The Panama Canal Review  --  Spring 1972

Closely linked to the colorful history of Panama, the picturesque island of Taboga has known the fury of marauding pirates, the intolerance of the Conquistadores, the boldness of the Gold Rush adventurers, and the glory of producing a saint.  Through it all the island has remained unsullied.

An idyllic hilly island in Panama Bay, reminiscent of Capri, Taboga is only about 12 nautical miles, or an hour by launch, from Panama City.  Its proximity and its white sand beaches have made it a prime candidate for further development by the Republic of Panama Tourist Bureau. Plans are now afoot to build a hotel complex which would include the present Hotel Taboga and 55 modern cabins to be constructed on El Morro, a small adjacent island.  It would be administered by the Hyatt International Hotel chain.


Although Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first Spaniard to set foot on the small dot of land, called it St. Peter's Island, the Indian name of the ruling cacique prevailed and nearly 450 years after its founding, the island still maintains the simplicity and flavor of bygone days. Typical of the Spanish colonial settlements in the New World, the little town of Taboga sprang up around the church.  Its narrow streets, now paved, are barely wide enough for the passage of the few vehicles on the island. The absence of traffic noises and exhaust fumes to pollute the clean sea breezes and the magnificent view of velvet sea and ships from far-off lands waiting to enter the Canal have made Taboga a favorite weekend retreat for Panama and Canal Zone residents and a year-round tourist attraction. Quiet rural lanes fully skirted by a profusion of bougainvillea and hibiscus blooms in red, white, and pink, accentuated by the fragrance of roses and sweet jasmine, give Taboga the atmosphere of an eternal garden and the name "Island of Flowers."


During the Spanish conquest, Taboga's inhabitants were virtually eliminated.

When a decree by Charles V put an end to slavery, only about 700 slaves remained in Panama and its environs; the majority of these had been brought from Venezuela and Nicaragua.  Among them were a handful of native slaves who became the settlers of Taboga.

A new village was founded in 1524 by Padre Hernando de Luque, dean of the Panama cathedral.  He built a comfortable house on the island and remained there most of the time.  It was Padre Luque who provided funds and blessed Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro before they set off from Taboga on their conquest of the flourishing Inca Empire.

In addition to his church duties, he raised fruits and vegetables on the plantations.  Padre Luque's pineapple plantations.  Padre Luque's pineapples could well be the progenitors of the pineapple patches that pepper the island today.

Taboganos still recall the venerable priest by referring to a crystalline pool in the folds of Picacho del Vigia, the highest point on the island, as the "Bishop's Pool."


They remember, too, that Santa Rosa de Lima, the first saint of this hemisphere, was conceived in Taboga.  According to Don Manuel Penuela, for many years a municipal official in Taboga, the parents of the young girl who was later to be canonized, had lived in a charming house on the beach. now owned by Senora Abigail Pacheco de Diez.

Taboga's wholesome, healthy atmosphere has been recognized since colonial days when Panama City residents flocked to the island during epidemics or for a respite from the city heat.  On several occasions, Taboga has been un-officially the summer capital of Panama, especially during the terms of President Belisario Porras.

The Panama Tourist Bureau operates a modern hotel on the island, which is the headquarters of numerous water sports activities held during the year. Pleasure boats from Panama and yachts from all parts of the world may be seen anchored in front of the hotel throughout the year.

Hotel Chu, a two-story wooden structure built on the beach after the turn of the century, offers adequate but not luxurious comfort and spectacular vistas of Panama Bay.

Facing Hotel Taboga and linked to the island at low tide by a sandbar, is El Morro, a small rocky islet, where at the end of the 17th century the Spaniards established a fort to defend Taboga.


During the wars of Independence in Latin America, it was the three cannons on El Morro, manned by 10 Spanish soldiers, that fought off the attacks of John Illingworth, in 1819.  During a second attack, however, the invaders took Taboga, the inhabitants fleeing to the hills.  Three of the invaders were killed and buried by the villagers, who marked their graves with wooden crosses.  With the passing of the years, cast iron crosses embedded in a mortar base, replaced the wooden markers.

To this day, Taboganos in the vicinity of "Las Tres Cruces" never fail to light a candle in memory of the three who dared to disturb the peace of their little island.

A little over 100 years ago, El Morro played an important role in world shipping.  The Pacific Steamship Navigation Co., an English company with ships plying between England and the Pacific ports of South America, extended its route to include Panama.  Aware of the abundance of supplies and potable water and general healthy conditions on the islet, the company purchased El Morro.  They built workshops, a ship repair facility, supply stores and a coaling station and brought over hundreds of Irishmen to work in the supply base.  It was at about this time, too, that the 49'ers discovered the healthy aspects of Taboga, many of them spending their 'waiting' days in boarding houses there.  A trace of Anglo-Saxon names can still be seen on sparkling white tombstones in the cemetery.


Taboga was the seat of government for all the islands in the Gulf of Panama, including the Perlas Islands.  Islanders prospered and it was the Golden Age of Taboga.  Prosperity continued until several years later when the Pacific Steam transferred its shops to Callao, Peru.

Taboga Island had an important role in the construction of the Canal.  In 1883, during the French effort to construct a Panama Canal, they built a 25-bed sanatorium on Taboga for ailing and convalescing employees of the company.  A few years later, in the grim battle with disease, the French built a 50-bed, $400,000 sanatorium on the island.

This building was taken over by the United States in 1905 as a rest and recuperation center for Canal construction workers.  It served this purpose until January 1915, when it became a vacation resort for employees and their families and was known as hotel Aspinwall.

The Aspinwall was converted into an internment camp for German prisoners during World War I.  After the war it was once again a hotel and recreation center and was the hub of Taboga's social life until 1945. The Aspinwall is gone but many an Isthmian still recalls this hotel on the beach at Taboga and the part it played in social activities of that by-gone era.


During World War II, the U.S. Navy had a "mosquito boat" training base on El Morro.  The heroic record of these boats in the Pacific theater of war proved the efficiency of the officers and sailors on El Morro. Today, a modern aid to aerial navigation, at the top of Picacho del Vigia, guides all aircraft to the Isthmus.

Numerous legends and romantic myths have been woven into the traditions and folklore of the island.  Among these is the celebration of a water festival on July 16 in honor of the Virgin of El Carmen, the patron saint of Taboga.  A number of boats, usually led by the most luxurious yacht of the Panama Yacht and Fishing Club carrying a statue of the Virgin, sail in a procession around the island.  The procession includes pleasure boats of all types and sizes and pangas, the flat-bottom canoes used by the fishermen, all beautifully decorated for the occasion with the occupants singing praises to their patron saint.

According to Taboga lore, many years ago, a pirate ship attempted to attack the island and as the invaders neared the beach, an enormous army headed by a beautiful woman appeared, ready to meet the onset.  The pirates were terrorized by the vision and fled back to their boat.  One who did make it to the beach was even more mortified when he learned that there was no such army, much less a beautiful woman leading it.  to this day, Taboganos are convinced that it was the Virgin of El Carmen who saved them.

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October 21, 1998
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