By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos Gómez
They say the flag that flies atop Cerro Ancón is a little larger than a basketball court, and for many years it was the world’s largest flag. It was said that replacing it every three months cost around 10,000 dollars. There are those who believe that’s a myth. But if it weren’t, would it matter? Not so much, especially if one knew the sacrifice it took to place it there. I remember as a boy, in October 1979, watching General Omar Torrijos raising it for the first time (Or pretending to raise it). The flag is very heavy and is hoisted with the help of an electromechanical system). I wasn’t there, but the ceremony was broadcast around the country. Although today I only see visitors in shorts, t-shirts, and caps walking from one observation point to the next, the images of that distant day, when Panamanians were able to touch the dream of a sovereign nation with their own fingertips for the first time, still comes back to me.
Thirty-four years ago, as the Panamanian flag was raised for the first time on the lushness of Ancón, the region called the Canal Zone was disappearing, and this small area, just under 119 acres, became the first step in a journey through which Panama recovered almost 580 square miles of its territory. But the link Panamanians have to the hill is even older than that. It goes all the way back to 1671, another decisive moment in the country’s history. After Panama City’s first site was destroyed, the Spanish authorities searched for a new site to rebuild.
The only sources of natural water in the vicinity had been found in the foothills of Cerro Ancón. Panama was then reestablished in 1673 on the “site of Ancón” (ancón means cove, for the bend with which the Bay of Panama reaches the hill). And although San Felipe, the main neighborhood within the city’s walls, was built southeast of the hill on a rocky promontory facing the sea, soon all along the road leading to the springs a shantytown called El Chorillo began to grow. El Chorillo, which still exists today, was home to a heterogeneous group of hardworking water sellers, washerwomen, and other laborers.
“Without Cerro Ancón, Panama City would not exist, at least not here. It’s that simple,” said Orlando Acosta, a resident of Ancón and one of the people responsible for having the area declared a Municipal Protected Area in 2001. We are visiting him before our trip to gather more information. In 1904, when construction of the canal began, this geographic area was in the zone administered by the U.S. government. The most important symbol of the U.S. presence in Panama, the Panama Canal Administration Building, was built on the slopes west of the hill.
The massive structure opened on July 15, 1914. We began our tour of the hill in the environs of this building, looking toward the monument to the engineer from the United States, George Washington Goethals, who was responsible for building the canal locks at the beginning of the 20th century. The field to the southeast of the monument has the same dimensions as one of the waterway’s compartments. On December 31, 1999, these green spaces were covered by thousands of Panamanians, who gathered here at noon to see the end of the U.S. administration of the canal and Panamanian territory.
Inside the building, anyone can see the murals depicting the construction of the canal, as well as the busts of Carlos V, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, key figures in the evolution and construction of the idea of a canal through Panama. The Administration Building may be the most important site in the area, but it’s not the only one, and not even the oldest one. Climbing up Quarry Street, you can see the former house of the governor of the Canal Zone (today called the Administrator House and used for official events). A bit higher up are the houses of Quarry Heights, among which House No. 1 stands out as the home of the head of the U.S. Southern Command, the commander of all the U.S. forces south of the Rio Grande.
What’s surprising is that these mansions made of wood are more than a hundred years old… and they are not American! These homes were originally built by the French in the town of Culebra in the middle of the Panamanian isthmus. They became the property of the United States when it purchased shares of the Universal Canal Company. They were designed using all the experience the French had previously gained building in the tropics (the use of mesh, drums, and gallery terraces). They could also be dismantled, which allowed the engineers who used them to always be near the works as they were progressing. Towards the end of the works (1914), the houses were permanently relocated to Quarry Heights and assigned as residences for the highest-ranking civil and military officials.
These buildings are built on a system of terraces, a sign of the quarry that operated here and provided stones for the construction of the Canal. On the foothills, behind the Administration Building, you can still see the breaks made against the basalt mass. In fact, before 1914, the hill was almost devoid of vegetation. Only after the construction was complete was the forest able to regenerate itself. To climb to the summit you have to take a narrow road that is named after Amelia Denis de Icaza, a Panamanian poet whose poem “Al Cerro Ancón” sums up the collective shock and suffering Panamanians felt in 1904 when they were no longer allowed free access to their guardian hill. A statue of the Panamanian intellectual, a friend of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, stands at the highest point of the hill as a tribute to the woman who knew so well how to interpret the feelings of a nation.
The vegetation surrounding the road is so thick that direct sunlight is scarcely able to hit the pavement. It’s an admirable show of nature’s resilience. More than 260 species of flora can be found here, such as the Annona hayesii, of the Guanabana family, the Lennea viridiflora, classified as “threatened,” and the Vanilla pompona, the trade of which is restricted. As for wildlife, seventy species have been reported, including Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey (Saguinus geoffroyi), the Margay spotted cat (Leopardus weidii), the green and black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus), the boa (Boa constrictor), and the common orange-chinned parakeet (Brotogeris jugularis), all classified as threatened or in danger of extinction.
If that weren’t enough, Ancón is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, especially for fans of raptors. These birds, which come via the continent’s Caribbean coast, traverse its narrowest stretch, taking advantage of the trade winds, which are stronger at the end of the year. Around Ancón, which stands alone at the edge of the coast, the winds swirl up in a curl, which the birds use to gain height and continue southward. You can see examples of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), which disperse along the Amazon basin, and Swainson’s Hawks (Buteo swainsoni), reaching as far as distant Patagonia, as well as examples of the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) and the migratory Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis), among others. This past November, the Panama Audubon Society, in its now traditional count of migratory birds, exceeded 2.1 million sightings of several winged species, which places Cerro Ancón among the world’s top five bird watching sites for raptors.
The Quarry Heights road almost surrounds the hill so we could climb to the other side to see the monuments and historic sites that look out towards Panama’s Casco Viejo, but the road is closed just beyond the French wooden homes. The Panamanian government earmarked the former central installations of the U.S. Southern Command, including an enormous bunker that stretches over the basaltic bed of Ancón, to house its most sensitive security offices. So we came down the same way we climbed up and traveled north, along Gorgas Street, named in honor of William Gorgas, the physician who directed a good part of the cleanup efforts for the Canal Zone, the terminal cities of Panama and Colón, and ultimately the entire country, converting this former tropical deathbed into one of the healthiest areas for humans in the Caribbean.
Monumental buildings, almost all built in the first half of the 20th century, line Gorgas Street and the neighboring Herrick Street (named in honor of Alfred Herrick, a colleague of Gorgas and founder of the country’s first private hospital). The structures make up part of Gorgas Hospital, where for many years strategies to combat malaria, yellow fever, and other massive contagious diseases in Panama and the entire region were implemented. Although the hospital only catered to the population in the Canal Zone, there were cases of Panamanians or other Latin Americans –through influence or unique diagnosis—being admitted, because the hospital offered therapies and surgeries not available anywhere else in the region. This huge complex is currently divided: the oldest wings serve the Ministry of Health, the Supreme Court, and other governmental agencies, and the newest areas house Panama’s National Cancer Institute, which stands at the forefront of the fight against all types of cancers.
The Gorgas Hospital out buildings stand on Ancón’s eastern slope, which is bordered by the Avenida de los Mártires. This avenue extends southward and connects the city with the Bridge of the Americas, over the Panama Canal. On the way to the bridge is “Mi Pueblito,” a tourist facility belonging to the capital’s municipality, at the foot of Ancón, which has areas dedicated to the Creole, Afro-descendants, and indigenous cultures, all vital to Panamanian nationality. Before the return of the Canal Zone to Panama, the Avenida de los Mártires served as the border of the area, restricting Panamanians’ access to the land controlled by the United States. A red line was painted down the middle of the road and a perimeter fence reinforced the border.
Although it’s on the other side of the avenue, we must include the National Institute of Panama on this trip. Built in 1911 to house one of the new nation’s first and most ambitious educational projects, the building is just as monumental as the Canal Administration Building, which is hidden here behind Ancon’s green crest. The Canal Administration building is less noticeable because so many other buildings surround it, while the National Institute of Panama rises up uncluttered in the middle of the green. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the Panamanian nation built this testament to its faith in its future facing the symbol of a foreign presence.
As a consequence, the teaching center produced multiple generations of illustrious Panamanians who led the struggle for the consolidation of the country. In January 1964, a delegation of Panamanian students left this spot with the intention of hoisting the national flag in front of Balboa High School. The resistance of the residents and Canal Zone authorities meant the event ended with injury to the Panamanian ensign, instigating the painful events of January 9 and forever moving Panama’s diplomatic vision of beneficial coexistence with the U.S. to a desire to end any authority the U.S. had over Panamanian territory.
To end our tour, the group travels the same road those students walked from the National Institute to Balboa High School. The building now houses a training and documentation center under the jurisdiction of the Panama Canal Authority. There is a monument on its grounds that honor the Panamanians who fell on that patriotic day in 1964. Beyond the monument you can see the Administration Building and Ancon’s serrated summit. The cycle ends. In less than four hours we have traveled over more than three centuries of Panamanian history.