Exploring Panamá Viejo in Panamá
Located approximately 3.5 miles east of Panama City are the crumbling ruins of one of the oldest and largest Spanish settlements on the Pacific Coast. Known as Panamá Viejo, this former city was built in a grid-style layout much like other Spanish colonial cities in Central America. Since Panama was also home to all of the major Catholic orders of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and the Jesuits, the city naturally included their churches and convents. Its ancient remains and dark stone stand in stark contract to the high-rise luxury apartments and modern skyscrapers of the banking and commercial district, which are all within eyesight from this location.
|Photo by Randal Sheppard|
Founded in 1519 by conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila, it was originally home to a number of indigenous tribes that date back to 500 B.C. Within two years after its establishment, the settlement had expanded enough to become an official city recognized by the King of Spain. Subsequently, it served as a convenient starting point for many expeditions in search of gold and treasure in South America. Although it survived an earthquake in 1620 as well as a fire in 1644, it was eventually abandoned in 1671 after being pillaged by Henry Morgan and his band of pirates. The attacked left the city in ruins and forced its survivors to relocate toward modern-day Panama City.
|Photo by Mel Panama|
Due to the reconstruction in the new location, many of the former structures of Panamá Viejo were dismantled piece by piece to provide the stones toward the "new" buildings in the historic San Felipe district. Actually, the repurposing of the stones continued well into the 20th century, especially as Panama City began it eastward expansion. Fortunately, a number of public and private entities had realized the importance and cultural value of the location. The ruins were officially declared a protected historic site in 1976 and added as a "UNESCO World Heritage Site" in 1997.
|Photo by Ken Mayer|
Getting to Panamá Viejo
The two best ways to get to the ruins is by bus or taxi. You can catch any bus marked "Panamá Viejo" or "Via Cincuentenario." Taxis are more convenient and the fares are usually around US$5. If you are short on time and headed toward the airport, you can actually view the ruins by asking the taxi driver to take the airport via Panamá Viejo. Although you view is from the car, you can still see a good portion of the ruins (if you driver slows down enough).
What to See at Panamá Viejo
Visitor Center: The best way to begin exploring the site is to first stop by the impressive on-site visitor center and museum (www.panamaviejo.org). It includes a wide variety of exhibits that cover the entire history of the site back to its beginning as a tiny tribal village in 500 B.C. For those interested in learning even more, there are many lectures on a wide array of historical topics. But keep in mind that they are generally in Spanish.
Plaza Mayor: Since the ruins are not fenced in, they can be seen at anytime. But one section requires an entrance fee: the Plaza Mayor. Its most important attraction is the remains of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. This cathedral was built between 1619 and 1626, and it includes a three-story tall, square-stone bell tower that also served as a watchtower for the city. The best feature of this historic structure is the modern stairway that leads to the top. It offers a spectacular view of the surroundings and the overall layout of the site. Located adjacent to the tower is the former city hall, known as the Cabildo de la Ciudad on its right.
Casa Alarcón: Located north of the cathedral is one of the best-preserved ruins of the site. Also known as Casa del Obispo, it was a large, three-story private residence built in the 1640s for the bishop. Although it is the most intact house in the site, it is still just a series of fragmented walls but it peaks the imagination of anyone who sees it.
|Photo by Mel Panama|
Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo: Just north of the Casa Alarcón is one of the best-preserved churches at the sight. It consists of a convent that was built in the 1570s and a church was constructed later in the 1590s. Again, just a portion of it remains but you can get a sense of the church's former grandeur.
Iglesia y Convento de La Merced: Located just a short walk west on the Av. Cincuentenario is this church and convent built by Mercedarian monks in the early 17th century. This church actually survived Henry Morgan's burning of the city only because he used it as his command headquarters. It was once considered one of Panama's most beautiful churches. In addition to the Henry Morgan connection, it is also known as the site where conquistador Francisco Pizarro took his last communion before departing on his infamous journey and conquest of Peru in 1531.
|Photo by Ken Mayer|Bridges: The site includes two significant bridges: the Puente del Matadero, and the Puente del Rey. Both are similar in overall design but the Puente del Rey is more important. Meaning "Bridge of the King", it can be seen from the Av. Cincuentenario near the northern edge of the site. It was built in 1617, which actually makes it one of the oldest bridges in all of Central America.
Mercado Nacional de Artesanías: Finally, before you complete your visit, make sure to stop by the National Artisan's Market. Conveniently located next to the ruins, it is one of the best places to purchase arts and crafts and every type of souvenir imaginable. It is open daily from approximately 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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