Panama has been defined by commerce since its days as a Spanish colonial settlement, when mule trains trekked back and forth across the isthmus, carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain, and luxury items from Europe to the American colonies. These days, global commerce through Panama continues in the form of Colon’s Free Trade Zone. Here, warehouses and shipping containers have replaced the mule trains and trading fairs of old, taking advantages of Panama’s multimodal logistics and shipping services to transport goods at a faster pace and in volumes unimaginable before.

Today, the Colon Free Trade Zone is the largest duty free zone in the hemisphere, and the second largest in the world (Hong Kong currently holds first place). Whether you’re interested in doing business, looking to purchase luxury items duty-free, or simply want to take a peek at the inner workings of global capitalism, the Free Trade Zone holds promise as an exciting and dynamic destination.

          Visitors enter the belly of the beast through the gates of the Commercial Sector, a walled-off area organized into miles of streets and avenues lined with warehouses and showrooms. Make sure to bring along your passport so that you can get a visitor’s pass from the administration’s reception office just past the front gate. Inside, carefully arranged window displays advertise a panoply of electronics, beverages, furniture, clothing, footwear, jewelry, and many, many other items, but don’t be fooled — this is not a regular shopping mall.

Rather than casual shoppers searching for a new pair of shoes or the latest designer perfume, most buyers are representatives of retail stores in countries like Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, who come to purchase case-lots, pallets and container-loads of consumer goods, and make arrangements to have them shipped in bulk to distributors and retail stores all over Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Free Trade Zone functions as a meeting place and logistics hub for the entire world. On one hand, merchants import items from Asia, Europe and North America without duties or quotas, and with minimum taxes, and repackage and re-export them to their Latin American clients by taking advantage of the financial services, warehousing facilities, and transportation infrastructure including ports, railroads, roads, and of course, the Panama Canal. On their part, buyers are also attracted by the tax benefits and other advantages.

Rather than go all the way to Asia to purchase electronics, for example, they can meet the companies halfway, in the Free Zone, which offers a quick way to refill inventory instead of spending weeks traveling to Asia and then waiting even longer for the shipping containers to arrive. In short, it’s a major international merchandise distribution center and a pillar of Panama’s service-based economy. And whether you’re interested in purchasing a container of brand-name sneakers or just want to window shop and get a feel for global commercial infrastructure from within, the Free Zone in well worth a visit.

          Companies range from mega-stores carrying hundreds of luxury brands to multinationals, to small single agency businesses. The variety of items for sale is truly spectacular. Visitors should be aware, however, that the Free Zone doesn’t make regular retail sales, and you can’t carry out merchandise. Many companies, though, will send items to the Tocumen International Airport where you can collect them on your way of out of Panama. And of course, merchants accept all major credit cards. If you represent a retail store and buy in bulk, the merchants will help you with all of the logistics, paperwork, and other arrangements necessary.

The area is vast, with block after block of showroom selling anything and everything you could possibly imagine, so wear comfortable shoes because there will be a lot of walking involved. Light clothing suited to Panama’s tropical weather is also advisable. And don’t forget to bring a snack, since there are no restaurants inside the complex.

            To get there by road, from Panama City take the Corredor Norte or the Transistmica, which takes about 45 minutes to Colon. You can drive if you have your own car or a rental, though many people opt to take one of the air-conditioned express buses from the Albrook terminal. Buses leave every 15 minutes during the morning hours and every 30 minutes afternoons and evenings, until 10PM. From the bus terminal in Colon you can easily take a taxi to the Free Zone.

Train is perhaps the most attractive, though more expensive, option. Riding the Panama Canal Railway is an amazing experience, with views of Gatun Lake, the Panama Canal, and rainforests. The train itself is a beautiful, completely restored locomotive that boasts a very nice observation car. Daily service is geared towards both merchants and tourists, and takes about 50 minutes to get to Colon.