View across the rooftops of the Zona Libre de Colón district full of multi-story buildings.

The Zona Libra de Colón. Photo © Ana Freitas, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Colón, Panama


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 oversize 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.

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 fairly safe parking lots just outside the zone.

Visitors need a permit to enter the Zona Libre. The office is on the right as you face 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, and high-end handbags, scarves, watches, and stereo equipment. Gold jewelry is sold by weight depending on the purity.

One store worth checking out is Motta International (tel. 431-6000), 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, Montblanc, CK, Fendi, Limoges Castel, Baccarat, and Camusso. The atmosphere is pleasant and the service gracious.

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.

Everyone leaving the zone is subject to search, and anyone caught with contrabando can be charged with a crime.

Colón 2000

This cruise port/shopping mall is on the eastern edge of Colón, close to the Free Zone. It opened in 2000 and was supposed to attract fleets of cruise ships to Colón and breathe life into the local economy. This has been slow to happen.

Since 2007, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has been making Colón 2000 a home port, with its Enchantment of the Seas offering cruises originating from the port. Some other cruise ships stop at the port as well. Besides a handful of duty-free shops and some souvenir-trinket stores, most of which are only open during cruise season, the complex includes an enormous Super 99 grocery store, a Western Union branch, Hertz and Budget car rental offices, an ATM, and a couple of places to eat. During the main cruise season (approximately Oct.–May), folkloric dancers perform for the tourists when a ship is in port. The place is pretty deserted when ships don’t show up.

In spoken Spanish this place is called Colón Dos Mil.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Panama.