A Brief History of Panama

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.

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.

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 sourced from IPAT