The History of Taboga Island


Katherine Mena, Expedition Leader, Safari Voyager

It’s a lovely morning, just like all mornings in the tropics. A little overcast but that is actually fantastic because today we are facing the Cross Hill hike at Taboga Island.

Taboga Island is a little volcanic island located in the Bay of Panama, only 20 miles from Panama City.

Since it’s less than 50 minutes from our anchorage area where we will position the Safari Voyager prior to the crossing, this is an excellent place to spend the morning.

It has a tiny village and it has been considered as one of the jewels of the Bay of Panama.

We choose to depart earlier than the rest of the groups to save time and to take advantage of the fresh hours of the morning in an otherwise hot, sunny and uncovered terrain. Landing on one corner of the island, we quickly dry our feet and change our shoes to begin our hike. Everyone is in good spirits and this is our last hike before we cross the Panama Canal and say goodbye after a week of adventures.

Cross Hill is actually not that high. At 450 feet above sea level, a large white cross rises, marking the highest point in the beautiful “Island of the Flowers,” as the Panamanians call this island.

We could actually see it from the Safari Voyager, and it looks challenging from there.

The name of the island derives from the indigenous word “aboga” which means “abundance of fish.”

Discovered upon arrival of the Spaniards, the little town was founded in 1524 under the name of San Pedro de Taboga, the patron saint of the island. With time, the island became a port zone of the City of Panama as well as the point of departure for the expeditions of the Conquistadors to Peru.

Due to the strategic position of this island it also became a target point for pirates and privateers. Among them was the infamous Pirate Morgan who arrived right after raiding and destroying the city of Panama.

It is said that the locals of the island, making use of their emotional intelligence, invited Pirate Morgan and his privateers to drink all the wine and rum. And thus, the inhabitants of the island were saved.

The Spaniards established several defense points, and Cross Hill was one of the best viewpoints of the island.

We walked several hundred feet to the base of the hill, warming up for our ascent. A small mark and a sign indicates the access. And so, we drink a bit of water and begin our exercise. It’s true that it is not a high altitude; neither is it a long trail. However, we face .6 miles of steep incline with loose rocks and no forest coverage.

I can feel my heartbeat increase, my breath becomes more profuse, my face turns red and I start sweating. But soon a relieving breeze blows to cool us down, and so the walk is more pleasant. Just like the pilgrims that ascend this hill during Easter week looking to clean their souls, we walk in silence taking in the surroundings, every now and then enjoying the astonishing views of the ocean.

Then we see it.

A white cross, old and tall is waiting in silence. Behind the cross, the most beautiful view of the little village. The small fishing boats, and the neighboring islands among blue ocean, the cargo vessels, tankers, freighters, and other embarkations in the distance, waiting their turn to cross the Panama Canal to save four weeks of navigation if they crossed Cape Horn instead.

We go around the cross and I tell everyone about the history of this volcanic island and the highlights of what we see in the distance. We take pictures and then get ready to descend.

This is the most challenging part; going down in a steep, loose rock terrain. Everyone however, has come prepared with trekking poles. We must be careful not to slip and fall. It’s just like a game in which concentration is paramount. We take our time, and finally we are back at the base of the hill, everyone showing a big smile with knees and pride intact!

However, the walk is not over yet. The clouds have gone away revealing the hot Panamanian sun. We continue marching towards the town. This beautiful island has lots of flowers, trees and colorful houses that make it look like a picturesque dormant Caribbean island in the pacific. No wonder why so many people from all over the planet wanted to establish their homes here.

Life seems to go slowly and everyone is away or outside in their corridors. We see hens and their offspring hurriedly running through a garden, and other domestic animals under the shade of a tree.

Everyone that crosses paths with us smiles and wishes us a good day. We really enjoy the walk while we get to understand what we see. Passing by several public offices hiding behind little picturesque buildings, we end at the second oldest catholic church in the western hemisphere, the Church of San Pedro.

Mrs. Aurora greets us with a huge smile. She is very happy to explain to us the reason behind the purple coverings of all icons in the church. They are ready for Easter week. It’s Lent Friday.

After visiting this church that survived countless attacks since 1524, we continue walking around and image the past. What things were like here when the Spanish first settled, when pirates attacked, when it became a mandatory stop during the gold rush, a place to recover from malaria and yellow fever during the French and Panama Canal construction, and where the US Navy established a military base during WWII.

Nowadays, it’s a dormant little town that welcomes visitors to enjoy the magic, the history and the people.

We must go back to the ship now, in preparation for the Panama Canal crossing. Everyone agrees for we have worked up an appetite and we know that lunch, as it is every day, will be amazing!

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