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Gamboa: A Portrait Of Panama Canal Zone History

A journey to the end of the road.

Gamboa, Panama
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GAMBOA, Panama-  The end of the road isn’t on the path to anywhere … it’s the last stop on the way to here. In a way, it’s the antithesis of travel. And what is especially appealing for me is that the end of the road is more often than not an anti-climatic experience. Few make the journey to the end of the road. The action, the people, and all the stuff tends to peter out along the way, leaving no more firecrackers left for the grand finale. The end of the road is the refuge of those who have nowhere else to be.

I have an attraction to the end of the road. There is just a tinge of romance found in getting to a place from which there is nowhere else to go. For a moment, at least, you have arrived.

Gamboa is at the end of the road.

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Thank you and walk slow.

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I have to admit that I’ve allowed my imagination to wander about the old days of the Canal Zone a time or two since I’ve landed in Panama. That period of time was such a historic anomaly and the stories that came out of it were truly unlike anything else.

For nearly the entirety of the 20th century the corridor of the Panama Canal was administered by the United States and was ostensibly treated as US foreign territory. They did, after all, secure (i.e. pay for) Panama’s independence from Colombia …

Panama Railway

What was created in the Canal Zone was essentially a facsimile of life in small town America. Everyone spoke English, the kids played little league, they raced canoes on the canal, had American cops and American jails and American churches. They had cinemas that played American movies and shops that sold American cereal and canned beans. The families who worked there were given decent pay, nice benefits, and subsidized housing. From the people I’ve talked to who grew up there, the place seemed like Leave it to fucking Beaver played on repeat for a century.

And then one day it was gone:

“I went from having a normal childhood with neighbourhood friends in a nice suburban neighbourhood with mowed lawns, and all of the sudden everyone is gone,” says Zach Kunkel, who was born in 1976. “From one day to the next, it was clear that everything had changed and there was no going back.”

When the US fully handed the canal over to Panama in 1999 most of the Americans split, leaving behind the towns that they built and officially ending the culture of Panamanian Americana.

Some of the old canal towns are now underwater, some of them have been reclaimed by the jungle, while others are still there in some form or other.

Ship on Panama Canal near Gamboa

Gamboa is located on the other side of a silver painted iron bridge, right at the point where the Chagres River, Gatun Lake, and the Panama Canal all blend together. The town was etched out of the jungle in 1911, seven years after the construction of the canal began. It originally wasn’t an American town but was populated by Afro-Caribbean workers who were brought in to dig the ditch that would change the world.

The place wasn’t really much of anything then — being little more than a police station, a single four-family house, and a strip of box cars that served as dormitories for the workers and a commissary. When the canal was finished, most of the laborers split, and Gamboa nearly became a ghost town, with its population dropping from north of 700 to just 173.

Then in 1936 the canal’s dredging division moved in, and that’s when Gamboa became an actually place on the map. With a year, the population rose to 1,419, and by 1942 there were 3,853 people living there, and many of them were American transplants who brought all the vestiges of American life with them.

Gamboa, Panama

These early settlers of Gamboa literally built their town up from scratch on their own. They constructed their houses with timber from Californian sequoia trees, built a USO entertainment center, a rail station, a school, athletic fields, a movie theater, a commissary, a country club, a golf course, and multiple churches. It was a community effort — when the men weren’t working on the canal they were swinging hammers and sawing their way to actual township.

For the next 57 years they remained here …

I ventured out to Gamboa on one sunny morning. I wanted to see what was left of the place as well as to get a feel for the small chapter of history that played out here.

Ship on the Chagres River

I believe it’s normal for Americans to feel a sense of longing for what we imagine life was like in the 1950s. While I don’t share that particular longing myself I do appreciate it. It’s ultimately a longing for community, for knowing your neighbors, for not being worried about your kids as they run around in the streets with packs of their peers. It’s a longing for a way of life that we don’t really have anymore, and in an odd way I feel as if these old Canal Zone towns manifested that sentiment perhaps better than those in the actual US — because at least these Panamanian communities had the decency to disappear overnight rather than slowly descending into isolation and stranger danger and smartphones.

I took an Uber out to Gamboa. While it was a short 30 minute ride from Panama City, it was as if we’d fallen off a cliff and landed on the other side of the country. Dense city immediately turned into dense forest. The expressway turned into a highway which then turned into a narrow road before petering out as an unpaved gravel path. I had no idea where I was going and the Uber driver wasn’t much help.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“How about here?”

I looked around. There wasn’t really much, but I guess that’s what I was looking for. I stepped out of the car and the driver sped away back to the city.

Gamboa, Panama

The first thing that struck me about Gamboa was how quiet it was. I just stood there for a moment in front of the church at the entrance to the town and just listened. There wasn’t a sound until I heard the wheels of a skateboard hit the pavement behind me and I turned around to find some white dude in a button up plaid shirt skating by. I figured he worked at the Smithsonian Tropic Research Institute that’s based here. And if I’d know that he’d basically be the only local resident that would come within earshot of me the entire time I was there I probably would have flagged him down to ask some questions …

I walked over to the Chagres River and watched a massive freighter float by. I looked up a the cranes of the dredging division. I watched a train roll past on the Panama Railway which cuts through the town.

Church in Gamboa

I then began walking into the heart of the settlement. The Gamboa Union Church at the entrance to the town stood out to me. As it had a fresh paint job and the sign in front of it read “God loves tourists,” it was a safe bet that it was still functioning. But beyond that it was a little difficult to believe that people still lived here. There was an array of big wooden houses that appeared to be in various stages of abandonment and empty lots where other houses once stood. I walked out onto the athletic field that’s in the center of town and looked up at the small grandstand and imagined it full of square jawed men in straw hats and women in poofy white dresses clapping and cheering as their kids played baseball.

Gamboa isn’t a ghost town but it has a similar feel. There’s more space than people to fill it. It’s teetering on the edge of relevance. It’s eerily quiet.

Gamboa general store

Gamboa was the quintessential boomtown. An economic switch was flipped, a bunch of people moved in, stayed while the staying was good, and then quickly left when it was time to go, leaving the place behind to descend into history.

I crossed the athletic field and looked at an abandoned church before cutting back to the main street and walking by the police station, the administrative building for the dredging division, a convenience store, and a small post office.

At the edge of town I watched as some college students in green knee-high wellies jumped into the back of a pickup truck and sped off into the forest. They seemed to be on some kind of study abroad eco trip. They looked like little kids on a Panamanian adventure — but then I laughed because that’s probably how I looked when I was a student at an archaeology field school in Ecuador at the age of 19.

Gamboa post office

I followed them into the jungle and began hiking up a trail …

When leaving Gamboa I tried to hitchhike out. Nobody picked me up. What was I thinking? I’m at the end of the road. Nobody is going anywhere here.

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Filed under: Panama, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Rob May 20, 2024, 3:04 pm

    The end of the road… no where to go but back the way you came. I was there once…

    Looking forward to seeing what you found down the trail.

    Link Reply
    • VBJ May 21, 2024, 11:03 am

      Yes, it’s definitely a nice place to be every once in a while 😉

      Link Reply