A Traveller's Tale 4: Balboa, Panama City
Over recent weeks in this column I have been telling the story of my journey with my family to the UK and Europe in 1962. My father, Peter Cape was sent by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation to study television production techniques with the BBC in London and bring that knowledge back to New Zealand's fledgling television Broadcasting Corporation. I have drawn on my family's slide collection and my father's diary, as well as my own recollections to recount shipboard life and stopovers. Around the end of March 1962 we embarked as passengers on the Royal Dutch Mail Netherland Line's MS Oranje in Wellington. Our first port of call was Pape'ete, Tahiti in French Polynesia. From there we sailed for Central America where we would stop at Balboa, Panama before passing through the Panama Canal.
We reached Panama and docked at Balboa in early April. We may have hired a car. I don't recall. We certainly took in a number of significant sights and locations during our stopover. I have slides of a car ferry in Balboa which was basically a flat-deck barge bearing eight vehicles. We visited several churches and stopped at the towering statue of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, conquistador and Spanish explorer who crossed the Panama isthmus and found the Pacific Ocean in 1513. In 1962 the city still had much of its Spanish colonial flavour in its architecture and layout. The streets were narrow and, judging from the photographs my father took, there was a sense of well-worn shabbiness, which lent an atmospheric sense of lingering history. Spanish influence was obvious in the scrolled architraves and balustraded balconies that were common on the buildings, which seldom stood more than four storeys tall.
Panama was discovered in 1501 by Rodrigo de Bastida, and Panama City was founded in 1519. Its first governor was Pedro Arias de Avila. Both men were conquistadors. It is of little surprise, then, that the city to became a centre for exploration and transit point for gold and silver from Peru to Spain. The city was pillaged and razed in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan and his crew of 1400. Two years later, in 1673, early Panama was rebuilt and fortified. The area known as Casco Viejo dates from that period. We visited the San Filipe precinct and Casco Viejo (the old quarter).
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I have slides of white herons under courtyard porticos. Obviously, we visited the Palacio de las Garzas – The Palace of the Herons. This was the presidential palace. In 1922 the herons were accommodated by president Belasario Porras, reputedly at the suggestion of his friend and poet Ricardo Miro – if you can believe Wikipedia. I don't think they paid rent but they did enhance the white masonry.
We visited Panama's Metropolitan Cathedral, Catedral Basilica Metropolitana Santa Maria la Antigua, and Inglesia de San Jose (Church of St Joseph). I remember seeing the wonderfully ornate golden altar in Inglesia de San Jose, endowed with saints and Spanish Catholic tradition. I was 8 and the altar stood tall and darkly impressive in burnished gold. I also have a recollection of densely green foliage around a church entrance. The photo that my father took of the cathedral's rather shabby twin-towered main façade from the paved town square shows my mother, my sister and me in front of the building with large palms and plots of greenery on each side. The same scene viewed in 2020 is sterile. There is little greenery. The towers are whitewashed. The square, now called Independence Square, is stark and cut off from the church entrance by a road where traffic flows and cars park.
As with other parts of Panama, progress seems to have swept aside the character of the place, cluttering the streets with automobiles. Concrete, slab-tilt utility and commercial hustle have all but desecrated the history of the area. On the horizon, high-rise glass and steel business premises reach for the sky. Whether such gold of commerce is worthy of the conquistador's character and legacy is somewhat questionable.
Regrettably, I suspect history has been sold out to the slave traders and perhaps those traders came from the north. There is a bridge. In design terms, it closely resembles the Auckland Harbour Bridge – without the "Nippon clip-ons" (a NZ nickname for road-widening extensions added later). This bridge was under construction as we left Balboa, Panama in April. When we returned in November/December the bridge was complete. Its name is Puente de las Americas, the Bridge of the Americas and it carries the Pan American Highway across the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Our next port of call would be Florida, USA and to get there we would first have to pass through the Panama Canal.