Colon, Panama (November 7, 2021)

In spite of being met at the port by a lively troupe performing traditional dances, today was a bit of a disappointment. Sad to say, from the moment we left the pier there was no shortage of evidence demonstrating the poverty, lack of civic pride, neglect, and chaos of the city. Trash was everywhere! Buildings were abandoned, dilapidated, and served as a dumping ground for piles of refuse. Such a sad reflection on this small country with its world renowned canal and proud history.

Colon lies at the Atlantic mouth of the canal and was founded by the United States in 1850 as the Atlantic terminal of the railroad that took gold rushers to Panama City on their way to California. During its heyday, Colón was home to dozens of nightclubs, cabarets, and movie theaters. It was known for its citizens’ civic pride and orderly appearance. Much of the city was destroyed by fire in 1885 and again in 1915. Add politically instigated riots in the 1960s and the US’s departure at the end of 1999 and you’ve got yourself some serious decline which precipitated many of its upper and middle-class residents leaving. Mary Amanda spoke of this decline in her presentation as well as the low vaccination rate, 75% unemployment (up from 50% pre-Covid), pickpockets, poverty, and muggings. A massive restoration and reconstruction project involving parks, avenues, and historic buildings and monuments began in late 2014, but we were in the wrong part of town to see evidence of it.

Sidebar: The only time I spent in Colon when we lived here was shopping in the
Free Zone (see For what it’s worth….. below) and watching the beginning
of the dugout canoe race that Matt and Murphy were part of.

Our first stop of the day was to visit (wearing our masks at all times) the town of Portobelo (no relation to the mushroom). The 45 minute ride from Colon took us through the jungle on a very nice four-lane highway and then on a two-lane blacktopped road in good condition. We passed abandoned cars; cinderblock buildings with grillwork on the windows and doors, lush vegetation and tropical flowers; a few horses and free range chickens; brightly painted homes and shops with corrugated metal roofs; and trash, trash, and more trash strewn literally everywhere. Once we arrived in Portobelo we were joined by two uniformed ‘tourist police’ who stayed with us the whole time.

Portobelo’s claim to fame back in the day was it’s beautiful port (porto bello). Columbus was here in 1502. It was from this beautiful port that gold from Peru was shipped to Spain, where treasures from the east would make their way to Panama City, and where trade markets were said to have lasted up to 40 days. With so many valuables passing through the area, Portobelo became a target for pirates including Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, who attacked the city and took the port several times throughout the 1600’s. The remains of colonial Spanish forts are the last relics of this town’s legacy as the largest colonial Spanish port in Central America, and the reason it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We saw the remains of Fort Santiago where cannons still point toward the entrance to the bay and San Jerónimo with its 8 cannons, some watchtowers, and an officers quarters.

The most revered religious figure in Portobelo is Nazareno, the Black Christ. There is a beautiful life-size wooden sculpture of him at Iglesia San Felipe, a church built by the Spanish in 1814. We lit a candle for Aunt Jerry at his feet. 

The highlight of our day, besides our enthusiastic guide (who ended the tour by giving us each a banana muffin) and our bus with its bright purple window valences bedazzled with well placed elaborate gold tassels, three layers of trim, and a few hundred small, subtle tassels, was our tour of Agua Clara, the brand new and very impressive visitor center perched above the newest (larger) locks. Our timing was perfect because a huge container ship was inching its way into place just as we arrived. A narrator walked us through each step as the ship was raised from the Atlantic on our right to Gatun Lake on our left. Bonus: The gift shop gave us the opportunity to add a carved and painted tagua to the collection we started when we lived in Panama.

We learned over our sumptuous four-course meal tonight about Hettie and Ronnie’s day in Panama City. They were wowed by how clean, organized, and modern it is with tall buildings; clean, wide streets; and beautiful shops. Their group was not shadowed by ‘tourist police.’

With Dan’s contest at an end, Hettie whipped out the conversation cards she brought along and we had fun going around the table answering the questions posed by the cards. Questions like: What is your favorite happy color? Where do you feel peaceful and calm? Name three songs that make you happy.

For what it’s worth…..

The population of Colon is 204,000.

The Colon Free Zone is the second largest duty-free zone in the world behind Hong Kong’s.

Tagua nuts are often referred to as vegetable ivory because of their resemblance to animal ivory.
Once mature, a tagua palm can produce up to 20 pounds of nuts a year until it reaches 100 years old.
Fun fact: Before plastic became common, about 20% of all buttons produced in the US were made of vegetable ivory.


2 thoughts on “Colon, Panama (November 7, 2021)

  1. Sounds like Panama City has changed for the better 😊

    Matt Mongeon, PMP, Technical Project Manager II
    Engineering Management Office
    PMP,ITIL Foundation, RCV, OSA, SOA, PPO
    5159 Federal Blvd., San Diego, CA 92105
    • 619.266.5675 (ex. 55675) |( 619.822.4661 | •


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