide to stay close to port the city has a rich ethnic diversity made up of Europeans, Asians and Arabs which in turn means cuisine choices which are also diverse and can seem at times to be a surprising find in a Latin American country.
One option in Colon for those who would like the chance to drink or dine with views of the famous Panama Canal is Restaurante Arrifices. Here you can order some pre-dinner cocktails or enjoy a sundowner glass of wine while perusing the menu which is dominated by Caribbean-influenced seafood dishes. The ringside seat for watching the passage of the canal’s huge vessels is thrown in for free and there are options for alfresco dining here too.
An Evening in Colon
For most a Colon evening is simply about finding a bar with the right ambiance and enjoying a nightcap or two. However, Colon is also something of a shopper’s haven, offering as it does one of the world’s largest duty-free zones. So, if you’re on the hunt for bargains and still have any energy left after dinner, you can check out one or more of the options. The vast Colon Free Zone is not open in the evenings but as is true of many tropical countries elsewhere trade and shops, including duty-free outlets, stay open well into the night. Those looking for holiday souvenirs and authentic one-of-a-kind items should head to Avenida Central while modern malls such as Colon 2000 also have souvenir shops.
New Washington Hotel
If you fancy trying your luck the restored New Washington Hotel has a small casino and entertainment complex while also offering a lounge for some relaxing after dinner drinks.