I’d Been So Long Warned Away That, Finally, I Just Had To Visit…

Colon And Portobelo, Panama

As long as I’ve been spending time in Panama, people have been telling me to avoid the place and, if I must visit, to watch out.

How could I resist such an un-endorsement? I’ve wanted to see Colon for years.

Yesterday morning, therefore, with two bodyguards (my husband Lief and my Marketing Manager Harry) along for protection against whatever we might encounter, we made a day of it.

Colon town is what South Beach, Miami, might look like in the wake of a great disaster. Once upon a time, this place may have held great appeal. Avenida Central travels alongside a series of central plazas and parks, with monuments and statues, ending at a malecon and the sea. On either side are interesting three- and four-story buildings, some colonial, most barely habitable, and all wildly painted.

“I like the pink and yellow building,” remarked Jackson as we passed.

I don’t have any trouble romanticizing potential when I see it, and this strip through the center of Colon has potential. Right now, it’s utterly abandoned…except that thousands of people are living here.

However, one block off the central thoroughfare in any direction, things get worse fast. Buildings are burned out, tumbling down.

Some are beginning to speak of development in and around this town. It’s an ambitious notion…

Meantime, here’s a reason to make the trip to Colon Province: El Caballo Loco, Restaurante Frances.

I thought it was a joke when I first noticed the hand-painted wooden sign along the side of the road. We were on our way to Portobello. I’ll tell you about the best French restaurant in Panama in a minute…first, Portobelo.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, this tiny port town was as important and as known worldwide as, say, London or New York City today. During the heyday of the Spanish colonizers, and the battles they fought with the British and the pirates, Portobello was home to the primary counting house for the treasure being gathered throughout the New World…and the launch point for its journey back to Spain. It’s estimated that, at the time, one-third of the world’s gold and silver passed through Portobello’s customs house.

Today it’s hard to imagine a poorer place (except maybe Colon town a little ways down the coast). But great effort is being made to preserve the customs house, standing impressively just outside the remains of the fort the Spanish built and rebuilt and rebuilt to try to protect their key shipping route. Seven times was Portobello attacked.

In between battles, Portobello hosted annual trade fairs that were the biggest in the world at the time and attended by tens of thousands who filled the inns to overflowing and camped out in the streets and the plaza…and offshore on their sailing vessels.

Pay the US$1 admission fee to go inside the small museum and watch the video. You’ll wonder how you managed to get this far in life without knowing a little about what went on in this spot 400 and 500 years ago.

Then, for lunch, travel the dirt road farther in the direction of Isla Grande. Pull in to the right where you see the “crazy horse” head painted on the wooden sign. Take the footbridge across the creek and find a seat in the open-air dining room.

Yes, the menu is French, down to the pate a la maison and the pomme de terre gratinee.

The proprietors are French, too. From the island of Reunion. This wandering French family has been in Panama for a dozen years.

“This makes me think of Paris,” remarked young Jackson, enjoying his steak au poivre.

For dessert, we all had crepes au chocolat.

We considered, when we’d finished our two-hour meal, just hanging around until dinnertime…

Kathleen Peddicord

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