With its colonial structures in decay and its neighborhoods marginalized, Colón is the city that Panama forgot, in spite of vigorous encouragement to attract Caribbean cruise ships. Before 1869 the railroad connecting Panama City and Colón was the only rapid transit across the continental western hemisphere. A last wheeze of prosperity was heard during the construction of the Panama Canal.
On the city's edge, the Zona Libre de Colón (Colón Free Zone) was created in 1948. It generates some US$6.5 billion in annual commerce, but little benefit seems to trickle down to local inhabitants. From up close, it's an island of materialism floating in a sea of unemployment and poverty.
Recent improvements in city safety are attributed to tighter gang control. There is also a much ballyhooed – but barely visible – urban restoration plan, kicked off in 2014. One major improvement: the Autopista Panamá–Colón is now a four-lane highway.