In Panama City, centuries’ old buildings stand in the shadows of glass skyscrapers and high-priced condos. It’s a city with one foot stepping into the future and one grounded in its colonial past. And the ruins of Panama Viejo (Old Panama) is the place to go in Panama City for a glimpse into the city’s origins.
Founded in 1519 by the Spanish, Panama City is credited as being the first European Settlement along the Pacific Coast of the Americas and was the staging ground for Spain’s eventual exploration and colonization of South America. As Spain’s riches in the Americas grew, the city also served as the embarkation point for galleons full of gold, silver, and other valuable resources bound for Europe.
Unfortunately, a series of fires and earthquakes in the 17th century devastated portions of the city. And due to its value as an exporter of precious materials, the city became the target of raids by pirates and was ultimately sacked several times. The end came with the conquest of Panama Viejo by famed English pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. What couldn’t be plundered was destroyed or left abandoned. Over the centuries the Panama City we know today gradually grew outside the ruins of this once prized city of riches.
Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Panama Viejo is located in the southwestern portion of the city, in the neighborhood of Parque Lefevre. It’s not to be confused with Casca Viejo, which was established later in the 17th century and serves as a functioning historic district today.
Panama Viejo is an administered and maintained historical complex known as the Panamá Viejo Historical Monument Complex. Their museum covers the history of the site from the pre-Colombian era to the colonial. Within the museum is a mock up of what the city looked like in the 16th century, along with artifacts found at the site during archaeological excavations.
Be sure to walk the circuit around the complex. It includes the original ruins of houses of worship, residences, and administrative buildings. This 1.5-kilometer trail is easily done in about two hours and can conclude with a trip to the top of the cathedral tower lookout. This vantage point affords panoramic views of both the old and new city. Tip: be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water.
Experience the old and new that Panama City has to offer with a Panama Canal cruise from Holland America Line.