Colon is a mere hour from Panama City along brand new toll roads. The drive reminded me of the coastal roads in southern California. You can't see the ocean, but you are surrounded by green trees as you gently weave through hilly terrain as you go from the Pacific Ocean side of Panama to the Caribbean side.
To get into the Zona Libra you typically you typically need to get your passport stamped at a nearby custom's office. We hired a "tour guide" at the entrance to sit in the car with us while he drove us through the gates. His fee was $20 for about 3 minutes. (Not a bad gig... I wish I had thought of it.)
Although I heard that tourists come in by foot and walk from store to store, Zona Libre is the size of Disneyland and I didn't feel like walking. It was worth the $20 to have our car inside the zone and not have to stamp our passports.
The inside of the zone is part outdoor mall and part warehouse dock. Many of the stores have splashy window displays showing their shoes, handbags, designer clothes and house ware items. International brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, La Perla and Westinghouse were juxtaposed with banks, logistics companies, and tire stores.
Big trucks jammed the small streets and made speed impossible. The lack of street signs meant we made several wrong turns onto one-way streets. This is definitely an insider's club where you're supposed to know your way around.
After driving around to get the lay of the land, we stopped at a jewelry store that looked intriguing... and had a front-row parking spot. We were buzzed in by a very handsome young man who spoke a decent amount of English. It turns out this particular store was owned by two brothers from Venezuela who sell silver jewelry from Italy. I was offered a beverage, and I felt just like I would if I were at an exclusive boutique on Rodeo Drive.
For you shopaholics out there, playing in a wholesale boutique is a whole different level of fun. We were taken upstairs to vault-like room lined with thousands of drawers. Our guide spent 30 minutes opening drawer after drawer of silver jewelry. Instead of a few items per drawer, there were literally hundreds of items in each drawer. I'd hit utopia. Hundreds of items per drawer times thousands of drawers. I wondered how long I could stay before they kicked me out. I was alone with three handsome men--my Brazilian fiance being one of them--and thousands of pieces of jewelry. If I could get takeout and a soft pillow, I might be tempted to stay for a week.
I had gone into the jewelry store looking for something for myself, but the sparks in my brain ignited when the handsome Venezuelan jeweler told me the prices. Starting at just $1, these solid silver baubles could be readily sold in the US for a huge markup. Plus, with a $500 minimum purchase, someone could launch themselves in the jewelry business for a very small investment.
Just before noon, my sweetheart started to get the look in his eyes that meant he needed food, and he pulled me reluctantly from the jewelry store. We found a central place to park and walked for a while, dodging street vendors, workers and other bargain hunters.
One street vendor was selling freshly squeezed orange juice, shouting to passersby that his oranges were the sweetest you would ever taste. It smelled so good I almost stood in line, but my sweetheart was on a mission for real food. Kleriston tried a sample of meat a gyro vendor offered and was hooked. I'm not a fan of street food, so I sat at on a plastic stool while Kleriston's gyro was created. My plan was to hold out for a sit-down restaurant. I watched them make the gyro, and my mouth watered. Surprisingly, everyone at the cart used sanitary habits. They used a knife to cut the meat onto a tray and wore plastic food gloves.
When the gyro was delivered stool-side, I took a bite, and it was both fresh and delicious. I had been watching one of the men at the cart make falafel balls, and I couldn't hold out any longer. I asked for an order and got 7 steaming falafel balls covered with a spicy yogurt dip. It was the best falafel I've ever tasted. Plus, it was actually quite pleasant sitting on a plastic stool in the shade, enjoying a slight breeze and chatting with the street vendors. But the best part was the lunch for two--including two canned sodas--cost just $11.
I left the Zone without buying anything for myself, but I gained a wealth of knowledge. Plus, I had an interesting day and met a few new friends.