I’m often surprised when I talk to Panama vacation-goers about what’s on the agenda for their time in Panama City. Many make their way to Gamboa, Casco Viejo, and the Amador causeway. These are all fantastic day-trips and should be on everyone’s short list. Few visitors, however, make time to visit one of my favorite destinations in Panama City: Panama Viejo.
A visit to Panama Viejo is like going back in time to a 16th century settlement. You’re transported to another era as you imagine the first residents of the city building the stone enclave one brick at a time, encountering all kinds of obstacles along the way – pestilence, earthquakes, and pirates – just to name a few. I often recommend Panama Viejo to those visiting Panama with children, because unlike the confines of a sterile museum, the site is open-air, allowing kids to run and play while picking up on some fascinating Panamanian history.
The History of Panama Viejo
The original city was founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila and was home to a population of around 100 people. Despite its humble beginnings, it was the first permanent settlement on the Pacific Ocean and an extremely strategic town in the exploration of Central and South America. The city became a starting point for expeditions to Peru as well as a hub of imports and exports – plenty of gold and silver bound for Spain made its way through Panama Viejo. The city remained reasonably peaceful through the late 1500s and grew to almost 5000 inhabitants. City residents enjoyed full-scale cathedrals, private homes, and an enclosed, protected settlement.
The tumultuous times for Panama Viejo began in the 17th century, when the city was attacked several times by pirates and groups of indigenous people from the Darién region. In 1671, the famed pirate Henry Morgan attacked the city with 1,400 men marching from the Caribbean coast across the jungle. Morgan’s force defeated the city’s militia then proceeded to sack Panama. During the melee, a fire began that ultimately destroyed the entire city. Morgan’s attack caused the loss of thousands of lives and Panama had to be rebuilt a few kilometers to the west on a new site: current-day Panama City.
The scattered ruins turn this area into a kind of historically-drenched city park. On the weekends, families stroll through the archways and down the grassy paths,enjoying a tranquil out-of-time respite from the hubbub of Panama City. There are no guard rails, placards, ropes or ribbons separating you from the past.
My favorite part of the tour is definitely the Cathedral of Our Lady of Asuncion. It reminds me of the great Romanesque churches of Italy, France and Spain, created in the most practical and utilitarian manner, yet awe-inspiring by the feat of its construction and the sheer strength of its stone. I can imagine the sense of security and peace its cross-shaped, stone-enforced walls brought the inhabitants of the city.
If you’re planning a stay in Panama City, I highly recommend making Panama Viejo your haven for a sunny Panama afternoon history lesson.
Panama Viejo is about a 20-minute drive from Panama City; it’s easiest to hail a cab from the city and arrange for them to stay for the duration of your visit (sometimes it’s harder to find cabs outside of the city center, and Panama Viejo is a bit off the beaten path).
When to Go
Late morning, to take advantage of cooler temperatures and to avoid the Panama City rush hour morning traffic.
What to Bring
Comfortable walking shoes and outdoorsy attire. Plan on a stroll through grassy fields taking in stunning views of both the Pacific Ocean accented by the ruins. Kids can run and play amongst some of Panama’s oldest standing stone walls and archways. The majority of the ruins can be accessed for free. There is a small museum and entryway to an old tower with impressive views. During my last trip, the fee was a staggering $3.