Lured by tales of the famed El Dorado, Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first of many Spanish Explorers to arrive in 1501 as he sailed from Venezuela in 1501 along Panama’s Caribbean Coast. Eventually Christopher Columbus landed in Panama’s Bocas del Toro on his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502. One of several places he stopped at was Puerto Bello, now UNESCO World Heritage Site Portobelo.
After several unsuccessful attempts by Columbus and others to establish a colony, Bastidas’ first mate, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, settled Antigua de Darién. When Balboa heard stories from the Indians about another sea, he set out with Francisco Pizarro and an indigenous group of slaves to find it. They finally reached the Pacific coast after 25 days of making their way through the thick jungle of the interior.
As fate would have it, Balboa was later beheaded on a falsified charge of treason by a new governor named Pedro Arias de Ávila. Ávila later established a fishing village called Panama, meaning “abundance of fish” in the local language, in 1519. He resettled “Nombre de Dios” on the Atlantic side to establish a land passageway to transport Peruvian gold and other riches from the Pacific coast to waiting Spanish Galleons on the Caribbean. The route was he created was called Camino Real, or Royal Trail. Shortly thereafter a quicker and easier passageway was created which is called Camino de las Cruces.
Eventually Incan gold started running dry so the Spaniards focused on the abundance of Peruvian silver being mined. Meanwhile pirate attacks were becoming more common. Sir Francis Drake raided Nombre de Dios twice in 1572 and 1573 and that led to its decline. Consequently Portobelo was refortified and became the main trading port; while Panama City had become one of the wealthiest cities in the Americas on the other side of the isthmus.
1671 brought tragedy to Panama City as the infamous Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan sailed up the Chagres River, crossed the country and arrived in Panamá City. There he raided and burned the city to the ground. Fortunately Panamá City was rebuilt two years later in Casco Viejo by those who managed to escape the attack by Morgan.
Panamá had been part of Spain’s empire for more than 300 years when in 1821 Spain officially granted independence to its Central American colonies. At that time, Panamá became a part of “Gran Colombia” which was a union led by Simón Bolívar and included Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
As Panamá grew restless with its lack of autonomy, there were at least three attempts to liberalize Panama from the grips of Colombia. In 1903 the Hay-Herran Treaty was signed with Colombia that would grant the US use of the Isthmus of Panama in exchange for financial remunerations to build a Canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific sides. But when the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty but Colombia’s senate refused for fear of loss of sovereignty, President Theodore Roosevelt grew impatient and supported Panama’s independence. In a show of support, he dispatched warships to the Caribbean Sea on the north and to the Pacific on the south side of the Isthmus. Troops were sent to protect the railroad as well as the interior of the country. And on November 03, 1903 Panama declared its independence.