Colon, Panama, May Be Poised For A Renaissance

A Case For Colon

Panama‘s Caribbean coast is far less developed than its Pacific one. The biggest reason for this is access. Much of this country’s Caribbean is inaccessible except by plane or boat. Even the stretch of Caribbean Sea nearest to Panama City, that bit that sits directly north of the capital as the crow flies and that terminates in the city of Colon, has historically been considered distant and remote. This changed, though, with the opening of the new highway between these two points.

Improved access notwithstanding, Colon is generally still thought of as distant, remote, and also unsafe. The good folks of Panama City have traditionally avoided Colon, the country’s biggest Caribbean coastal city, and the surrounding areas and, if you ask them, they will warn you away, as well.

We recommend you ignore the cautions and go see this part of Panama for yourself. It’s easier to get there today than it’s ever been (the new highway cuts the travel time between these two cities by more than half), and it’s one of the most strategically and historically interesting and important spots, not only in Panama, but in all Latin America.

For it was from this bit of coast, specifically from the town of Portobelo (the featured destination for this month’s issue of my Panama Letter), one of the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, today about a half-hour east of Colon, that the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish coordinated the return of their plunder from the New World to the old one. At one time in history, more than one-third of all the world’s gold and silver passed through this town, where it was weighed and counted in the mammoth customs house (still standing) before being shipped back to Spain. All this wealth coming and going made Portobelo a tempting target, for both the British throne and British pirates, which explains Spain’s investment, four centuries ago, in the impressive fortifications that surrounded Portobelo, including Fort San Lorenzo (also still standing).

Alas, the Spanish forts weren’t enough to keep the British at bay, and, eventually, the Spanish decamped. They moved their plundering operations from Portobelo to Cape Horn. Portobelo turned from boomtown to ghost town and, in the centuries since, has settled into quiet obscurity.

Meantime, a half-hour west, in 1850, Colon was born, in response to Gold Fever in California. The town was established as the Caribbean terminus of a rail line that allowed would-be gold diggers from the U.S. East Coast to cut through Panama as a means of reaching the U.S. West Coast. In this pre-Canal age, this route was far preferable to the alternatives…a journey through Indian Territory or a boat trip through the Strait of Magellan.

By the late 19th century and through the start of the 20th century, Colon residents, benefitting from all the Gold Rush cash flowing through their city, earned a deserved reputation as elegant, even posh. The town was home to more than a dozen theaters and cinemas and several cabarets, one of which hosted Evita Peron. As recently as 50 years ago, this architecturally rich city was recognized as a music center and the location of the best Carnaval celebration in Panama.

Visiting Colon today you’d have trouble guessing at any of that impressive history. Colon today is home to the country’s Free Trade Zone and part of the Panama Canal. The province provides 15% of the country’s total GDP. Yet, like Portobelo before it, this city has fallen into utter ruin. Unemployment in Colon is as much as 12%, while it’s 3% on average nationwide.

We predict, however, that we are on the eve of change in this part of this country and see early signs of emerging opportunity. Colon is the other place in Panama, along with Casco Viejo, where you find a sizeable inventory of colonial-style and architecturally interesting, historically important buildings. Investors have been buying and restoring the old colonial structures in Casco Viejo for 15 years, and prices in that old-town neighborhood have risen accordingly. It’s hard now to find a bargain or even a good deal in Casco Viejo.

Meantime, nobody’s been paying any attention to Colon. The new administration, though, has shown an interest in supporting a renaissance in this city. This has gotten our attention and might be interesting to you, too, if you, like us, appreciate historic architecture and path-of-progress opportunity.

Kathleen Peddicord


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