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