Colon and Portobelo

The Caribbean side of the Canal

There are three ways to cross to Colon at the Caribbean end of the Canal: by the Canal itself, by a single oft-clogged highway, or by train-a memorable hour-long journey closely following much of the Canal.

The train crosses Gatun Lake on causeways, and has impressive views at many stages, including all the locks. It was originally built to bear massive amounts of spoil from the Canal's excavations to construct harbours at either end.

Colon itself is chaotic and best avoided, but a pleasant drive along the coast brings you to the pretty harbour town of Portobelo which stood at the Caribbean end of the Royal Road that brought Incan gold across the isthmus from Panama Vieja.

Under repeated attack by pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish built a series of forts along this stretch of coast to protect the area, the remains of which still stand sentinel today. The most imposing is San Lorenzo Fort, positioned at the mouth of the Chagres. Jungle rich with birdlife surrounds its well-preserved ramparts with their original cannon-some still on their mounts, others lying scattered.

Sir Francis Drake attacked the area three times, the first unprofitably, the second massively successfully (plundering a year's shipment of silver destined for the Spanish throne), and the third fatally. He lies in a lead coffin out to sea 20 fathoms deep.

Portobelo is home of a Black Christ, a wooden statue found by fishermen in the 17th century which saw off a period of the plague. Amid great festivities the statue is born through the town on 21 October, with many purple-robed pilgrims walking the roads, some on their knees, in the preceding days and weeks.

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