Balboa Reaches the Pacific Ocean Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the isthmus of Panama with 190 conquistadores and 600 Indians, and on September 29, 1513, he reached the coast of the Pacific Ocean, never before seen by a European. He named the newly discovered ocean Mar del Sur.

Summary of Event

In 1501, nine years after Christopher Columbus had arrived at the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, the Spanish conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first to sail along the coasts of present-day Colombia and Panama as far as the Gulf of Darién. As the voyage clearly indicated that they were traveling along the extremities of a new continent, they called Panama tierra firme (literally “solid ground” or “continental country”). One of Rodrigo’s companions was Vasco Nūñez de Balboa, who after this voyage settled in Hispaniola. Exploration and colonization;Spain of the Pacific Ocean Balboa, Vasco Núñez de Bastidas, Rodrigo de Ojeda, Alonso de Oviedo y Valdés, Gonzalo Fernández de Anghiera, Pietro Martire d’ Ávila, Pedro Arias d’ Pizarro, Francisco Cabral, Pedro Álvares Vespucci, Amerigo Magellan, Ferdinand Balboa, Vasco Núñez de

Balboa and his crew appear overjoyed at reaching the Pacific Ocean near the isthmus of Panama, the first time the eastern coast of this ocean had been spotted by Europeans.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

In 1510, financial problems forced him to leave again. He joined a group of soldiers to go to Colombia, where another Spanish discoverer, Alonso de Ojeda, was experiencing serious problems with the Indians. After finding only forty-one survivors in San Sebastián (Colombia), Balboa went to the south of Panama, a region called Darién by the Indians, where he founded the first permanent European settlement, Santa Maria de l’Antigua, on the bay of Urabá in the border area of Colombia and Panama. There he proclaimed himself adelantado (governor) under the auspices of the Spanish crown, although two other representatives of the Spanish government were already present in Panama. Colonization;Spain of the Americas

Contemporary historians note his tolerance, especially toward the Indians, one of whom informed Balboa of a region rich in gold, situated to the west beyond the jungles and mountains and forming the coastline of another ocean. Always on the lookout for gold and fearful in his own political circumstances, Balboa gathered 190 Spanish soldiers and about 600 Indians to find the “other ocean” to which others had referred.

In late August or early September of 1513, Balboa set out from the western point of the Gulf of Darién, the bay of Urabá, and marched for days on end through jungle and swamps, over the hills and mountains of the Cordilleras. On the way he had to fight off hostile native tribes and lost many soldiers and Indians—not only in attacks by the native population but also through disease.

Balboa’s expedition had not started out from the narrowest part of the isthmus, which today lies between the two exit points of the Panama Canal. Instead, he went westward from the southern bay of Urabá along the delta of the Atrato River and then through jungles and swamps and over mountains. The length of the isthmus from Darién to the Pacific is about 50 to 60 miles (80 to 100 kilometers).

Several sixteenth century historians reported on Balboa’s expedition. The best accounts are by Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (who was in Hispaniola at the time as a trade inspector for Spain) in volume 3 of his Historia general y natural de las Indias occidentales Historia general y natural de las Indias occidentales (Oviedo y Valdés) (1535), and by the Italian historian Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (Petrus Martyr Anglerius) in his De orbe novo De orbe novo (Anghiera) (1530). In Anghiera’s history of the New World, the story of Balboa is related, in Latin, in the first book of the third decade. Minor differences occur in these accounts, but in general there is agreement on the main events, which are treated as one of the great achievements of humankind.

It took Balboa and his men nearly a full month (September, 1513) to march across the isthmus. Balboa’s descent to the ocean took four days. The aforementioned historians report that he reached the Pacific on September 29, 1513, after having fought off Indians at the coast. When amicable relations were subsequently established, these Indians assisted him in exploring the sea gulf and coastal region.

On Tuesday, September 25, Balboa had faced the last hills and mountains before reaching the ocean. Informed by one of the Indians that there would be no further obstacles ahead, Balboa halted his column, mounted the hill alone, and from its summit, at ten o’clock in the morning, became the first European to see the jungles sweeping down to the seacoast. In the morning sun, he gazed on the glittering waters of a “new” ocean, which Europeans had known before only through rumored reports. Balboa called his men to come up, and they praised God; believing that the waters of the new ocean extended as far as India and China, he named it Mar del Sur (literally, “sea of the south”).

Anghiera reports in De orbe novo that Balboa, standing on the hilltop, addressed his companions after their terrible journey through the wild jungles; their pride in surveying the vast expanse of new ocean is duly emphasized. In one passage, Anghiera compares Balboa with the Carthaginian Hannibal as related in the third decade, book 21, of Livy’s Ab urbe condita libri (c. 26 b.c.e.; The History of Rome, 1600), where the Carthaginian commander stands on an Alpine crag and points out to his Punic troops, exhausted and utterly demoralized after their long march over the Alps, the Italian plains extending below.

In January of 1514, Balboa returned to Darién on the Atlantic coast of Panama. He had taken another route and used as guides local Indians from the friendly tribes of the Pacific coast. On his return to Santa Maria de l’Antigua, he sent dispatches to the Spanish king reporting his discovery of the Mar del Sur. However, these reports reached Spain too late: The king had already sent Pedro Arias d’Ávila as the new governor of Panama and Darién. The latter reached Panama and the settlement of Santa Maria de l’Antigua with a large fleet and new soldiers in the summer of 1514. At first, he made Balboa his deputy, but shortly afterward, he had the illustrious discoverer of the Mar del Sur apprehended. The officer who carried out the arrest on orders from d’Ávila was Francisco Pizarro, who later would conquer Peru.

Balboa was accused of high treason, found guilty, and beheaded with four of his officers in January, 1519. D’Ávila left the settlement of Santa Maria de l’Antigua, founded by Balboa, because his new Spanish contingent encountered severe difficulties with the climate. In addition, a virulent disease, perhaps beriberi, decimated the European inhabitants. D’Ávila crossed the isthmus and founded a new settlement on the Pacific coast near modern Panama City. With the subsequent establishment of a new port, Nombre de Dios, on the Caribbean coast, a new route had been found to reach the Pacific Ocean—the same way used some four hundred years later for the Panama Canal.

The settlement of Nombre de Dios was at that time the most important Atlantic port on the Pacific. A road was constructed, and its pavements still survive. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, small vessels traveling westward from the end of this road could navigate some rivers, thereafter transporting their cargoes by mule to Old Panama on the Pacific.


Among the early achievements of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the discovery in 1513 of the Mar del Sur contributed to a more accurate understanding of the earth as a globe, of continents, and of oceans. In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Amerigo Vespucci, and others could show that there was a southern continent connected to a continent in the north. Balboa’s discovery of the “other ocean” demonstrated that two continents were joined by a small and narrow strip of land. No one at the time knew whether it was possible to sail by ship from one ocean to the other.

Seven years after Balboa’s discovery, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed through the estrecho, now known as the Strait of Magellan, the waterway leading round from the tip of Argentina to Chile, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mar del Sur. The peaceful sea at the end of the passage he called the Mare Pacificum, or Pacific Ocean, the name still used today for the same ocean Balboa had dubbed the Mar del Sur.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Charles L. G. Life and Letters of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1941. Represents sources on the life of Balboa and gives both text and interpretations of his letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romoli, Kathleen. Balboa of Darién: Discoverer of the Pacific. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1953. The standard biography in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zweig, Stefan. The Tide of Fortune: Twelve Historical Miniatures. 1929. Translated by P. Eden and P. Cedar. New York: Viking Press, 1940. The first of Zweig’s miniatures is dedicated to the great moment when Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

1519-1522: Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1545-1548: Silver Is Discovered in Spanish America

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

Categories: History