Colón is all the tropic ports of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Rightly so. Every street corner and bar here knows ten thousand tales as exuberant or as melancholy or as cockeyed or as ironic as any those two travellers spun.
In all the world there is not, perhaps, now concentrated in a single spot so much swindling and villainy, so much foul disease, such a hideous dung-heap of moral and physical abomination as in the scene of this far-fetched undertaking of nineteenth-century engineering.
In fact, Froude never visited Colón, claiming that his curiosity was less strong than his disgust, but his opinion of the city during the French canal construction was widely shared by his contemporaries and were he to visit the city today he would find little to change his mind. Situated at the Atlantic entrance to the canal, Panama's second city represents the dark side of the Caribbean that never makes it into the holiday brochures, and to most Panamanians its name is a byword for poverty, violence and urban decay.
To a certain extent, this is fair enough - much of the city is a run-down slum, the streets strewn with rubbish and rife with violent crime. But despite decades of terminal decline, Colón retains the decadent charm of a steamy Caribbean port where pretty much anything goes, its former glory still evident in its many monuments and crumbling turn-of-the-century architecture. Moreover, if you can get past the initial hostility and suspicion, the people of Colón, mostly descendants of West Indians who came here to build the canal, are as warm and friendly as anywhere in the country, and enjoy a lively street culture that helps offset the desperate poverty that most of them face.
It is true that there is a rampant poverty in Colon, but it is a vibrant, pulsing and fascinating place, rich in culture. Colon, is a land bathed by the infinite waves of the sea, a colorful land of contrasts and unpublished stories.
This is what Lonely Planet writes about Colon:
"The mere mention of Colon sends shivers down the spines of travelers and Panamanians,..."
So, why would anyone in their right mind want to visit Colon? read on what Lonely Planet has to say...
"... but there is more to the province than its notorious capital. Stretching along the Caribbean coast from Veraguas Province in the west to the Comarca de Kuna Yala in the east, Colon Province is mostly undeveloped and virtually inaccessible, but steeped in a rich, accessible history.
The provincial town of Colon has also long passed its zenith. Although the city itself is an urban jungle racked by violent crime, the surrounding area is home to everything from pristine beaches and lowland rainforests to colonial splendors and modern engineering marvels. Within the span of a few days, you can snorkel in Caribbean waters, spot tropical birds on private reserves, stumble across ruins and admire the massive locks on the lesser-known side of the canal. And of course, it's worth mentioning that the luxury train connecting Panama City to Colon is arguably one of the greatest rail journeys in the Americas."
Colon is off the world toursim radar and tour operators have yet to discover and exploit it, so it is mostly tourist free all year round. Tourism is in its infancy, so, for the present it is a real off-the-beaten track destination.
Set along the turquoise waters of the Caribbean coast, the province has a wide variety of attractions-beautiful beaches and islands, fascinating historical sites, the largest Free Trade Zone outside Hong Kong, a state-of-the-art cruise port, world-class bird watching, diving and snorkeling and a spectacular 5 star hotel/convention center on the Panama Canal.
Though exaggerated, Colon's reputation throughout the rest of the country for violent crime is not undeserved, and if you come here you should exercise extreme caution - mugging, even on the main streets in broad daylight, is common. Don't carry anything you can't afford to lose, try and stay in sight of the police on the main streets, and consider renting a taxi to take you around, both as a guide and for protection. They charge about US$6 an hour.