This is a guide to the sights of Panama Viejo, with information from the official website at www.patronatopanamaviejo.org and other sources. The numbers refer to those printed on the maps provided at the site.

Although there is not a lot to see at the ruins of Panama Viejo, it was an immensely important place in history. The city was where much of the gold and silver raided from Peru was unloaded before it was hauled across the isthmus on mules to depart on Spain-bound ships.

The Welsh pirate Henry Morgan was responsible for the sack of Panama in 1671, as after his men defeated the local militia, the city was burned down. One story says Morgan started the fire that burned the city, another says the city Governor ordered the destruction.

For the next three centuries, beams and stone blocks of the abandoned city served as a convenient source of building materials. Around 1950 the squatter settlements on the outskirts of Panama City reached the ruins, and the remains were dismantled and overrun.

In 1976, Panama’s government declared the ruins a protected site, and then in 1997 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Casco Viejo.

Panama Viejo is just to the east of the main city of Panama, reachable on several bus routes or by taxi.

History

  • 1519 – Spanish Conquistador Pedrarías Dávila arrived at the fishing village of Panama
  • The site was at the narrowest part of the isthmus, between rivers Algarrobo and Abajo
  • Indigenous people spoke Cueva, but not much more is known about them, and they were wiped out within 40 years (recent archaeological digs have unearthed artefacts shedding light on this ancient culture)

Historians agree that Panama means “abundance,” but whether it is abundance of fish, butterflies, or some other plentiful flora or fauna is still open to debate

  • 1521 – Spanish king, Ferdinand of Aragon, bestowed Panama with formal city status in an effort to secure the mainland of the Americas, then called Tierra Firme
  • Originally called Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá
  • First European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas
  • Also handled products of the mines in the province of Veraguas, as well as the products from the pearl fisheries in the Bay of Panama
  • In 1539 and 1563, the city suffered a number of fires which destroyed parts of it but did not impede the city’s development
  • In 1610, the city reached a population of 5000, with 500 houses and convents, chapels, a hospital and the cathedral
  • Reached population of 10,000 in 17th century
  • At the beginning of the 17th century, the city was attacked several times by pirates and indigenous people from Darién
  • 1620 – an earthquake damaged many buildings in the city
  • 1644, the Great Fire destroyed 83 religious buildings, including the cathedral
  • 1670 – the city counted 10,000 inhabitants
  • 1671 – burnt down by Welsh pirate Henry Morgan and then abandoned
  • 1673 – new city established at Casco Antiguo site

The Panama Canal was opened to inter-oceanic traffic on August 15, 1914, the anniversary of the founding of Old Panama in 1519.

General Layout of Panama Viejo

  • Founded on a coastal bar alongside a shallow port
  • Centre of power located in a complex ringed by timber ramparts and separated from the city proper by a moat (customs house, royal treasury, a prison and the Governor’s house)
  • Best houses and most of the convents were built along the waterfront, in a north-south grid plan
  • Common houses were to the north and northwest with no planning – there are foundations scattered along crooked lanes
  • Churches and convents represented all of the major Catholic religious orders – the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits and Augustines

Panama Viejo Architecture

  • The façade of the Convento de la Merced pictured above was moved stone by stone from Panama Viejo in 1680
  • The churches were the most outstanding buildings. All were rectangular, with stone outer walls, timber roofs, internal wooden supports and a lack of towers. The adjoining convents had inner courts surrounded by wooden galleries, and the larger ones had enclosed gardens and orchards.
  • Most of the better houses were built of timber and placed wall to wall, with small inner courts, open-air kitchens and separate wings for the servants. Some had ground-floor galleries and balconies, and most had plain exterior walls. A few of the fancier homes were built of stone and their ruins remain.
  • The lots tended to be narrow, so the houses often consisted of two or three stories
  • The poor had far simpler dwellings, usually thatched huts built with inexpensive materials such as reeds