It's about 6:00 AM and there is excitement around the house. At least on my part. We are going to Taboga Island. We have been there many times before, spending a whole day. But this time it is different. We are going to spend the night at the fancy (by my standards) Aspinwall Hotel on the island!
Geography and Climate
One of more than a thousand islands found in the Gulf of Panama, Taboga is unique because it is the only one with a town just 12 miles from the city of Panama. The others, such as the Pearl Islands, are much farther away while the others close by supported had a community until recently. These, such as Flamenco, are not true islands anymore as they are connected to the mainland by a causeway. Thus, in the not too distant past, Taboga was a destination for those city dwellers seeking comfort and solitude while still remaining close to the large cosmopolitan city of Panama.
There are really four islands in the group. The larger one is Taboga. The closest one, and connected by a sand bar at low tide, is El Morro on the northwest side of the island. A bit farther northeast is Taboguilla and to the east is Urava. Taboga has a coastal perimeter of about 8 miles and contains three mountain peaks with the highest, Picacho del Vigia, being 1200 feet. The next highest is Cerro de la Cruz followed by Cerro Turco (see map). On Cerro de la Cruz there still stands the 20-foot cross dating back to the 16th Century.
The climate in these islands is moderate as marine conditions have a definite effect on the temperatures. The yearly averages vary from 83 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to 73 degrees at night. Taboga has the same dry and wet seasons as the rest of Panama, with the rainy season starting early May and ending in late November. The land is considered good for growing vegetables as well as flowers and the island is famous for both its juicy pineapples and abundance of fragrant flowers.
Although the journey of Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513, leading to the discovery of the South Sea by the first European, does not mention Taboga, he is credited with the discovery of the island in the 16th Century. No specific date is given. Nevertheless, it is claimed that he named the island San Pedro, but that it later reverted to the Native name of “Aboga”, meaning “many fish”, and was later modified to Taboga. I find it amusing that both Panama and Aboga mean “many fish”.
The island remained uninhabited until 1520 when King Charles V of Spain declared immoral the enslavement of Natives in the colonies. At that, some 700 surviving Venezuelan and Nicaraguan slaves in Panama moved to the island of Taboga to put some distance between themselves and their former masters, should they have a change of heart.
The, in 1524, a priest by the name of Hernando de Luque, who was also the Dean of the Panama Cathedral, went to the island to minister to the ex-slaves and founded the village of San Pedro on the leeward side of the island, a village that still stands today. He built himself a comfortable house and remained there most of the time enjoying the climate and healthy atmosphere of the island. Father Luque taught farming to the inhabitants and he is credited with the introduction of pineapples to the island as part of the fruits and vegetables he raised on his plantation. Some say that the Hawaiian pineapples are the result of his cross pollination with the Taboga pineapple. Father Luque also built a wooden church and several other stone buildings, the ruins of which still stand. Years later, some claim 1550, others 1586, the present stone church was built. There are those who claim this to be the second oldest church in the hemisphere. Father Luque is also known for providing Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro the funds for their infamous trip to Peru to conquer and destroy the flourishing Empire of the Incas. Taboganos still recall Father Luque by referring to a crystalline pool in the folds of Picacho del Vigia as the “Bishop's Pool”.
Taboga is said to be the place where the first saint of the hemisphere was born. Known now in Peru as Santa Rosa de Lima de Taboga, the child was born in Taboga in a house that still stands, although highly modernized. Soon after birth, her parents moved to Peru and it was there that, through her humility and kindness to the sick and the needy, she gained the recognition to be canonized by the Catholic Church after her death at a young age.
And, of course, Taboga had its share of pirates, and tales of pirates, some of which proved true as you will see. Beginning in the 16th Century many people came to the shores of Taboga looking for gold and pearls. Among them were the pirates. In 1671, after sacking Panama, Morgan sent his lieutenant Hawkins to invaded the island, take everything of value and burn the place to the ground. Instead, Hawkins turned the island into a trading center for his plunder and many other pirates came around. With all the treasure they traded, it was often said that some of it ended being buried. Many tried their luck at digging without results until 1998, when workers preparing the foundation for the island's new Health Clinic, unearthed 1000 pieces of silver dating back to the 17th Century.
Taboga also had one famous visitor besides pirates. Paul Gauguin, the French post-impressionist painter stayed at Taboga for a short time after trying his hands briefly at construction work on the French canal efforts in 1887.
And in time of war, Taboga also played a part. First during the wars of independence in Latin America when in 1819 the Spanish gunboat, Rosa de los Andes, attacked the small garrison at El Morro Island and were driven off by its three cannon. In the days that followed, the Spaniards landed on the main island and chased the population up El Picacho del Vigia where they finally put up a fight killing three of the attackers. When the Spanish soldiers retreated, the population buried the three Spanish soldiers were they fell and erected three crosses to mark their graves. The original wooden crosses were later replaced with iron ones and they still stand at the place known as “The Three Crosses”. Since that time, the Taboganos frequently visit the place and almost always one will find a lit candle at the location. Then, in 1917, the United States entered World War I and German prisoners were housed in the island. And, finally, during World War II, the U.S. Navy set up a “Mosquito Boat” (PT boat) training base on El Morro Island, including ugly concrete ramps to pull the boats out of the water, while the U.S. Army set up radar and gun installations on the top of Taboga Island facing the ocean.
The most famous building ever to be located on the island, however, was the Aspinwall Hotel. The healthy atmosphere of Taboga had been recognized from the days of the Conquistadores and more so when the French began construction of their canal. In the 1880s, the French constructed a 50-bed, $400,000 retreat (sanitarium) for their workers. This famous place served well until its demolition in 1945
The Aspinwall Hotel
As stated above, the Aspinwall Hotel began its long life as a sanitarium for the sick workers of the French Canal Company in 1882. When the Americans took over the canal project, the building became the property of the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) as the new enterprise was known. The Americans also began using the structure as a place for rest and recuperation. It provided a great service and it is estimated that over 30,000 were admitted between the years of 1911 and 1912 alone. By 1913, the demand for its services was sharply reduced as the size of the work force decreased with
The Aspinwall Hotel as it looked around 1914 and through
much of its life and as I remember it. Photo: Willis Abbot.
the approaching completion of the task. In 1914 it was decided to transform the facility from a hospital to a hotel and the remodeling of the building was started immediately. Once the changes were completed in January 1915, the new hotel was inaugurated with the name ASPINWALL HOTEL in honor of Engineer W.H. Aspinwall who had been so important in the construction of the Panama Railroad.
The hotel became an immediate success with its natural beauty, its scenery, beaches and the excellent service it provided. There were frequent outings to the island which included conventions, parties and dances. Nevertheless, the Hotel did not prove very profitable and, in June 1916, it had to be partially closed. In December of that year it was completely closed in a bit of a rundown condition. Restored in January 1917, the hotel opened again using promotional activities to bring the customers, including special transportation rates. However, in 1917, with the entry of the United States into the Great War of 1914-18, all frivolous activities ceased and the hotel was again closed. As the war progressed in Europe, the U.S. brought some German prisoners of war into the Canal Zone and housed them at the Aspinwall for a short time. They were later relocated to the United States.
The view of Taboga and El Morro from the Aspinwall Hotel. Photo: W. Abbot, 1914
On May 30, 1918, after extensive remodeling and the addition of tennis courts and the availability of rowboats as well as launches for rent, the hotel opened once again. Despite all promotional activities, the hotel failed to be a financial success and had to close its doors one more time on July 5, 1921. I must point out that all this time, the hotel had been operated by the Canal Zone Government. After this last shutdown, the government decided to let a private business operate the facility and thus it was transferred to a company headed by James Malloy and his wife Till who had gained excellent experience in managing the Strangers Club in Colon. Re-opening in August 1921, the facility prospered under private tutelage until June 1923 when a fire destroyed a large part of the structure. It is recorded that sailors from the USS Galveston, anchored in the bay, helped fight the fire.
Once more rebuilt, the Hotel continued to struggle until, finally, during World War II, it was found that maintenance to the wooden structure was no longer possible. The old wood had seen too many repairs and patches and no attempt at prolonging its life could be made economically. In 1945, the building was completely abandoned and, later, taken down. It was during this last period of its long life that I went to Taboga, around 1937, to spend that unforgettable week-end at the fancy Hotel Aspinwall!
My Personal Association With Taboga
You could say that my family's association with Taboga began with my parent's marriage. They were married in February 1927 and went to spend their honeymoon in Taboga, transported there in the launch of the President of Panama, Rodolfo Chiari. When told the story I was too young to care about the details as to how this came about, but I believe that Mr. Chiari had been a student of my father when my father was a Christian Brother teaching at Las Salle Catholic School. My parents stayed at the house of an acquaintance in Taboga and returned by commercial launch. They continued to enjoy going to Taboga and when my sister and I were little they used to take us often on Sundays, for the day. My sister recalls the fried chicken lunches my mother would pack and that they would sit under the trees enjoying it. My memory is vague but I do recall going to Taboga and catching the “Cotinga” launch at pier 17 in Balboa. Then, the fear of disembarking on the moving pier at La Retinga in Taboga. Twice, when a bit older, I do recall we stayed at a friend's house for the day.
Then one day the news came that we were going to spend the night at THE ASPINWALL! I recall our arrival at the dock below the hotel (La Restinga being out of commission for a while); the bedroom with high ceilings. Two beds jammed together, with me gloriously sleeping in the spot where the mattresses met and my sister sleeping in a separate cot. Keep in mind I was about 5 years old at the time so everything looked bigger to me so, in the bathroom, the shower head seemed to me to be 10 feet above my head. I remember that it was not a shower as at home, but rather a stream of water. Ah, but the dining room . . . white linen tablecloths and napkins with expensive looking silverware. We ate in the dining room and took breakfast in a veranda style area, if my memory serves me right. What we did in Taboga escapes me. Since I had been there often, it was more of a routine and I have no other impressions of that trip except that of our stay at THE ASPINWALL HOTEL!
The “Cotinga” and the bird from which it took its name. Drawing by L.R. Celerier. Bird photo: Google.
The “Cotinga” at La Restinga Dock in Taboga, 1940s. Photo Flatau, provided by Bob Karrer.
After that, my parents changed their attention to El Valle and I did not return to Taboga until 1947 when I was 15. I went with my uncle Lucho, his wife Aida and my cousin Frank. We stayed at El Chino Hotel. I really do not know the name, but it was the wooden two stories building right on the beach. Then, my last trip was in 1974 when I took my family to Panama for a week. Frank, his wife and three children went with us to Taboga and we stayed overnight at a friend's house. Strangely, I have no recollection of the house or even sleeping there. But the first day we rented a boat that had just been repainted and I sat on the wet paint ruining my pants. Afterwards we swam, then Glenn and I went exploring. The rest preferred to stay on the beach. First we went up the Picacho del Vigia.
Remains of U.S. Army installations looking to sea and the cut-up rifled gun barrel.
Note canteen cup on top of gun barrel. Photo: L.R. Celerier 1974
There, Glenn and I found the remains of the military installations of WW II: Foundations of buildings; a structure that appeared to be an elevator to tunnels below; an old canteen cup, which Glenn still has along with a 1943 canteen I had; and cut-up rifled barrels which appeared to be of a 6-inch guns (I had no way of measuring them). All these installations faced the open sea so it was a sheer rock cliff from there to the ocean below. With the waves constantly crashing against these rocks there is no sign of a beach on this side of the island. It was against these rocks, by the way, that an Air Force C-54 transport plane crashed back in 1946 while landing at Albrook Field at night.
South rocky cliffs of island near where plane crash may have occurred. Photo: L.R. Celerier, 1974
Our next hike that day took Glenn and I across the sand strip, during low tide, to El Morro. We thought we were just walking up a tall hill “to see what was on the other side”. Instead, much to our surprise, we found some old abandoned concrete steps half up the rough trail and soon, covered with vegetation, we were locating all sort of grave markers. On some we could clearly make out the inscriptions, others were totally unreadable. On the top we found an obelisk with the following inscription:
To The Memory Of
CHARLES WILLIAM WALKER,
sometime commander of the
Pacific Steam Navigating Company
mail steamship “Callao”
who after a short illness
departed this life on this island
on the 16th day of August 1859.
Aged 39 years.
This monument was erected by
some of his brother officers ...(unreadable)...
their sincere respect and ...(unreadable)
We looked at as many graves as we could and photographed all we could with the only one roll of film we had. Had we known of this cemetery, we would have come better prepared. Then, as we walked down to the rocky beach facing the little town on the island of Taboga, we were in for another surprise. We ran into the abandoned remains of what had been a shipping company's facility. We saw iron boilers, anchors and other stuff, some of which appeared to have melted into the rocks. With time running out, as the tide was coming in, we had to depart before our route was cut off. Now I know there was a lot more to see, but at the time we did not know what we were looking at, much less what to look for. We though that maybe a ship had come aground there sometime.
That was the last time I saw Taboga, the island of flowers. The Panamanian composer Ricardo Fabrega said, “Taboga, my Taboga, I cannot forget you”.
Left: Glenn and the Obelisk on top of the island with the inscription shown above.
Right: Going down on the other side of the island. The cross was on the grave of
"...Frederic Bunn, Paymaster of the HSM MUTINE, died at Taboga, March 11, 1866..."
Photos: L.R. Celerier, 1974
The Pacific Steamship Navigation Co.
Around 150 years ago, Taboga became the port of choice for Panama City and the mainland because the island's northern shore is well protected from the waves of the open sea and the waters are deep enough to accommodate larger ships. This is why in 1849 a British steam company serving all the
Left: We found rusted boilers, geared wheels and other rusting pieces of equipment. Here Glenn
gives an idea of the size of the anchors we found. Photo: L.R. Celerier, 1974.
Right: PT Boats at Taboga during WW II. Photo: Stewart D. Redwood
American Pacific ports, The Pacific Steamship Navigation Company, chose El Morro as a main base of operations. They built large shops, facilities to ground ships and work on their hulls, a coaling station, housing for the workers, supply warehouses and a cemetery on the top of the hill. During this first year of operations, the 49'ers going to the California gold fields also preferred to stay in the healthier climate of Taboga while waiting transportation. Nevertheless, Glenn and I saw several graves of 49'ers who caught the disease while crossing the isthmus and died in Taboga.
San Pedro Church as it looked in 1913 (Willis Abbot) and as it looked in 1974 (L.R. Celerier)
Street in Taboga in 1913 (Willis Abbot) and at about the same location in 1974 (L.R. Celerier)
The 1946 Airplane Crash
On June 9, 1946, at 10:30 PM, a U.S. Army Air Force Douglas C-54D (military version of the DC-4) of the Air Transport Command (ATC), carrying 23 army personnel, two of them West Point cadets appointed from the Panama Canal Zone, crashed into the southern rocky seaward 1200-foot cliffs of Taboga Island. The plane was on approach, in a heavy rain storm, to land at Albrook Field. The plane's last stop had been Morrison Field, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The two West Point cadets were, John McGinnis, a 1945 graduate of Balboa High School and William Fisher, a 1945 graduate of Cristobal High School. A third cadet, Robert Lewis, also a graduate of BHS, was to be among the passengers, but had a last minute change of plans. Robert would later become my sister's brother-in-law.
John McGinnis was a well known and liked straight-A student at BHS and had written the school song “Seniors Stand Up And Sing”. The BHS Class of 1951 honored McGinnis by including the music and words to the song in their Yearbook. My sister, Mireille Erbe, as well as my classmate Fred Sill remember quite clearly the shock and sadness that swept through the airport that night and the Zone during the following days. Family and many schoolmates had gathered at the airport terminal at Albrook to greet the cadets coming home for the summer. Soon, the word came from the Army radar station at the peak in Taboga that the plane had crashed a short distance from them.
During the investigation, enlisted personnel from the Coast Artillery Command at Fort Amador assisted in the recovery of the bodies and wreckage.
“Taboga, my Taboga, I cannot forget you”. Ricardo Fabrega.
Taboga is presently run down and not recommended to the tourist. The large hotel is gone and plans for large futuristic looking ones are in study. I hope they do not come to pass and that common sense will prevail. Taboga does need a good hotel, but not the planned monstrosities that will overshadow the beauty of the island.
Sources: TABOGA, Jose Teofilo Tunon H., The Panama Canal Review, Spring 1972; The Seven Lives of the Aspinwall Hotel, Alonso Roy, MD, Epocas, April 1985; La Prensa, March 9, 2003; Data and proof-reading, Fred Sill, Balboa High School, 1953; Pacific Steamship Navigating Co., Stewart D. Redwood, PhD, Consulting Economic Geologist; Plane Crash, The Canal Zone Philatelist 1999, Vol. 35, No. 4; PANAMA and the Canal, Willis J. Abbot, 1914; Bob Karrer, Isthmian Collectors Club; Last photo, Google, galenfrysinger.com, date unknown; www.taboga.panamanow.com; www.isladetaboga.com; www.worldheadquarters.com/panama/destinations/taboga
- Luis R. Celerier