Thursday, September 8, 2011

Exploring the Museums in Casco Viejo, Panama

After the city of Panama Viejo was destroyed by Henry Morgan and his band of pirates in 1671, the survivors (under the direct orders of the King of Spain) moved to a rocky peninsula on the Bahía de Panama to start all over again. By 1673, the new city was completed and it included a massive wall that made it much easier to protect against future invaders. As the city prospered, its population began to overflow the walls that once protected them and spread east into what is now modern-day Panama City.

But as Panama City continued to expand in the latter half of the 20th century, this area now known as Casco Viejo, continued had become reduced to just a small historic quarter with a once glorious past. With a loss of influence and prestige, it gradually fell into disrepair and began to disappear into history. But in 1997, Casco Viejo was declared a World Heritage Site and since then, a massive urban development project has painstakingly restored a portion of the approximately 800 buildings back into their former glory. Currently, the restoration project is still underway supported by both the government and private corporations.

Today, the district is known by several names: San Felipe, Casco Antiguo, and of course, Casco Viejo. It is the most picturesque and historically interesting part of Panama City. Everywhere you turn, the historic buildings display a combination of architectural styles that range from French and Spanish Colonial to Art Deco and Caribbea. With its charming plazas, beautiful churches, and excellent museums, this former walled city has easily become on the of the top tourist attractions in the city, second only to the Panama Canal. 

The Museums in Casco Viejo

Photo by Mel Ortega
Museo de Historia Panameña -  On the southwestern corner of the Plaza de la Independencia is the neoclassical Palacio Municipal that dates back to to 1910. It includes a small but impressive history museum on the second floor and its collection of paintings, documents and sculptures cover the entire history of Panama. The collection is grouped into three overall historical periods: Colonial (1501 to 1821), Departmental (1821 to 1903), and Republican (1903 to the present. It is a great place to learn about the country's history and it only takes about an hour. The museum is open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Museo del Canal Interoceánico - Located on the southeastern side of the Plaza de la Independencia is the Panama Canal Museum, established in 1997. For those who want to learn more about the Panama Canal, the exhibits in this museum include a wide array of photographs, videos, and documents (such as the original canal treaties) that cover the triumphs and tragedies of the canal from the first attempt by the French to the successful completion by the United States. All of the displays are in Spanish but English-speaking guides as well as audio tours are also available for a small additional fee. The building itself dates from 1874 and it has served many roles ranging from office space for the original French and U.S. Canal Companies to the main post office in 1912. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found at their website:

Photo by Casco Viejo Tourism
Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial - This small museum is located in the former chapel of the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo at Avenida A and Calle 3. Built in the second quarter of the 1700s, this historic building was fortunately restored in 1974 without destroying any of its original structure. The museum includes the most complete collection of colonial religious art in the country with pieces that range from 18th-century paintings and wood carvings to an engraved silver cross that dates back to the 16th century. What is most impressive is that many of the pieces in the collection actually survived the pillaging of Panama Viejo where they were once located. The museum is open from Tuesdays through Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Photo by Saphira
Museo de la Esmeralda - Located in a former bank on Calle 6 just north of the Plaza de la Independencia, this small museum covers the complete history of emeralds, its mining process and its lucrative industry. It even includes a replica of an emerald mine in the former bank's vault that you can enter and view (although children seem to enjoy it much more than adults). Admission to the museum is free, but the assumption is that you will be enticed to purchase something at the on-site emerald jewelry store before or after exploring the museum. The museum is open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.