Zona Libre de Colón
The Zona Libre de Colón (Colón Free Zone, most shops 8 A.M.–5 P.M. Mon.–Fri., a few open on Sat.–Sun.) is the world’s second-largest free-trade zone, after Hong Kong. A free zone is an area where goods can be imported and exported free from customs duties. Each year about US$10 billion worth of goods move through its 1,000 companies, which employ an estimated 15,000 permanent workers and thousands more temporary ones. It opened in 1948.
This isn’t just some sort of oversized shopping mall: It’s a shopping city within a city, one far wealthier and better maintained than the real city that surrounds it. It’s huge—400 hectares—and is one of the most important contributors to Panama’s GNP. Goods come mainly from Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States and go mainly to Central and South America.
The Zona Libre is primarily aimed at international wholesalers, not consumers. Individuals can shop at some stores there, but getting in and around the place, and getting purchases out, is a hassle. Think twice before going to the trouble: Many goods are just as cheap and far easier to get at airport duty-free stores or even at discount houses back home.
Cruise-ship passengers don’t come here often, and stores aren’t really set up to deal with them and deliver their purchases to ships. Passengers mostly go to the duty-free shops at Colón 2000, though the Zona Libre’s prices are generally better.
Private cars and taxis are not allowed inside the free zone, which is just as well because the streets inside it are permanently gridlocked with trucks. There are parking lots just outside the zone. These are fairly safe, but be alert for muggers.
The main entrance to the Zona Libre is at the intersection of Avenida Roosevelt and Calle 13. It’s a maze inside, and streets are not well marked. Ask for directions to particular stores.
Visitors need a permit to enter the Zona Libre. The office is on the right as one faces the main gate. Have passports and return flight information handy. Be prepared for a long wait in line.
Good values inside the zone include 10-, 14-, and 18-karat gold, jewelry, cosmetics, liquor, high-end handbags, high-end scarves, watches, and stereo equipment. Digital cameras, at least so far, are not a great deal. Gold jewelry is sold by weight depending on the purity.
One store worth checking out is Motta International (tel. 431-6000, www.motta-int.com), not far from the main entrance. Motta carries a little bit of a lot of things, including watches, perfume, liquor, electronics, clothing accessories, and crystal. Sample brand names: Cartier, Lalique, Mont Blanc, CK, Fendi, Limoges Castel, Baccarat, and Camusso. The atmosphere is pleasant and the service gracious. Several gold shops are nearby.
Once you’ve made a purchase, you can’t just waltz outside the Zona Libre with it. Remember, this is a free-trade zone and purchases are meant for export only. For those flying out of the country, stores will deliver purchases to the airport for pickup on the day of the flight. Stores tend to charge a minimum of at least US$15 for delivery and need at least two days to deliver the goods.
Here’s the drill: Give the store clerk the flight information after making a purchase. He or she produces a receipt. On the day of the flight, arrive at the airport early and take the receipt to the Equipaje Acompañado office, which is downstairs and to the right of the main terminal as one faces the airport. Present your passports and tickets. The office is a sketchy-looking place and it’ll feel like a minor miracle when someone actually produces the merchandise. There’s a daily storage charge, so try not to buy things too far in advance of your departure. Allow plenty of time to transact all this business.
Some unwilling to jump through all these hoops smuggle goods out of the zone. After all, how can anyone tell when and where you bought that gold necklace you’re wearing? But note that everyone leaving the zone is subject to search, and anyone caught with contrabando can be charged with a crime.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition