With its colonial grandeur crumbling and its neighborhoods marginalized, Colón is the city that Panama forgot, in spite of vigorous development meant to court Caribbean cruise ships. Prior to 1869, the railroad connecting Panama City and Colón was the only rapid transit across the continental Western Hemisphere. A last whiff of prosperity was seen during the construction of the Panama Canal.
On the city's edge, the Zona Libre (Free Zone) was created in 1948. Today, this sprawling 482-hectare complex is the largest free-trade zone in the Americas. With more than 1600 companies and dozens of banks, it links overseas producers with the Latin American market. From close up, it's an island of materialism floating in a sea of unemployment and poverty. Very little of the US$10 billion in annual commerce seems to benefit locals.
Recent improvements in city safety are attributed to tighter gang control and an arms for food program that got many guns off the streets. The improved Ruta 3 between Panama City and Colón is now a four-lane highway, resulting in much quicker travel times.