Colón province lies along the central Caribbean coast of Panama . Its capital is Colón, historically Panama’s second-most important city. Though this area starts just 80 kilometers north of Panama City , it has long been neglected and has significantly fewer resources and facilities than the Pacific side of the isthmus.
A few tour operators, especially dive operators, specialize in the area, but it is still relatively off the beaten track for most tourists. This is slowly changing, with new hotels, cruise-ship departures, and commercial projects in the works.
These plans are serious enough to worry environmentalists, who fear especially for the important mangrove forests along the coastline. There is even talk of building a fanciful Dubai-style offshore city stuffed with high-rises next to Colón. For some odd reason, the developers want to build it in the shape of the Panamanian flag.
The coastline west of Colón is known as Costa Abajo (literally, “lower coast”). It is a still a lightly developed area with rough roads and few visitors other than avid bird-watchers. But it offers the well-preserved ruins of a Spanish fort  and lush tropical forest surrounding the mouth of the storied Río Chagres. These are all on the west side of the canal, across the swing bridge at Gatún Locks  that is the only land link between western and eastern Panama on the Caribbean side of the isthmus.
The area is worth adding as a side trip on the way to or from, say, Portobelo  or Isla Grande , or for those taking the Panama Railway  across the isthmus. As a destination in itself, it’s likely to be most appealing to those with an especially keen interest in the Panama Canal  or Panama’s piratical past.
The area’s few main sights—Gatún Locks , Gatún Dam , and Fuerte San Lorenzo —are all clustered close together in a relatively small area southwest of Colón. So are its natural attractions, the mouth of the Río Chagres and the bird-watching spots around Achiote and Escobal .
Though the city of Colón (pop. 42,133, co-LONE in Spanish and kah-LAWN in English) has a long, colorful history, I urge you to avoid it. For one thing, it has little to offer tourists, and one can see all the region’s sights without ever stopping here. But more important, it’s just too dangerous. Extreme unemployment and poverty give this crumbling city a terrible reputation as a place where it’s a surprise if you don’t get mugged at knifepoint. Colón loyalists argue these fears are exaggerated, but they tend to follow that up by saying visitors should have no problem—as long as they take taxis everywhere and never set foot on the streets.
For those who insist on visiting, the hotels and restaurants listed here  are the best bets. At the very least, do not walk around Colón: Drive or take taxis everywhere. Shopping at the Colón Free Zone  and Colón 2000  is reasonably safe.
A quick and easy trip coast to coast is literally a 500-year-old dream. The dream has finally been realized with the completion of the Corredor Norte from Panama City  to Sabanitas, not far from Colón. Depending on Panama City and Colón traffic off the highway, the trip should take no more than 1.5 hours, probably less. Expect it to take nearly twice that long via the old Transístmica. It’s not worth it just to avoid the minimal toll.
Most visitors explore the area with a taxi “guide” or a tour operator. Look for tours that include at least a one-way train trip.
By Bus: The Terminal de Buses de Colón (on Avenida Bolívar, Colón’s major shopping drag, and Calle 13) is a busy place and should be relatively safe, at least during the day, but be alert for pickpockets and backpack thieves. Any bus marked “Costa Abajo” can take you to Gatún Locks  and the attractions west of them, including the bird-watching areas around Achiote  (fare: US$1). For La Guaira and Nombre de Dios, look for buses that say “Costa Arriba ,” though be sure to confirm the bus is really going all the way to your destination.
By Taxi: A taxi anywhere within Colón should cost about US$1. Take taxis everywhere. A tourist walking in Colón is begging for trouble. To visit area tourist attractions, consider hiring a taxi by the hour. Watch out for fake taxis. Real taxis are yellow and their license plate numbers match those painted on their doors.
Now that more cruise ships stop at Colón 2000 , the taxis have organized into cooperatives and have established standard fares for tours, which they carry around as a laminated sheet. It’s easy to find a taxi at Colón 2000 during cruise-ship season, though it may be difficult at other times.
These fares are aimed at cruise-ship passengers and are excessive, but at least there’s some semblance of order and security if you go with these guys. And, as one cabbie told me, all rates are negotiable; you can make a deal for less if there are more taxis than passengers around.
By Car: To get to Colón and Costa Abajo from Panama City , take the Corredor Norte toll highway to the end of the line. Cars will have to finish the journey north on the old Transístmica (a.k.a. Transisthmian Highway, a.k.a. the Boyd-Roosevelt Highway).
At the Cuatro Altos (literally, “four stops”) intersection, turn west (left) to get to Gatún Locks , Gatún Dam , and the Costa Abajo attractions. Stay straight for Colón. Roads aren’t well marked, and highway construction, especially the new overpass at Cuatro Altos, has jumbled things up considerably.