It’s hardly surprising if, when hearing the word Panama, you think of the Canal, or Van Halen’s hit song. Most tourists think of the former. In 2003, I moved from Chicago to Costa Rica, and then to Panama in 2004, so I’ve had time to explore and discover Panama’s historical gems, and I’ve been surprised by how many are intertwined with U.S. history.
I’ve included two on the vastly under-explored Caribbean side and several in or near Panama City. If there’s one thing I love about living here, it’s that you can set off in almost any direction and find places of historical interest.
1. Gamboa Bridge
While doing Panama Canal helicopter tours, I’d point to the Gamboa Bridge as a landmark to reference nearby Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, where scenes of The Tailor of Panama with Pierce Brosnan and Jamie Lee Curtis were filmed.
The bridge is a railroad and wooden, single-lane vehicle combination span. It was built in 1911 on the foundation of the dam used to stop the Chagres River’s flow during the original construction. But why the curve and not a straight bridge? If the Panama Canal Authority needed to reduce the flow of the Chagres, workers could insert large steel plates facing upstream, creating a dam. Curves give dams the strength to hold back water.
Gamboa Bridge is a 15-minute, scenic drive going north along the Canal from Albrook. You can park near the bridge to take photos.
Pro Tip: Nearby Gamboa Rainforest Reserve has many activities in the surrounding area, including an aerial tram to their 30-meter-high observation tower, zip line, Monkey Island, and the Embera Pura tribe. The latter has an interesting side note. Neil Armstrong trained with other astronauts at the Jungle Survival School. One instructor was an Embera Pura tribe member. He invited Neil to visit, and Neil promptly fell in love with the people and returned over the years for quiet visits.
2. Panama Canal Administration Building
When family and friends come to visit, I like to show them places off the beaten path. One such excursion is within Panama City. At 636 feet high, Ancon Hill is the major landmark within the city limits. It’s easy to spot with its huge Panamanian flag on top, where you’ll find scenic views in all directions. We used to drive up to the summit, but cars aren’t allowed now, so you must walk. Being physically fit and wearing walking shoes are required. Allow a few hours for this trek, and bring water with you.
You’ll likely park near the Panama Canal Administration Building. Sadly, most tourists continue by, unaware of the treasures within.
Built in 1914, the building continues to serve as the Canal’s headquarters. As you enter the rotunda, looking upward, you’ll see vibrant murals conveying the immense amount of labor used to build the Canal. Painted by noted New York artist W. B. Van Ingen, famous for his work at the Library of Congress and the Philadelphia Mint, the mural’s ultimate cost was almost $25,000, about $745,000 today.
As you leave, note the building’s elevation equals the level of Gatun Lake’s original height above sea level.
Free street parking is available, but you can try the visitors’ entrance and park next to the building. Easily accessible, visiting hours are 8 to 4 Monday through Friday, except for national holidays. You need an ID to sign in, and there’s no charge.
Fun Fact: There are eight marble columns within the rotunda. A mistake was noticed after most were installed. See if you can spot it. (If you want to be the knowledgeable one, read on to the end of this article.)
3. Theatre Guild Of Ancon
What do actors Ruben Blades, Robert Loggia, Jennifer Aniston’s dad, John Aniston, and Disney animator/director George Scribner have in common? They’re Theatre Guild of Ancon alumni. It’s another little gem, and far too often overlooked by tourists.
With a history stretching back over 70 years, it is Panama’s oldest continuous theater, even performing during the 1989 invasion. Depending on when you visit Panama, you’ll find plays, open mic, and standup comedy nights. It’s community theater at its best because of the cultural mix of performers, directors, and stagehands.
Pro Tip: Check their website for current shows and events. With tickets usually less than $25, it’s a bargain, considering the community’s talent. It’s at the foot of Ancon Hill’s north side, and there’s a map on their website. Free parking is available in front of the theater. However, as the photo shows, it’s not easily accessible for mobility-impaired individuals.
4. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory
Located north of Colón’s airport, Galeta Island is home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory. They research Panama’s lush Caribbean marine and coastal ecosystems. While currently closed to visitors, visit their website to see if tours are up and running during your time in Panama. If so, it’s well worth visiting.
About a third of a kilometer before Punta Galeta’s entrance, you’ll come across an access road. Turn left and park. You’ll have to walk about half a mile to what was once a top-secret U.S. Navy radio direction finding and signals intelligence listening post. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it helped track high-frequency burst transmissions from Soviet submarines as part of a larger antenna network. The outline of its circular antenna array is still visible from Google Maps in satellite mode.
Decommissioned in 1995, it’s now a Cold War relic. Walking around and within its walls, one can sense the site’s former important purpose. These photos show that it’s in poor shape. The jungle is slowly reclaiming it.
Visiting Galeta Island requires a knowledgeable guide, and my recommendation follows. It’s best to combine a visit with the following excursion and make a day trip from Panama City.
Pro Tip: Wear good socks, too. Thorlo socks are great — I’ve worn them when running 5K races.
5. Counting House And Portobelo
Most Americans are surprised to learn that America’s relationship with Panama started way before the Canal. Crank Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine back to the late 1730s, when America was known as the Colonies, and set off for Portobelo.
Located east of Colón, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, legend has it that when he first laid eyes on the bay in 1502, Christopher Columbus exclaimed, “Puerto bello!” (beautiful port). Founded in 1597, and named Porto Bello, it was one of the primary treasure ports of the Spanish Main. Vast quantities of gold, silver, emeralds, and pearls left once or twice a year for Spain. Many fell prey to commerce raiders and pirates.
Inside the town is the Royal Customs House, where the haul was assayed and stored in boxes, better known as treasure chests by the pirates of the Caribbean. The original building was completed by 1630 and rebuilt after a few sackings. You can almost smell the billions of dollars in today’s money passing through its doors.
By 1739, Spanish fleets were attacking Colonial and British ships. Having had enough of it, Britain dispatched a six-ship fleet to capture Porto Bello early in the War of Jenkin’s Ear. It was the first war with Colonial American troops serving with the British “Regulars.”
While not a spectacular military or economic win, it was a massive propaganda victory. The British empire celebrated by naming Portobello District in Edinburgh, Portobello in Ireland, and Portobello Road in Notting Hill, London after it. When Brits celebrate and sing “Rule Britannia,” the song commemorates Porto Bello.
Many American tourists are surprised by this Portobelo connection. After that inspirational victory, a young Colonial officer joined the British. After his service, he returned to his native Virginia and named his farm after the British admiral whom he so admired. The commander was Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon, and the officer was Col. Lawrence Washington, the older half-brother of George Washington. Now you know how Mount Vernon got its name. (Have fun with that one at your next dinner party.)
Pro Tip: Like Galeta Island, visiting the Counting House and Portobelo is best done with a knowledgeable guide. Ancon Expeditions is one of my go-to sources for outstanding tours in Panama. The key is the quality of their guides. It’s not just their facts on hand, but the stories making visits more memorable.
What’s up with the columns in the Panama Canal Administration Building’s rotunda? Oh, that issue with the Panama Canal Administration Building’s rotunda? Seven top sections of eight-column bases were installed upside down. It was too late to fix the error, so only one was correctly installed.
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