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.