Panama Canal, wild nature and native peoples
Cristóbal is the port enclave in Colón where you will arrive with an MSC cruise.
Southwest of the city, a road runs through to the enormous Gatún Locks, where you can get up close to gigantic container ships being raised and lowered between sea level and Lago Gatún.
Once across the canal, the road divides: to the right it meanders 22km through dense forest to the evocative ruins of the colonial Fuerte San Lorenzo, standing guard at the mouth of the Río Chagres; to the left, it rises above the shoreline of Lago Gatún, offering splendid views across the water and its sprinkling of tree-topped islands before undulating through agricultural land to the rarely visited coastal communities of the Costa Abajo.
MSC Caribbean and Antilles cruises also offer excursions to Portobelo. In colonial times this scenically situated town was the most important settlement on the isthmus after Panama City, since all the plunder from South America passed through here en route for Spain.
The ruined fortresses, remnants of the conquistadors’ attempts to safeguard the treasure from the envious grasp of pirates and privateers, constitute the town’s primary tourist sites. Indeed, a soldier’s-eye view across the turquoise bay from the forts’ rusting Spanish cannons is one of the most popular postcard views in Panama, conveying the impression of a remote military outpost surrounded by dense vegetation.
You may therefore be surprised to find the forts located in the middle of quite a poor modern town, with dilapidated houses propped up against the historical ruins and kids playing football in what was once a parade ground. The town itself is mostly squeezed along a thin strip of land between the main road and the bay, which spills into the Caribbean, and is easily walkable.