Panama City, Panama

Reference work entry


At the entrance to the Panama Canal in the Bay of Panama on the Pacific coast, Panama City is the country’s capital and its industrial and trade centre.


Meaning ‘many fish’, Panama City was originally an indigenous fishing village. Panamá Viejo was founded by the conquistador Pedro Arias Dávila in 1519. It soon became a key point on the colonial trade route, receiving goods which were then sent on to Spain. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the city was the target of pirate raids and outside attacks which caused a depreciation in trade and threatened its prosperity. An unsuccessful attack by Francis Drake in 1595 was followed by the decimation of the city in 1671 by the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan. Abandoning the old city, a new site 8 km southwest was settled by Alonso Mercado de Villacorta. In the eighteenth century the city suffered a decline in trade and several fires caused much destruction. Panama City was swallowed into the viceroyalty of New Granada (comprising Venezuela, Ecuador and Columbia) and eventually into independent Columbia.

A period of unrest characterized the nineteenth century, although the Californian gold rush and the arrival of an inter-oceanic railway restored Panama City’s importance. Between 1879–89, a French team led by the creator of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, invested 1 bn. francs in attempting to build a canal linking Panama City to the Caribbean Sea. Hampered by landslides and disease and the loss of many lives, the venture failed. The US also wanted to build a canal across the isthmus but negotiations with Columbia failed. When Panama fought for independence at the beginning of the twentieth century it was with US supported. In 1903 Panama City was made the capital of independent Panama. In the same year, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed allowing the US sole control of the future canal and a 10 mile surrounding area called the Panama Canal Zone. The first ship sailed across the isthmus in 1914. Panama City prospered and developed. American communities sprung up around the area, including Panama City’s port, Bilboa. Although within the US zone, Panama City remained Panamanian. In 1977 a treaty was signed by the US and Panama governments returning the area to Panamanian rule, although the US did not give up operational control of the area until 1999.

Modern City

As an important trade centre, the canal traffic is still the city’s main source of income. Industries include the production of paper, clothing, plastics and chemicals. Universities include the Universidad de Panamá, founded in 1935 and the Universidad Santa Maria la Antigua opened in 1965. International flights arrive at the Tocumen airport, 27 km from the city centre. Other cities are connected by the Ferrocarril de Panamá rail road and the Transisthmian Highway.

Places of Interest

Much of Panama City’s colonial heritage remains, including buildings which survived fires and invasion, and much is centred in the Casco Antiguo (old town). The Catedral San Francisco dates from 1673 while the 1798 Catedral Metropolitana is in the Plaza Catedral, originally the site of a Spanish jail. Museums include the Museo Antropológico Reina Tomes de Araúz which tracks Panama’s ethnography, the Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial with sixteenth to eighteenth century religious artefacts and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. The ruins of the original settlement are 8 km from the city centre.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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