Due to its advantageous location, Colón has played a key role in Panama’s history. Located 80km north of the capital on the Caribbean Coast, the city was founded by Americans in 1850 as the starting point of the trans-Panama railroad. Surrounded by—though not a part of—the former Panama Canal Zone, Colón has long been a hub for commerce, logistics, and banking. It was made a free trade zone in 1953 and is the world’s second largest duty-free port. Today, its main economic activity revolves around the Free Trade Zone, which is also the second largest in the world, and three major port terminals of Colón Container Terminal, Manzanillo International Terminal, and Cristóbal.
Following a tender process in which consortiums CCA-MCM (China Construction America, MCM Construction) and Aspinwall (Constructora Meco, REC Engineering) competed with Odebrecht-led Nuevo Colón, the contract for the project was awarded to the latter in June 2015, despite its bid of $537 million being the highest among the candidates and lingering questions regarding the future of Odebrecht’s president remaining with the company. The Brazilian conglomerate, which formed the Nuevo Colón consortium with Panama’s Constructora Urbana (CUSA), has previously participated in large-scale infrastructure projects in Panama, including the first line of the Metro, which created 11,000 jobs, 90% of which have benefited Panamanian workers.
The project involves fully reconstructing the old town’s 16 streets and building 5,000 homes in the community of Alto de los Lagos in the district of San Cristobal, benefiting some 25,000 inhabitants. The plans also call for reconstructing Colón’s drainage and sewage system, undergrounding cables, restoring designated heritage buildings, increasing the number of parks and public spaces, and renovating sidewalks as well as creating new cycling routes.
Nuevo Colón, which began work on the project at the end of 2015, has been given a deadline of 720 days to build the first 1,000 houses, and must deliver a subsequent 500 houses every 60 days thereafter until the total of 5,000 is reached. The entire project, including public spaces, is scheduled for completion in November 2018. According to the Ministry of Housing and Land Management, approximately 3,200 workers will be employed simultaneously at the peak of construction.
According to the Mayor of Colón, Federico Policani, the renovation has not only economic targets, but also social and cultural components. Education will be an equally vital feature of the project that will go hand in hand with the physical renovation. “We want to give people the tools and the knowledge to build their own future,” Policani said. In addition, the project aims to make the city a safer destination for both locals and tourists. “We want to make Colón one of the safest cities, if not the safest city, in Panama, to complement what we expect from the renovation.” The municipality hopes that the renovation will also attract private investment into Colón and address the shortage of working and middle-class housing, a segment that has been largely ignored by the private construction sector.
On the attractions of Colón as a tourist destination, the Mayor highlighted St. Lorenzo and Portobello, two provinces that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. In addition, the area benefits from beaches, rivers, and a rich biodiversity. Tours to indigenous Kuna Indian communities, fishing, numerous canal observation points, and the railway are some of the activities that Colón has to offer.
Gastronomically, the presence of well-established Arab and Jewish communities as well as minority Italian, Spanish, and other European cultures has had an influence, allowing it to develop a distinct characteristic. As part of a wider tourism strategy, the government hopes to promote the inclusion of Colón as part of new cruise ship routes, along with such islands as Aruba and Curacao.