On Aug. 15, 2018, Panama City began a yearlong celebration as it counts down to its 500-year birthday taking place in 2019.
Talks, exhibitions, street parties, concerts, and more are in the works to mark the occasion, 499 years in the making… With so much going on, where to begin? Well, in the beginning, of course…
Panama’s Original Mayor
Panama City was established Aug. 15, 1519, by the Spanish Crown, whose representative, Pedro Arias Dávila, served as the city’s first governor.
Known for getting his way, Dávila (who was in his 80s) was dead set on reigning in his rival, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, then governor of Darién, who he eventually deposed, promised his daughter’s had in marriage to, then killed before the nuptials could take place.
After ridding himself of Balboa and moving the capital of the territory from Darién to the present-day location of Panamá La Vieja, Dávila helped set the course for future Spanish exploration and conquest into South America.
The long arm of globalization brought American agricultural commodities (cacao, sugar, and coffee) and natural minerals (gold, silver) through Panama before being sent to the Old World to grease the wheels of commerce and fill the coffers of the folks bankrolling the entire scheme.
New Canal, An Old Idea
Even then, the idea for the Panama Canal existed. Carlos I of Spain, as early as 1592, called for the digging of a waterway to shorten travel time to Peru. The main trade routes then were land bridges extending from Panamá La Vieja to Portobelo (El Camino Real) and San Lorenzo (El Camino de Cruces).
These paths fell into immediate disuse—and were reclaimed by jungle—once the Panama Railway came to being. The railway, positioned as the first transcontinental railroad, played an instrumental role transporting people and supplies during the California Gold Rush.
Once the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Gatún Lake, a key component of the lock system, had taken out most of what remained of the overland paths. But by then, the centuries-old dream of a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had become reality.
And global trade never looked back…
A Lock Expansion, An Unlocked Future
By the turn of the 20th century, the Panama Canal was nearing operational capacity. By 2012, its limit would be reached. Already, the new style of colossal cargo ships could not fit through the old locks.
Panamanians, who had received control of the waterway from the United States on Dec. 31, 1999, held a referendum to seek consensus on a plan for expansion.
That referendum became a mandate, paving the way for the largest infrastructure project to take place on Panamanian soil since the original Great Dig broke ground.
Completed June 26, 2016, the US$5.25-billion megaproject inaugurated a new era in global trade and became a well-earned feather in the country’s cap of self-determination.
The Countdown To 500 Years Begins
With such a storied past and jaw-dropping historic milestones, it’s no wonder the city wants to celebrate its first half-millennia in style.
Think: parades, parties, and plenty of Panamanian celebrities.
Kicking off birthday 499 was the Banda de Música del Cuerpo de Bomberos, who led a march down the streets of Calidonia the evening of Aug. 14.
The next day, the anniversary of the city’s founding, Mayor José Isabel Blandón visited Chilibre, a town near the border of Colón province, where he unveiled a countdown clock that’s now ticking down the seconds to the big bash.
Later that day, Plaza 5 de Mayo saw a huge open-air concert that showcased everything from típico music to regguetón. Expect more of these impromptu street parties—concerts accompanied by a culinary smorgasbord—throughout the rest of the year.
After all, this is “Rumba Hacia los 500,” and the celebration is just getting started.
Ground zero will be the Panamá Viejo Historic Monumental Complex where through September you can catch nerd-worthy exhibitions on Panama’s pre-Columbian Barrilesculture—perfect for fans of archaeology.
To stay on top of the happenings taking place through the rest of the year, bookmark the official Facebook page of the Mayor’s Office’s organizing committee here.
You can also try searching online for #HaciaLos500 to see what folks are posting related to this event.