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The Province of Colon in Panama

Gatun locks in Panama

Colon is the province north of Panama City facing the Atlantic on the Caribbean. Because of its position it was a famous trading station back in the 16th and 17th Century and has become so again in modern times with the new Free Trade Zone.

The History of Colon

The first European to see the Caribbean coast of what is today the province of Colon was Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501 and then Christopher Columbus in 1502 (on his search for a faster route to the West Indies) who founded the port of Portobelo. Diego de Nicuesa then founded Nombre de Dios in 1509 which served as the capital of the area until the Spanish moved it to the more protected and deeper bay of Portobelo where they build a solid defence system, the remains of which can still be seen today.

The Chagres River was explored in 1527 and the village of Chagres was founded followed by the building of the San Lorenzo fort which protected the river mounth. This coastal area gained prominence over Portobelo which celebrated the last of its famous Portobelo Commerce Fairs (between Europe and Central America) in 1748.

From 1572 until 1680 the area was constantly being raided for the gold the Spaniards were looting from Peru and storing there before shipping it back to Spain. Fort San Lorenzo in Colon, Panama The place was sacked and pillaged by Francis Drake, William Parker, Henry Morgan, John Coxon and La Sonda to name but a few. All fierce pirates, some of whom gained titles of nobilty from the English Crown in recognition of the vast wealth they brought home with them. In 1739 the city was destroyed by the British Admiral Edward Vernon. He destroyed Fort San Lorenzo at the same time.

Even later on, the road from Portobelo, the Camino de Cruces as it was known, was besieged by gangs of thieves that attacked travellers as they returned by this route to Panama City with gold and riches from the Pacific lands of the continent. This only ended with the construction of the railroad in 1851.

In 1855 the province of Colon was created with 5 districts which included the Indian reservation of Kuna Yala.

For more on Panama's people

Portobelo in Colon, Panama

Portobelo in Panama The historic town of Portobelo is 49km from Colon city and 105km from Panama City and is a great stop over for tourists. Only a few ruins of the caste and cannons that defended the town remain and the place today does not reflect the riches of the past. Portobelo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980 but remains little known.

The coastline here is beautiful and Portobelo has some beautiful beaches and islands and some wonderful coral reefs, making it a great place for diving. There are a number of good restaurants in the area as well as simple places to stay that organise diving.

On the 21st October there is a local fair here to celebrate the localsí patron saint Cristo Negro or the Nazareno.

Isla Grande

Isla Grande Panama Isla grande is part of the Portobelo National Park and is about 5 minutes by power boat from the town of La Guaira on the mainland. It has has calm transparent waters on one side where you can relax and contemplate and has violent waves on the other that invite you to surf. The island offers Caribbean cooking, palm trees, and sun as well as a number of places to stay, from hotels to houses for rent. A few of them include Cabanas La Cholita, Cabanas Villa Ensuento, Cabanas Sister Moon, Cabanas Candy Rose as well as Bananaís Village Resort.

For more on the beaches and islands of Panama

Colon City, Panama

After Panama City this the next most important commercial centre in Panama. It was founded in 1850 as the terminal for the new railroad and was originally called Aspinwall after the railroad engineer William H Aspinwall. It was changed to Colon later by the then ruling Columbian government, in honour of Christopher Columbus (it means Columbus in Spanish).

The town was the port of entry for over 80,000 Antillians who came to work on the construction of the railroad and then the canal initially under the French and then completed by the Americans and the town still is known as Little Jamaica.

Though money is coming in to Colon Panama, many of the locals do not see any of it, which has led to a considerable crime rate. As is the cause for concern for those who choose to venture here alone. There are parts you should definitely not go to.

Itís just a 15-minute flight from Panama City to Colon, but for a historically-rich and more fun experience, you might choose to arrive by way of the Panama Railroad. Regular bus service from the capital city is also an option. You can find a cab as soon as you arrive at Colon station, and it is generally advised that you do use one to get to your destination.

Colon is now the site for the most important Free Trade Zone in Panama.

Colon Duty Free Zone, Panama

Free trade zone in colon, panama In 1948 the Free Zone was created as an autonomous institution of the state.

It is located within 400 hectares, very close to the Atlantic side of the Canal. It it the second biggest free trade zone in the world after Hong Kong. It has a unique geographical position and access to four major ports in the Caribbean as well as to the international Port of Balboa on the Pacific. In one year transactions generate 11 billion dollars in imports and exports.

There are 200 companies established here and over 250,000 visitors a year. It also has the biggest storing and distribution centre in all the Americas as well as an airport and five star hotels. It is of course a great place for shopping!

To learn about setting up a business in Panama go to business

The Gatun Lake and the Chagres River in Colon, Panama

The hydro electric dam at Gaton Lake

For every ship that transits the Panama Canal, 52 million tons of fresh water, flow by gravity throught the locks and are then spilled into the sea. This water comes from the rainforest into the Chages River and then into Gatun lake which is the second largest manmade lake in the world after Lake Mead in Nevada. It also is home to the second largest dam in the world producing hydro-electric for Panama City. Many towns and villages originally in the valley were lost in the water and the population was moved to New Gutun which flourished and still exists today.

Gatun Lake is now famous for its incredible fishing for Peacock Bass. They got into the lake somehow and have reproduced incredibly having no natural predators. Find out more in fishing, The River Chagres is now part of a national park that was created in 1984. The variety of fauna that inhabits the part is outstanding, such as the Kuna Salamander and the Carirayado Woodpecker as well as Tapir, the Harpy Eagle and the Jaguar.

You can take a wonderful river expedition that takes you past Indian villages and wonderful scenery of the forest with stops at caves and waterfalls. There is a company called Fascinate Adventures that organises them from Corotu (tel 215 9659).

The Gatun Locks in Colon, Panama

This impressive structure of the Panama Canal allows you to fully appreciate the whole operation of the huge cargo ships transiting the canal. These are the biggest locks on the canal and have three chambers spread over 2 kilometers that lower or raise ships 26m. You can get there from Colon town and then from here go and visit Lake Gatun and Fort Lorenzo.

For more about the Panama Canal

Fort Lorenzo in Colon, Panama

The fort was destroyed twice and built again by the Spanish in 1761 when it served more as a state prison. In 1849 during the gold rush of California it served as a camp for the gold diggers on their way to seek their fortunes. The San Lorenzo fort was declared a National Historic Monument in 1941 and then a UESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. You can see up to 40 cannons in the interior of the fort.

To learn more about Panama's past go to history

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