Colón and Cristóbal and around

Shutterstock/31194520/Ramunas BruzasLandfall on the Caribbean side for the passage of the Canal is made at the twin cities of Cristóbal and Colón, the one merging into the other almost imperceptibly and both built on Manzanillo Island at the entrance of the Canal in Bahía Limón. The island has now been connected with the mainland. Colón was founded in 1852 as the terminus of the railway across the isthmus; Cristóbal came into being as the port of entry for the supplies used in building the Canal.

Avenida del Frente is the main commercial street and is quite active but has lost its past splendour: the famous Bazar Francés closed in 1990, the curio shops are not noteworthy and the railway station stands virtually deserted except for the movement of a few freight trains. Nevertheless, there is talk of declaring the whole of Colón a free zone (the Zona Libre being the city's main attraction), the authorities are moving to give the city new housing and employment (residential estates like 'Rainbow City' and 'Puerto Escondido' are being extended on the landward side to relocate entire neighbourhoods of slums), and the demands on Cristóbal's busy port facilities (200 million tons of cargo a year) continue to increase. It is hoped that, if these plans are realized, Colón may become a pleasant place again.

Ins and outs

At Cristóbal ships usually dock at Pier No 9, five minutes from the shops of Colón. Vehicles wait at the docks for those wanting to visit Colón and other places.

Safety

Mugging, even in daylight, is a real threat in both Colón and Cristóbal. The situation has improved now that the two main streets and some of the connecting ones are guarded by police officers; you are still strongly recommended not to stray too far from their range of sight. Keep a few dollars handy for muggers in case the worst happens.

Colón

Colón was originally called Aspinwall, after one of the founders of the Transisthmian Railway. The French-influenced
cathedral
, has an attractive altar and good stained-glass windows.
The Washington Hotel
, is the town's most historic structure and is worth a look. The original wooden hotel was built in 1850 for employees of the Railroad Company. President Taft ordered a new fireproof hotel to be built in 1912 and the old one was later razed. Although remodelled a number of times, today's building, with its broad verandas, waving palms, splendid chandelier, plush carpets and casino, still conjures up a past age, while the café provides an excellent view of ships waiting to enter the Canal.

Next door is the
Casa de Lesseps
, home of the Suez Canal's chief engineer during the 1880s (not open to the public). Across from the
Washington
is the
Old Stone Episcopal Church
, built in 1865 for the railway workers; it was then the only Protestant church in Colombia (of which Panama was a province).

Running north through the centre of Colón is the palm-lined
Avenida Central
, with many statues (including one of
Columbus and the Indian Girl
, a gift from the Empress of France). The public market is at the corner of Calle 11. Avenida del Frente, facing the Bahía de Limón, has many old wooden buildings with wide verandas.

The main reason to come to Colón is to shop at the
Zona Libre
. It's the second-largest free zone in the world, an extensive compound of international stores and warehouses established in 1949 and surrounded by a huge wall - pick up a free map from hotels or tourist office showing who sells what. A passport or official ID must be shown to gain entry to the zone.

The 30-minute beach drive around Colón's perimeter is pleasant and cool in the evening; despite the slums at the south end there are some nice homes along the east shore of the peninsula. Permission from the Port Authority security officer is required to enter the port area, where agents for all the world's great shipping lines are located in colonial Caribbean-style buildings dating from 1914. Almost lost in a forest of containers is the
Panama Canal Yacht Club
, whose open-air restaurant and historically decorated bar offer very good food (seafood and Chinese). This is the place to ask about sailing boat charters to the San Blas Islands or shorter trips aboard visiting yachts.

Around Colón and Cristóbal

A well-paved road branches off the Transisthmus Highway at Sabanitas, 14 km east of Colón, and runs northeast along the coast for 33 km to the historic Spanish garrison port of
Portobelo
. The rocky
Costa Arriba
is very attractive, with a number of lovely white-sand beaches (crowded at weekends). Playa María Chiquita (14 km) has a bathing pavilion, toilets, bar and restaurant managed by the government tourist bureau. A local speciality is
sao
, Jamaican-style pig's feet pickled with lime and chillies, sold from roadside stalls.
Playa Langosta, also with swimming, bar and restaurant, is 3 km further on.
There are plenty of small restaurants along this road serving fresh seafood.  In
Buenavista
, just before entering Portobelo, a cannon marks the spot where Henry Morgan landed for his devastating 15-day sack of the town in 1668.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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