Panama: History

Miami of the South

Panama History

Panama City has been on the move, geographically, as well as figuratively, for the past 300 years. In fact, you could call it the world’s only moveable fiesta. The original Isthmian headquarters of Balboa and the Spanish was Acla on the Atlantic coast near the Sam Blas island of Mulatupo. The first governor also known as Pedrarias, paused only to behead Balboa before relocating the miniature colony to the healthier and drier Pacific coast where he founded what is now Old Panama, a photogenic disposition of ruins.

Panama grew and prospered at its new site and was a sizeable township when it attracted the larcenous attention of the English pirate, Henry Morgan. After Morgan and his men marched into Old Panama singing “There’ll be a hot time in the Old Town Tonight,” the Spaniards opted to move the fiesta again to the more defensible peninsula where the Casco Viejo, or Old Compound now stands.

Along with them went the Golden Altar, thought by experts on religious art to have been made in Ecuador, which had been concealed from Morgan’s men. The altar is a prime tourist attraction today. Also in the Casco Viejo are the President’s Palace of the Herons and the restored National Theatre. Plaza Bolivar and Plaza Herrera have also been restored. In the 273 years from the rebuilding of Panama City behind the walls of the Old Compound to the end of World War II the fiesta that is Panama City moved no further than to about where El Panama Hotel now stands but in the last few decades, the pace has quickened.

The growth of the city was restricted to a relatively narrow strip between the coast and the border of the U.S. administered Canal Zone. In recent years suburbs and shopping centers have spread rapidly outwards and now that the canal Zone has been handed back to Panama the city has begun to move over the once confining border.