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A Brief History of Panama

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The Spanish visited Panama for the first time, in 1501, when a wealthy solicitor from Triana, Rodrigo de Bastida, organized an expedition. After arriving to the Americas, Bastidas traveled Panama’s coast, from the Gulf of Darién, through the San Blas Islands, to what is known today as Portobelo. After collecting a wealth of gold and pearls along the coast, Bastidas suspending his expedition due poor ship conditions. He returned to Spain with only a portion of his treasures left.

On October 10, 1502, Christopher Columbus arrived on the coast of Veraguas. Columbus was mesmerized by the indigenous culture of the country, especially by the gold jewelry that adorned the people. Several weeks after Columbus arrived he discovered a beautiful protected bay, which he named Portobelo. On September 25, 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the southern sea that connected the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea for the first time, forever sealing Panama’s fate and strategic importance as the bridge of the world.

Toward the end of the 1500s and throughout the 1600s, Panama was an important center for conquistadors, smugglers and famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, who pillaged and destroyed cities. In 1821 the Isthmus of Panama gained its independence from the Spanish crown and became part of Simón Bolívar’s Gran Colombia. This did not last long though, because Gran Colombia was dissolved and Panama became part of Nueva Granada.

Panama City - Old Panama

Founded on August 15, 1519 by Pedrarias Dávila, it was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast. Gold coming from Peru passed through Panama toward the port towns of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios, where it was loaded onto ships bound for Spain. In 1671, twelve hundred men led by the English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked and subsequently destroyed the city.

Today, you can visit the remains of the old city: the cathedral, six convents and churches, the city hall building, the House of the Genovese, Fort Natividad, the Hospital San Juan de Dios and three colonial bridges. You can also view the Casas Reales - the compound where the Spanish customs and treasury was located.

Towards the Major Square (Plaza Mayor), you'll find the City Hall, the cathedral and the Bishop's house. The Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption, constructed between 1519 and 1626, is the best preserved of all the buildings. Following the style of the time, it is cross shaped. The bell tower was located at the back and probably served a double purpose as bell tower and watch tower of the royal houses.

Further north is the Convent of Santo Domingo, constructed in 1570 and its respective church, erected 20 years later. They are the best preserved religious buildings in the city. Panamá La Vieja offers a site museum, which exhibits a maquette of the city before 1671 as well as colonial and pre-colombine artifacts brought from Spain.

Casco Antiguo

When Panama City was destroyed in the 17th century, its inhabitants moved to the foothills of the Cerro Ancón. On January 21, 1673, Antonio Fernández de Córdoba y Mendoza founded the new city of Panama. The new location was chosen as a defense against new pirate attacks. A formidable set of walls in close the city at the beginning of 1675. The walls had two main doors, one facing land and one facing sea, in addition to these two it also had five side gates.

The new city was apportioned lots and was intended for specific functions: religious, administrative, military, commercial and residential. From its cross-sectioned design emerged 38 blocks, 3 main streets running from east to west, 7 streets running from north to south and others that were shorter.

The urban development of Panama City was interrupted during the 18th century due to various fires that devastated its streets. In 1737, the "big fire" destroyed two thirds of the city, and the "small fire" of 1756 destroyed more than 90 houses. These and other catastrophic fires help explain why so few colonial examples exist today.

Recent History

In 1846, the discovery of gold in California spurred the economic development of Panama. The first transoceanic railway was built between 1850 and 1855, connecting the two coasts. In 1880 the French began construction of an inter-oceanic canal under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps. They failed in their attempt, as the workforce was plagued by debilitating diarrhea, malaria, yellow fever and typhus, and above all, due to “The Company’s” financial problems. In 1903, Panama gained its separation from Colombia. The city gradually changed its aspect, transforming itself into a cosmopolitan city with a 19th century European resemblance.

In 1914, the United States government completed the construction of the renowned Panama Canal. The United States held power over the Canal until December 1999 when the Torrijos-Carter agreements were established and the canal was transferred to full Panamanian control. The Canal measures 52 miles (80 Kilometers) long from Colón, in the Caribbean, to Panama City on the Pacific coast. A ship can cross the canal in an average of eight to ten hours. Once across, ships either ascend or descend some 26 meters through three locks: Gatún, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. It took nearly 10 years to build, with a local labor force of over 75,000 men and women, at a cost of nearly $400 million dollars. The Canal was opened to maritime traffic on August 15, 1914. Since that time over 700,000 ships have crossed it.

Today, Panama is known for its natural beauty, great fishing, numerous beaches, abundant tropical islands as well as its friendly, festive and hospitable people. The magic that captivated Panama travelers over 500 years ago still awaits anyone who seeks to experience the country today.

Information thanks to Instituto Panameño de Turismo (IPAT): 1-800-231-0568

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