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Posted by on Aug 27, 2011 | 17 comments

Panama La Vieja

As you guys know, I am a hardcore history lover.  I have already told you about that time pirate Henry Morgan (yes the guy famous for lending his name to certain rum brand) attacked the town of Portobelo in Panama’s Caribbean coast.  Then, Morgan took control of the San Lorenzo Fort (built to protect the mouth of the Chagres River) and used the river to move his men to the first Spaniard settlement in the Pacific Coast (Panama City).  In this case, the pirate attack was successful.  Morgan and his men were able to seize and sack the city.  He stayed in the area about a month before returning with all the Panamanian gold and silver to England.

So, if I showed you Portobelo and the San Lorenzo Fort, don’t you think it is time to show you what was left in the city after the attack? 

Panama City was founded in 1519.  Henry Morgan attack took place in 1671.  After that fatidic assault, the city was moved about 1 mile (2 km) to the Southwest for defensive reasons.  What is left of the original city is known as Panama La Vieja or Panama Viejo (Old Panama).  The ruins of the old city were left abandoned for many years.  In 2003, UNESCO declared the area World Heritage Site.  Today, non-profit groups take care of the remains and ensure the area is appropriate for visitors.

There is not a lot left of the city.  Most of the original buildings were made of wood.  A big fire devoured the city during the pirate attack (some scholars affirm the Spaniards started the fire to confuse the pirates. Others say the pirates burned the city).

Cathedral Tower


The main attraction is the Cathedral Tower, which stands 30 meters high.  There is an observatory at the top of the tower and visitors are welcome to climb to the top.  Don’t worry.  The tower has been reinforced with modern materials and is perfectly safe to enter the structure.   The views from the top are amazing.  Views of modern Panama City wait for you (Panama City is probably the most modern city in Central America).  That is not all.  You can also take a look at the Panama Bay and the multiple islands resting in its waters.  This is a not miss if you visit the ruins.

Another View of the Cathedral (Can you spot me?)


Part of the old city ruins


The other well preserved structure in the complex is known as Casa Alarcon or Casa del Obispo (Bishop’s House).  Even though it is the largest and most intact house on the site, expect to see only fragments of walls.  Other structures in different states of conservation can be found in the area (nothing major, really). 

There are many souvenir kiosks on the building next to the ruins.  In there, you can find devil masks, molas, Indian made jewelry and other traditional crafts.

Me in front of the Bishop's House


Let me make clear that the Cathedral and the Bishop’s House can be found in the Panama La Vieja visitor’s center or archeological site (not really sure what is the official name).  The original city extended beyond the limits of this area.  Therefore, you can find other ruins around the “official and enclosed” site.  For example, a half kilometer walk can take you to the well preserved Concepcion Convent.  There are wall fragments and small bridges in the surrounding areas.

Cathedral Tower and Crumbling Walls


Concepcion Convent


The site museum is also outside the ruins or archeological site.  It is recommended to visit the structure if you are interested in learning more about the history of the place.  If you wish to visit the museum and the ruins, make sure to buy the ticket that includes both entrances.  It is cheaper than buying tickets for the two attractions separately. 

Climbing the Cathedral Tower


The museum is a modern, two story structure with interesting displays.  During the restoration works, archeologists have found all sort of Spanish utensils dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.  The most interesting thing is that archeologists have unearthed bones from the Indians that used to inhabit the area before the Spaniards (including a female skeleton buried with 9 male skulls).  All of these findings are displayed at the museum.

View of Modern Panama City from the Old Cathedral Tower


There are also displays of how Panama La Vieja looked before Morgan’s attack.  Unfortunately, there are no English speaking guides. If you understand Spanish, make sure a guide show you around. 

Colorful Mola


For me, it was significant to visit the ruins of Panama La Vieja.  Learning about past events while on the site where the events occurred is one of the reasons I love to travel.  And, I am not kidding you.  I even saw some pirates around the ruins (see photo below).  Well, I guess they are lovelier than Morgan’s men (or even Jack Sparrow).

Pirates invading Panama La Vieja


Have you visited Panama La Vieja?  If not, did you know about the place? Let me know in the comments section below.


  1. Panama was one of those countries that surprised me, I didn’t think it would be as interesting or pretty as it really is.
    Ayngelina recently posted..What backpack should I get?My Profile

    • Ayngelina,
      I knew it was going to be great but not as awesome as it is. A must visit country for nature and culture lovers.

    • Scott,
      That is why I asked if you guys can spot me!! The dress I used that day (pure coincidence) blended well with the surroundings. I didn’t even notice I was on some of the pictures I took that day. My husband told me.
      Ruth recently posted..Essential Flying Tips for Travelers: PlanningMy Profile

  2. Very interesting background. I’m glad that the old town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site so that it will be maintained. Nice photos of the ruins!
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Hemingway: Chapter OneMy Profile

    • Like you said, granting the place UNESCO World Heritage has helped a lot with the conservation efforts. A place that was abandoned for years is now a site for numerous cultural and social (weddings) events. Good to know the people of Panama have learned to appreciate the ruins.
      Ruth recently posted..Essential Flying Tips for Travelers: PlanningMy Profile

  3. I visited while I stayed in Panama City. I have to say I wasn’t that impressed, so I was happy I explored by car (a local family drove me by on a rainy day) instead of taking the bus there on a nice day. I’m just not that into ruins. But I just learned much more from this post than I knew when I actually visited 🙂
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..My Decision to Go HomeMy Profile

    • Stephanie,
      I know the ruins are not the greatest and grandest. However, they offerer a good glimpse of Panama’s history. Plus, like I said, I needed to visit the place after visiting the Caribbean side fortifications. I learned a lot about the place because I took a free tour on the site museum. Unfortunately, they don’t have guides who speak English.
      Ruth recently posted..Essential Flying Tips for Travelers: PlanningMy Profile

  4. Thanks for the little history lesson it was quite interesting and for helping to psych me up more for my upcoming panama trip.

    • Are you going to Panama? When is that happening? What areas are you visiting?

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