Its Muscle Hotel Attraction Glory Faded, Hotel El Panama Shrivels Up


I was raised in a banana plantation in a place called Changuinola in the Panama province of Bocas del Toro.  The company that exploited the banana activity in Changuinola was the former United Fruit Company based in Boston, Massachusetts.    This company was famous worldwide for marketing the Chiquita banana, flavored by most American homes during breakfast time.

I graduated from primary school on June 1, 1961 at the Farm 8 School.  My diploma read, “Be it known that Omar Upegui has satisfactorily completed the prescribed Course of Study of the Eighth Grade of Farm 8 School and by proficiency in scholarship and integrity of character is entitled to this Certificate of Graduation.”  Given at Changuinola, R.P. this 1st. day of June, 1961.  Signed:  Roy Wells and Florence McLaughlin.   I was 15 years old.

After that initial stage of my formal education, I was extracted from a slow-paced banana plantation scenario to the buzzing and rapid-paced urban life of Panama City.  It was the first time I flew on a plane, watched TV or saw so many cars.  My eyes were wide open as a new world unfolded before me.  Panama City was like a Hollywood movie—full of magic!

It was in 1962 when I first saw the magnificent El Panama Hilton owned by the Hilton international hotel chain.  It rested gracefully on top of a green hill surrounded  by small trees with purple flowers.  It was painted snow white.  From the distance it was similar to a snow-capped mountain.  When the sun rays touched the white building, it was like a precious shining diamond glowing on top of the green hill.  It was absolutely beautiful, since I’m forced to use a word to describe an indescribable scene.

To the left of the building was a fountain which had several layers of brightly-colored water hovering over the fountain.  The water danced up and down in soft movements, like a Mozart symphony.  At night it was a soothing spectacle.   During the sixties it was a life experience spending  time at El Panama Hilton.

During the Sixties, El Panama Hilton was the common meeting water hole of Panama City.  Everything  and everybody converged in this refined and elegant place.  It was like the sun in the solar system having all the planets orbiting around it.  Politicians, social and cultural activities, artists, intellectuals,  diplomats, U.S. military top brass  and much more, all revolved around this pristine building gently resting on top of a well trimmed emerald-looking  hill.  It was guaranteed that Panama Hilton entertained the Who is Who in the Panama of the Sixties.  For a country boy like me, El Panama Hilton was the Shangri-La of James Hilton’s novel, “Lost Horizon”.  It was Nirvana to the nth degree.  It was the best!

An old postcard of the time—on the reverse—described the hotel this way:

“El Panama Hilton, Panama-Republic of Panama.  A fabulous, new hotel overlooking the blue Pacific and gateway to the famous Panama Canal.  300 beautiful rooms, air conditioned, each with a private balcony.  Fine cuisine, luxurious, Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

Sadly, the glory of the Panama Hilton has slowly faded away as the commercial activity moved from Via España to Los Pueblos, Multi-Plaza, Multi-Centro, Paitilla, Balboa Avenue and Albrook.  The hotel was sold by Conrad Hilton and that started the down slide of the prestige of the once Panama icon.  Its lush tropical gardens were lost when real estate was sold to  investors interested in building shabby-looking malls and other mediocre buildings.  The adjacent streets are now filled with prostitutes, street peddlers, drug dealers and cheap-looking stores.  The former luster is now gone, even though the hotel keeps operating, trying to attract tourists using the famous name of Hotel El Panama.

Last week, while I was busy taking pictures of Iglesia del Carmen, I stopped to take a close look at the hotel that was once my idol.  It was a sad experience.  I then decided to take a photograph of this building in an effort to freeze in time the way it looks now.  Maybe it will not be there next time when I return.  As the landscape of the city changes due to the current construction boom, I would not be surprised if this building is on a greedy developer’s  “to be destroyed” list.  I guess you can’t stop progress, even though progress frequently kills quality and good taste.  Good Day.

Take a look at two photographs of  El Panama Hilton, before and after.  Here we go.

Photograph of the exterior of the Panama Hilton Hotel designed by Edward D. Stone in 1951.  Photo taken by Ralph Crane.
Photograph of the exterior of the Panama Hilton Hotel designed by Edward D. Stone in 1951. Photo taken by Ralph Crane.
Photograph of Hotel Panama taken by Omar Upegui R. on February 13, 2009 and digitally edited by Michael Moore.
Photograph of Hotel El Panama taken by Omar Upegui R. on February 13, 2009 and digitally edited by Michael Moore.

9 thoughts on “Its Muscle Hotel Attraction Glory Faded, Hotel El Panama Shrivels Up”

  1. Fascinating history and great write-up about Hotel El Panama, Omar. I stayed there for several weeks in 1994. It was there a friend introduced me to the lady who would become my wife. A few months later, we purchased our wedding rings at a jeweler located just across the street from this hotel. When we return next year to live in Panama, I’m sure I’ll be disappointed to see up close and personal the effect that time has had on this once grand and elegant hotel.

  2. Hello Michael:

    Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad the post brought back pleasant memories of your wife and the wedding rings.

    When you get here, it would be interesting to compare if what you have in your mind equals to what you witness with your own eyes.

    Best Regards,

    Omar.-

  3. Thank you for the wonderful perspective. I wondered why there was no proper entrance from the Via Espana. I see from your photos the balconies facing the gardens and the Espana were closed up and that is why those rooms seem so huge.
    Let me tell you Michael, to the uninitiated the Panama still reflects it’s faded glory. The public rooms still have a certain South American fabulousness. The pool is still to die for. We live in a different age but the ghosts of beautiful men and women in evening gowns of chiffon and silk and white dinner jackets and brilliantined hair still haunt the grounds.
    All in all I still love the Panama!

  4. My father Alberto Portocarrero was the Chief Engineer from 1978 thru 1981, and also he turn on the lights of the Hilton´s brand on the top of the building in 1979.

  5. Did not the El Panama Hilton get burned and mostly destroyed in the 1964 riots. It was all sooty and boarded up when I was there. Was it rebuilt at the same location on 4th of July Avenue or what.
    Thanks, Riley

    1. Hi Riley:

      I’m not aware the Panama Hilton was burned in 1964. It was too far away from the area of the riots in the former Canal Zone. The only building that was burned was the Pan Am building located on the Fourth of July Avenue.

      The Panama Hilton is located at Via España. Maybe you went to another building.

      Regards,

      Omar.-

  6. Omar, Thanks for the information. You are absolutely correct. I don’t know where I got that confused. I was living with a woman that worked at the Hilton at the time. Not much chance of finding her now. Thanks again, Riley

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