Those who want a sense of what life was like in the former Canal Zone should consider spending an hour or two wandering around the townsite of Balboa. The unofficial “capital” of the Canal Zone, it was the most formally planned of the zone communities.
Today it’s being squeezed between a container port and highway overpasses, and many of the old apartments are either unoccupied or have been converted into offices, but it retains much of its peculiar utilitarian elegance.
(Make allowances for some personal bias here, since I spent most of my childhood in Balboa and Balboa Heights and am a graduate of both Balboa Elementary and Balboa High.)
This marble monolith at the base of the Administration Building was erected in honor of George W. Goethals, the chief engineer of the canal from 1907 to its completion in 1914. The three tiers of the fountain symbolize the three sets of locks. The monument was controversial when it was erected; some complained it didn’t fit into the community’s design.
Centro de Capacitación Ascanio Arosemena
Along the palm-lined promenade of the Prado are what were once Balboa Elementary School and Balboa High School. Both are now offices used by the Panama Canal Authority. Parts of the old high school, now known as the Centro de Capacitación Ascanio Arosemena, (tel. 272-1111, 7 A.M.–4:15 P.M. Mon.–Fri.), are open to visitors.
Outside is a breezeway dedicated to the Panamanians who died during the 1964 Flag Riots; their names are inscribed on the pillars. Just inside the building is a display that attempts to walk a delicate line between the still-polarized views on what exactly happened during the riots, the bloodiest and most controversial conflict between the United States and Panama until the 1989 U.S. invasion.
Lining the halls on this floor and the one above is a wealth of rare artifacts from both the French and U.S. canal efforts, including railroad ties and pickaxes, clippings from 19th-century newspapers, bonds sold to finance the disastrous French effort, fascinating black-and-white prints dating from the 1880s, maps, Canal Zone stamps and seals, and historic china and silverware from the Canal Zone governor’s house.
On the 2nd floor is the Biblioteca Roberto F. Chiari (10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri. for “investigators”). This is the library of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (Panama Canal Authority), housed in what was once the high-school library. It contains all kinds of technical and historical books and documents on the Panama Canal and Panama. It’s not technically open to the general public, but those who fancy themselves “investigators” can certainly stop by and sign in.
Farther down the Prado is Stevens Circle, a rather drab monument to John Stevens, the canal’s chief engineer 1905–1907 and its master designer. On the left is the Balboa post office. Directly across the main road is what’s left of a cafeteria that used to feed canal workers around the clock. Next to it is the Teatro Balboa, once a movie theater and now host to occasional concerts and other performances. Across the street from that is the former commissary for canal employees, now offices. Next to the old football stadium is Niko’s Café, a decent lunch option.
Heading down Avenida Arnulfo Arias Madrid (also known as Balboa Road) in the direction of Amador and Panama City you’ll see the Union Church, an ecumenical church still in use. Just past it is an enormous and rather weird fountain built in honor of Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who was elected (and overthrown) president of Panama four times.
It was built by Mireya Moscoso, Arias’s widow, after she became president in 1999, and depicts Arnulfo flashing a “V for victory” sign at figures representing the Panamanian people, who are struggling to their feet. Shortly after it was erected, some amateur art critics sawed off his index finger, changing the significance of the gesture considerably. The statue was quickly repaired.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition