The old town of Panama City, Casco Viejo, is, of course, old. But it’s not the original site of Panama City. The older old town, Panamá Viejo, is located a few kilometers away. It was founded in 1519 as Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá making Panama City the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast. It was one of the greatest and richest cities of the New World – until legendary pirate Henry Morgan sacked it in 1671 and reduced it to rubble. The city was then rebuilt in the Casco Viejo area.
The site of Panamá Viejo was once left to the elements but is now an enclosed archaeological site with a US$8 entrance fee. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site along with Casco Viejo. There are two entrances – one starting with a museum about the site and another jumping right into the ruins. To be completely honest, there’s not much left to see. You have to use your imagination. If you’re capable of doing that, you will be in awe standing in what was once a great city for over 150 years. For a good overview of what you’re looking at, there are plaques at each building explaining their function and importance.
I recommend starting at the museum. You’ll be able to get an overview of the city and have a bit more appreciation for it. It explains the history of the city, its significance, and its downfall. There is also a scale model of the city as it was before it was destroyed in 1671.
From the museum, a path follows the shoreline to the ruins. You can get a good glimpse of the natural defenses of the city. There were no walls, but thick forests and mangroves provided good protection until 1671.
You can also turn around and have a good view of the modern city skyline.
The first ruin on the road is of Iglesia de La Merced. It was a 1500 square meter church and convent built in the early 1600s.
Next is Iglesia de San Francisco. This was one of the largest religious complexes in the city at 5000 m². It included a large convent as well as the church.
Hospital San Juan de Díos was a large building built after 1585. It included a church and military hospital.
Iglesia de la Concepción and a small cistern are right next to the hospital. The church, started in 1640, is one of the most complete buildings in the archaeological complex although it was unfinished in 1671. The original church was built in 1604 and was destroyed by an earthquake in 1621. This complex was the only religious complex for females in the entire city.
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, which was a huge complex of 5000 m², is next. A few of the walls are standing but not much more. It was built in 1610 and often served as the cathedral. It was used mainly for conversion of the indigenous and for education.
Continuing along a path shaded by trees, you’ll come to Plaza Mayor. This was the main square of old Panama City. To the left are Casas de Terrín. Directly ahead is Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and its rebuilt tower with the Cabildo (town hall) to the right.
The huge hall of the cathedral, which was originally built in 1535 and rebuilt in 1626, leaves a visitor wondering what it might have looked like, but the reconstructed tower is the real highlight.
The tower has a modern wooden staircase built to take you to the top for some fantastic views of the city and of the entire archaeological site. Not surprisingly, it was also used as a lookout for enemy invaders. There are 115 steps and three levels, each with information plaques.
The Casas de Terrín were constructed in 1600 by Francisco Terrín, one of the most powerful men in the city.
Nearby is the Casa Alarcón. It was built in 1590 and originally housed bishops. It was later purchased by Pedro de Alarcón, a wealthy citizen, in 1640. The house was 900 m².
The Iglesia de Santo Domingo was founded in 1571 and built in several phases. It was small but centrally located.
The Casa de los Genoveses served as the city’s slave market. It was owned by a pair of Genoese merchants who trafficked African slaves. The Casas Reales (Royal Houses) were not too far away. They consisted of the Royal Treasury, governor’s house, prison, and was separated from the rest of the city by a moat.
Outside of the archeological complex on the outskirts of the old city are the Iglesia de San José and the Puente del Rey (King’s Bridge). I didn’t visit either of them.
To get to Panamá Viejo, a taxi from El Cangrejo shouldn’t be more than US$5. There are also buses that run down Avenida Balboa labeled “Panamá Viejo”.