Published on June 3rd, 2015 | by Mark Chesnut
Glimpsing a Glorious Past in Colon, Panama (TRAVEL PHOTOS)
Most travelers don’t spend much time in the city of Colón. After all, Panama’s biggest tourist attractions — the Panama Canal, the rain forests, the beaches, the mountains, the big city, the indigenous cultures — aren’t on view in this Caribbean coastal city (although the Panama Canal does pass right by it, and the Panama Canal Railway has a terminus here, near the free trade zone). Crime statistics provide yet another deterrent that convinces most foreign visitors to avoid Colón’s well-worn streets. Yet even a quick drive through this city of more than 200,000 provides a glimpse of its former days of glory.
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Like a faded movie star, Colón has a storied history and decades-old beauty that, while no longer in its prime, still can ignite the imagination. It’s a fascinating place to research and visit — and thanks to a recent customized tour with Rain Forest Adventures by Panama Excursions, a Panama tour operator that offers group and individual excursions — I was able to take a drive through the historic city center (the second time I’ve done this in my 15 years visiting Panama) and stop at a historic, once-glamorous hotel where the rich and famous were regular visitors. The photos in this slide show include several of my favorite architectural findings.
Rich History of Colón, Panama
Founded by U.S. citizens in 1850 as the Atlantic terminal of the Panama railroad, the town was originally called Aspinwall by gringo emigres, after railway promoter William Henry Aspinwall, while Panamanians called it Colón, after the Spanish-language last name of Christopher Columbus. The city was originally located completely on the island of Manzanillo, but has since expanded its borders.
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Fire destroyed much of the city during the Colombian Civil War of 1885 and in 1915. But in the first half of the 20th century, this city became a high-profile destination and an important economic and political base, thanks in part to its location at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. Colón was a hub of culture, with multiple grand movie theaters, cabarets and nightlife, as well as beautiful architecture that graced its broad boulevards. U.S. presidents and celebrities like Bob Hope checked in regularly at the luxurious Hotel Washington, which opened in 1910 on a prized location on the waterfront. A glorious neogothic cathedral rose in the city between 1929 and 1934.
As Panama City grew and the economy started to fade in Colón in the 1960s, the population became less diverse, and many middle- and upper-class residents moved to the capital. The city stood in for Haiti in the James Bond flick “Quantum of Solace” and in 2002, downtown Colon was declared a historic monument.
The World Monuments Fund put together a brief, Spanish-language documentary film, “Historic Center of Colón: A project for its conservation, revitalization and sustainable management,” about the city and efforts to preserve it.
Today, the main tourist activities in the province of Colón are outside the city: the Gatún Locks, San Lorenzo Fort, Chagres National Park and Portobelo National Park. The Colon free trade zone is best for wholesale, not retail shopping. And the cruise port known as Colon 2000 is home to a modest shopping complex and a Radisson hotel. The city’s formerly most elegant hotel has been renamed the New Washington Hotel, and on my visit, a ship had run aground near the swimming pool, spoiling the view — although the beautiful architectural details of the hotel, both inside and out, are still quite visible.
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So if you find yourself riding through downtown Colón, be sure to look up, and look around. Some buildings may be vacant. Some may be unkempt. Some may be splashed with colorful signs advertising their current commercial residents. But there are gorgeous architectural details and clues to the city’s bygone days — like the Pan Am logo that still hangs from one building, the soaring lobby of the Hotel Washington (now officially the New Washington) and the beautiful balconies that still grace many residences. Among the sites to watch for:
• Antiguo Edificio de la Gobernación: The first public building constructed after Panama’s separation from Colombia.
• Edificio de oficinas de la compañía del ferrocarril: Billed as the first building to rise on the island of Manzanillo, the railroad office headquarters opened in 1909.
• Hospital Amador Guerrero: The city’s first public hospital was finished in 1936 but didn’t open until 1938.
• Casa Wilcox: U.S. industrialist Robert Wilcox built this grand building as the former Calle E was becoming one of the most beautiful boulevards in Panama. Opened in 1913, it’s graced with wide balconies (which now have ramshackle wall dividers added) and has an interior patio.
• Edificio Riviera: Built 1935-1936, this building still has its original decorative elements.
• Escuela Pablo Arosemena: Named after the fifth president of Panama, this school opened in 1910, and was the first all-girls public school in the city.
• Edificio Multifamiliar Las Cuatro Potencias: An example of extreme rationalist architecture, the Cuatro Potencias (Four Potencies) is a residential complex designed by architects Rosa Palacio and Stephen Arneson between 1946 and 1948. All the apartments were designed to be almost completely identical, with two bedrooms and a balcony, and the rationalism is visible also in the flat roofs and lack of eaves.
For more information in Spanish about some of the city’s historic architecture and monuments, visit the World Monuments Fund and Wikipedia, which has a rather detailed listing in Spanish of some of the most important sites in Colón.
HOW TO VISIT: If you want to pay a visit to Colón and view its historic architecture, it’s easiest to set up a customized day tour with a Panama tour operator like Rain Forest Adventures by Panama Excursions. Setting up a customized, individualized tour makes it easy to include a visit to Colón with other sites nearby, including the Panama Canal expansion visitor center, the Gatún Locks and Portobelo.