The once-thriving city of Colon, Panama, sits 40 mi/60 km northwest of Panama City at the Caribbean entrance to the canal. It is still a major port of freighters, and a minor cruise-port stop; cruise ships berth at Colon 2000, while commercial vessels do so at Cristobal. A refurbishment program has been launched under Panama's master tourist plan, but at present, Colon is still a mostly grim place that doesn't have a lot to offer visitors—except danger. Crime is a serious problem in Colon, and it is generally advisable not to walk around on your own. Cruise passengers should opt for guided shore excursions to Portobelo and others destinations beyond the city.

Colon's main attraction is Avenida Central—the twin-drag, palm-shaded main boulevard has lined its entire length with monuments and busts of key figures in Panamanian history. The Colon Free Zone, nearby, is the second-largest duty-free shopping area in the world (after Hong Kong). Visitors must show their passports to enter the walled compound.

Although it is interesting to see the 94 acre/38 hectare Free Zone shopping area, it's almost exclusively for wholesale merchant shoppers. Many stores do sell merchandise at retail prices, but they will often ask for a minimum purchase or insist on selling in quantity, perhaps a half-dozen items. Some stores will allow visitors to take small purchases with them, but most items must be delivered to the airport or cruise ship upon your departure.

Be sure to ask the store's policy and the Free Zone's rules before buying anything, to avoid a possible problem when leaving the zone. (Don't be surprised if gate guards do a quick search of your car or taxi.) The largest and most dazzling showrooms carrying luxury items from around the world are at Motta International. Day tours to the Free Zone are available from Panama City.

Fort San Lorenzo is spectacularly situated on a headland to the west of Colon, on the opposite side of the canal. This colonial fortress was designed to help protect Panama from pirates. Also near Colon are the Gatun Locks of the canal, where you can view the passage of ships from a spectator stand; and Lake Gatun, which was the largest man-made lake in the world when it was created in 1906-14, during canal construction. Surrounded by luxuriant rain forest, it offers fabulous wildlife viewing by boat. Bass fishing there is also world-class.

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