76km (47 miles) NW of Panama City
Spread across a square peninsula at the mouth of the northern canal gateway is Colón, capital of the larger Colón Province that runs along Panama's Central Caribbean Coast. Most residents here are Afro-Caribbean descendants of canal workers who arrived around the turn of the 20th century. In spite of its status as the largest duty-free zone in the Americas with billions in annual sales, its profits do not trickle down to locals, and the city is rife with poverty and crime. A splashy $45-million cruise-ship port, called Colón 2000, has also failed to alleviate mass unemployment or improve living conditions. There is not much of interest in the actual city of Colón, and although stories of muggings and purse-snatchings have been greatly exaggerated, Colón is definitely not one of Panama's safer cities. A drive through the city streets provokes shock, sadness, or just a very uncomfortable feeling at how impoverished Colón's residents are.
But don't let Colón scare you from visiting some of Panama's most important historical attractions that lie within a 30-minute to 1-hour drive from the city, such as Portobelo and Fort San Lorenzo, as well as the impressive Gatún Locks and Gatún Dam. The translucent Caribbean Sea also beguiles visitors with outstanding diving and snorkeling opportunities, and the province is home to several oceanfront hotels and resorts that are popular weekend getaways for Panama City residents.
Colón was founded in 1850 during the California Gold Rush. At the time, crossing the United States from coast to coast was dangerous and time-consuming; a far better option was to take a ship to Panama, cross the isthmus via the Panama Railroad, and board a ship for California. Economically, the city flourished with businesses and hotels catering to travelers until 1869, with the completion of the transcontinental railway in the U.S. The arrival of the French, and later the U.S., around the turn of the 20th century, brought new prosperity to the city, and much of the architecture here dates from that era. Most of these buildings today are dilapidated shells of their former glory, the city having fallen on hard times when the focus turned to Panama City.