Just one hour from Panama City by car is the province of Colon set along the turquoise waters of the Caribbean coast with a wide variety of attractions-beautiful beaches, major historical sites, world-class birding, diving and snorkeling. the second largest free trade zone in the world and a cruise ship port.
How To Get There
The Colon toll road will get to you across the Isthmus to Colon in less than an hour. To get to Portobello turn off the toll road at Sabanitas and from therego to Portobello. You can also go to Colon by way of the Panama Canal Railway, a luxurious scenic train ride across the isthmus. Once in Colon or Portobello you can hire a taxi to drive you around. Bananas Resort on Isla Grande provides transportation for guests from Panama City.
Getting to Isla Grande: continue past Portobello for about 20km until you get to the fishing village of La Gauira. Here you can hire a boat taxi (a 'lancha') to get to Isla Grande. If you drove here you can leave your car at the pier for a nominal fee per day. If you are traveling by bus make sure to stop in Sabanitas to get another bus to La Gauira.
Where To Stay
El Otro Lado on Portobello Bay - A Private Retreat
Opened in 2011, El Otro Lado sets a new standard in Panama for an upscale getaway. Set right on Portobello Bay next to the ruins of a Spanish fort, the views are extraordinary. The interior design of the social areas and cabins is the most beautiful and creative we have seen- anywhere. The resort has 4 luxury cabins, a house for family, and small corporate meetings.
Bananas Resort. On Isla Grande, Bananas is popular because you can enjoy and island with pristine tropical nature getaway just 1.5 hours from Panama City.
Where To Eat
The best place to eat on the road to Portobellois Los Canones on the right, 1-2 kilometers before Portobello and about a a kilometer after Scuba Panama. It doesn't look like much, but it has good seafood —typical delicious Panamanian seafood like corvina in garlic sauces (sea bass), ceviche, shrimp. lobster and octopus. They come with patacones (fried plantain chips). The setting is great- open air seating on a cove with ocean views.
What To Do
Portobelo: An historical and scenic bayside town, with the ruins of 5 (yes 5!) Spanish forts and a restored Spanish Colonial treasure house all built in the 1600's. Portobello was the major Spanish Caribbean in the Americas and place from which Spain sent all the gold and treasure stolen from Peru and Bolivia . It was the scene of many fabulous trade fairs until targeted by English pirates in the 1700's.
Pirates like Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan repeatedly attacked and looted Portobelo's treasures bringing about about it's demise. The ruins are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Just before you come into town are the picturesque ruins of Fort Bateria Santiago with many cannons and a sentry tower. Up the hill on the other side of the street is another fort ruin. Right next to the Customs house it the Fort San Jeronimo, the best preserved fort of all.
Portobelo Bay is one of the most scenic spots in Panama- aqua waters, surrounded with historic ruins and dotted with yachts-it's a popular place for international yachters-many make the area a second home.
Fort San Lorenzo:
About half an hour from Colon on the other side of the Gatun Locks, lies preserved fort ruins perched high on a stunning promontory above the Chagres River as it meets the sea. Sir Henry Morgan attacked the fort in 1666. Sadly San Lorenzo has yet to be restored or maintained but the setting and the fort are a magnificent sight.
The Portobello Customs House: Built in 1630 this colonial building was the headquarters of the Spanish customs offices for exporting all gold and silver from the Incan empire as well as for importing African slaves into the New World. Restored by the Spanish government it has a small museum-there is not to see inside but for $5 you can watch a video in English-recommended.
The Black Christ Museum: A museum is dedicated to Portobelo's patron saint. It displays many robes and religious paraphernalia belonging to the statue of the Black Christ, which is honored in a big town festival every October 21st.
Thirteen miles past Portobello, is Isla Grande, a picturesque island with some good beaches and home to several beach side lodging options including Bananas resort.
The Free Zone is primarily for wholesale shopping for large businesses. If you have foreign passport you can hire a tour guide to take you shopping for some great savings on watches, jewelry etc. You can arrange for what you buy to be picked up at Tocumen Airport on your way out of Panama.
Colon Cruise Port
Colon 2000, in downtown Colon, is a cruise port with a duty free shopping complex. As a gateway to Panama, it's one of the most popular cruise ship destinations in the Caribbean, receiving upwards of 80 ships a year.
Birding and Nature
Achiote Road: one of the world's best birding spots and so easy to get to! A 1.5 hour easy drive by highway from Panama City. Go with a nature guide or birding guide. This is what a article in the New York Times had to say about Achiote Road:
"This unlikely setting (Achiote Road) is the prime birding site in Panama, where more than 340 species are counted during the annual 24-hour Atlantic Christmas Bird Count. Ken got out of the bus saying he wanted to see the spot-crowned barbet, which would be a first for him, and within minutes one obediently flew into a tree across the road. There were mealy parrots, orange chinned parakeets, a flock of more than 100 swallowtail kites, two white hawks fighting overhead, a whole family of howler monkeys - a constantly changing show."
Nobody Here But the Birds - New York Times , April 2002.
Kayaking and a Canopy Zipline
Aventuras 2000 has kayaking excursions in the lakes of the Panama Canal near Colon and a canopy zipline near the Melia Hotel. Their office is in the lobby of the Melia Hotel.
The entire coastal area is covered by thick jungle. Driving to Fort San Lorenzo, you may see tropical animals, some of them scurrying to get out of the path of your car. A tour operator can explain about the area's flora and fauna. Several scientific institutions such as the Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research and the University of Florida have field stations in the area.
The Portobelo area offers several good diving spots including sunken ships and reefs. The coral reefs near the Isla Grande Hotel are a good place to start. Scuba Panama, just outside Portobelo, has full diving tour services.