History and Location
Isla Taboga is part of an archipelago situated 20km (12 miles) south of Panama City. The largest of the island chain, Isla Taboga (571 hectares; population 1500) dots the Pacific side of the Panama Canal and boasts a rich diversity of tropical flora and a history marked by international influences.
Isla Taboga sits in close proximity to Isla Morro, which is roughly one square hectare and at low tide connects to Taboga's main beach, Playa Restinga. The bay these islands share once served as a harbor for ships, and the islands themselves provided a strategic location to settle—there was an abundant supply of fresh water, worshippers could pray in the second oldest church in the hemisphere, and those doing business in Panama City could easily anchor and take smaller boats to the mainland.
Indiginous inhabitants Taboga was first inhabited by Indians, who lived in thatch huts and fished for a livelihood. The island’s original name was “Aboga,” which originated from the Indian word meaning “an abundance of fish.” The Spanish Period (1515 – 1840)
Taboga's earliest inhabitants were virtually eliminated during the Spanish conquest. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was credited with discovering Taboga and Morro in 1513. That year, the Spaniards sailed to the island to establish a settlement, killing or enslaving the Indians and stealing their gold. When a decree by Charles V ended slavery, about 700 slaves, most of them shipped from Venezuela and Nicaragua, remained in Panama. A handful of the surviving native slaves settled Taboga, developing their settlement two years after Balboa first sighted the Pacific and before the city of Panama was founded.
The Founding of San Pedro In 1524, Father Hernando de Luque, the dean of Panama's cathedral, built a house on Taboga and founded the town of San Pedro. Around this same time, the development of Isla Morro was under way. Francisco Pizarro (1471 – 1541)
The Spanish conquistadors Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro (1475 - 1538), along with Panama's Father Hernando de Luque, formalized a plan to conquest South America. The trio had made previous expeditions together from 1516 to 1517, and by the beginning of August 1524, they had received Spain's permission to conquer lands further south. Toward the end of the Inca Empire, they devised an expedition to conquer Peru, with the aim of defeating Incan emperor Atahualpa during the Battle of Cajamarca in 1532. Throughout their conquests, the Spaniards continued colonizing Taboga and were a dominating presence until 1549, when Panama freed its Indian slaves and a number of them chose to make Taboga their home. A fort was built on Isla Morro to protect Taboga and its important bay during this period. Santa Rosa of Lima: First Saint of the Western Hemisphere (1586 -– 1617)
There are two stories on the early days of Santa Rosa de Lima, and both begin in Taboga. According to Taboga historians, the parents of the young girl who was later to be canonized lived in a charming house on the beach skirting the island's northern side. The house still stands today, although somewhat modernized. Later, the girl's family moved to Peru. Peruvian lore claims that Santa Rosa de Lima was conceived on Isla Taboga, born on April 30, 1586, and baptized as Isabel Flores de Oliva. Her parents were the soldier Gaspar Flores from Puerto Rico and a Peruvian needlewoman named María de Oliva. María began calling her daughter Rosa, a testament to the divine.
Rosa de Lima was best known for her humility and kindness to those in need. The sick, the lame, and the suffering flocked to her for comfort and religious guidance. She died on August 24, 1617, in Lima, reportedly of tuberculosis, at the age of 31. Rosa was beatified by Pope Clemente IX on April 15, 1667, and canonized on April 12, 1671.
On August 22, 1686, the ship of Captain Townley, who was in command of English and French buccaneers, was in Taboga Bay when it was attacked by three Spanish ships. During the ensuing battle, one of the Spanish ships blew up, and Townley’s men confiscated the three vessels. The pirates had taken a number of Spaniards as prisoners but lost one man and had 22 wounded, including Townley himself. The buccaneer captain sent a messenger to the President of Panama demanding supplies, the release of five imprisoned pirates, and ransom for Townley’s captives. Townley said that heads would roll if his demands weren’t met. When the president ignored the threat by sending only medicine, Townley sent him the severed heads of 20 Spaniards in a canoe. This got the president’s attention, resulting in the release of five prisoners and a large ransom payment.
Las Tres Cruces Three cannons on Isla Morro, manned by 10 Spanish soldiers, fought off the attacks of pirate Captain John Illingworth and his party of Chileans in 1819. During a second attack, however, the invaders overtook Taboga, sacking and burning the village and causing island residents to flee high up into the hills. Three of the pirates were killed and buried by the villagers, who marked their graves with wooden crosses. To this day, Taboganos light candles in memory of the invaders who dared to disturb the peace of their little island.
The English Period (1840 – 1882) Many travelers heading to the west coasts of North or South America used Taboga and Morro as a resting point until ships were leaving for their final destinations. A number of companies, mostly British and apparently some Dutch, offered a full set of tourist services on Isla Morro, including a small theater and a boat repair shipyard. Morro played an important role in world shipping. The Pacific Steamship Navigation Company of England, which owned ships that sailed between England and the Pacific ports of South America, extended its route to include Panama and purchased Morro around 1840. The British built workshops, a ship repair facility, supply stores and a coaling station, and they brought over Irish crews as laborers. The Pacific Steamship Navigation Company comprised a fleet of 12 vessels that transported passengers and cargo between Valparaiso, Chile, and Isla Taboga.
The English Period could also be called Taboga's Golden Age. During this time, the island was the seat of government for all the islands in the Gulf of Panama, and Taboganos prospered. The completion of the Panama Railroad in the mid-1850s put Pacific Steamship Navigation Company out of business, and the British moved their enterprise to Callao, Peru. Around this same time, thousands of gold-mining ‘49ers found respite on Taboga, living in boarding houses before embarking on adventures in the California Gold Rush.
Remnants of the Pacific Steamship Company building and pier are still visible on Morro. From time to time, people stumble upon hand-blown bottles bearing the company’s crest.
Isla Morro's Cemetery A small cemetery sits atop Isla Morro. The cemetery became last resting place for some who followed the Cruces Trail en route to the partake in the Gold Rush. They had contracted deadly fevers, “importing” their fatal illnesses to Taboga. Later, canal workers who did not survive their convalescence on Taboga were also buried there. A trace of Anglo-Saxon names can still be seen on the cemetery's fallen tombstones. The tombs of French canal workers were identified with numbers.
The French Period (1880 -1904) Isla Taboga played an important role in France's visionary lead in constructing the Panama Canal. The Canal's French administration built a 50-bed sanatorium on Taboga, later known as Aspinwall, for ailing and convalescing workers who contracted yellow fever or malaria. Those who died were buried on Morro.
Paul Gauguin The celebrated Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin sailed to Panama in 1887. Virtually penniless, he worked as a Panama Canal laborer. During his time in Panama, the Frenchman stayed on Taboga and considered buying land there.
The American Period (1905 – 1960) For the first half of the 20th Century, Taboga served as a base for U.S. military trainings and holidays. Taking over construction of the Canal, the Americans, like the French before them, regarded Aspinwall as a recuperation center for canal workers. About a decade later, the sanatorium evolved into Hotel Aspinwall, a vacation resort for the workers and their families. In World War I, the hotel was converted into an internment camp for German prisoners. Following the war, the hotel became the hub of Taboga's social life until 1945. Aspinwall fell into ruin and is no traces of it remain.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy set up a “mosquito boat” training base on Morro. These torpedo boats are remembered for their importance in the Pacific theater of war. The U.S. military had also peppered Taboga with searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and bunkers. Officially abandoned in 1960, the bunkers still stand and can be visited.
Getting to Taboga Island
There are two separate companies that offer launch services to Taboga Island. One leaves from the Balboa-Amador Yacht Club and costs $12 round-trip. The ride takes 20 minutes. The other launch is best for tourist who are not in a hurry to get there but want a relaxing boat trip across the Panama Canal; trip is slower at 45 minutes. This launch costs $12, round-trip, and leaves from Mi Playita, Amador Causeway.
Get around on Taboga Island
Due to its size Taboga Island is mainly a "walking island" - i.e., mostly everybody walks everywhere they go. There are a couple of taxis (old pickup trucks) which can take you to one of the 3 hotels on Taboga Island. There are also boats which you may rent from the locals which will take you on boat tours around the island, to include the back side, which is a refuge for Brown Pelicans.
Taboga Island is now days one of Panama ’s favorite escapes out of the city to enjoy the beach, hiking, nature, fishing and boat charters. The Island has a charming village with a whitewashed church, a few narrow streets with several small restaurants, small hotels and great views to Panama City from the top of the Island at approximately 300 meters.
Taboga has maintained its core traditions and values. Many villagers continue earning a living by fishing. Throughout the year, Taboganos joyfully celebrate numerous religious festivals, including San Pedro, La Virgen del Carmen, the Passion of Christ, and Carnival. Isla Taboga is a strong, tight-knit community that manages to preserve its customs and natural environment despite receiving scant financial help from the mainland or investors.
Tours and Things to Do
Taboga Island offers a number of adventures for nature and history lovers. There are several marked trails up the mountains which one can enjoy. Plus unmarked rainforest areas to explore.
Taboga is fortunate to have the second oldest church in the western hemisphere. On Saturday afternoon and Sunday the church of San Pedro is open, during the week one can ask for the caretaker to open the church (a small donation is appreciated).
Boat trips can be arranged through Hotel B and B Cerrito Tropical with local guides for whale watching, fishing and tours to the bird refuge on the back side of the island.
Restaurants on Taboga Island
There are several restaurants on Taboga Island, located in Hotel B and B Cerrito Tropical, Hotel Vereda Tropical, Hotel Mundi, plus two on the main street. While there are some snack vendors on the beach, not all are licensed with Dept. of Health.
Bars at present are "local" type cantinas. Drinks can be purchased at any of the restaurants and hotels listed above.
There are 3 licensed small hotels, prices vary from $55 to $110 for two people.
B&B Cerrito Tropical Hotel Vereda Tropical Residencial Turistico Mundi
Information on each can be found through a quick search on the web.
For more information on Taboga email one of the hotels listed above.
Ferries by Calypso and National Tours run back and forth to and from Taboga every day. Private charters on Yachts can be arranged. See above link "Getting there" for more information.