Greetings and salutations,
Welcome back to another installment from our recent travels to Panama. This week, I’ll take you to Panamá Viejo or “old Panama” where it all began so so so many years ago. We started the day at our AirBnB when we made our very first call ever for an Uber. I had downloaded the app to my phone a while back but never really had the occasion to use it, I now wonder why because it’s easy (after you get the hang of it), safer, and less expensive than a taxi at least in Panama City. We were counseled to use Uber or Lyft whenever we could since many of the taxis are notoriously dirty and often take advantage of tourists. Our ride arrived very quickly in a relatively new clean vehicle after we sent the signal and without delay deposited us at the entrance to Panamá Viejo located a few miles away from our apartment.
When we pulled up there was a group of World Youth Day pilgrims having their photo taken. They were from Columbia with the yellow, blue and red flag; Chile with the red, white and blue with the white star; and Paraguay with the red, white, and blue horizontal strips and the emblem in the middle. Most of the groups in town carried flags to identify their homeland. We saw and talked to a couple of groups from the US identified by the flag they were carrying.
After purchasing our entrance tickets to this UNSECO World Heritage Site, we toured the grounds and the very well done modern museum. Several of the photos below describe some of the history of both the colonization of Panama and the building and eventual destruction of Panamá Viejo.
Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, indigenous peoples lived for thousands of years in the area that would become Panamá Viejo. The city founded in 1519, is considered the oldest European settlement on the Pacific Ocean. Over the next 150 years or so, Panamá Viejo became the conduit for the very profitable gold and silver trade as well as the seat of government for much of Central America.
The Spaniards were not only interested in the riches they could extract from the ground, they were intent on converting the indigenous people to Catholicism. This was often done by force but gradually the indigenous peoples relented and became Catholics. Today about 85% of modern day Panamanians belong to the Catholic Church.
In 1671, the English buccaneer and pirate, Captain Henry Morgan landed on the Caribbean side of the country, marched between 1200-1400 troops across the isthmus and proceeded to attack the city. After driving off the Spanish forces and most of the 10,000 residents, the city was plundered and burned. There is some question if Morgan actually set fire to the city or if Panama’s governor at the time strategically placed kegs of gun powder in or near buildings with orders to blow them up in the event of a loss. Morgan got in trouble with the King of England because they had a treaty with Spain. Morgan was ordered back to London and arrested but never tried. He was later knighted by the King, go figure!
Having learned their lesson, the Spaniards moved their capitol to a safer, more strategic location, Casco Viejo, the topic of next weeks post.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Panamanian government recognized the historical value of Panamá Viejo and began efforts to preserve the remains of the ancient capital. This historic site offers tours in English upon request. Meet Marissa, a very pleasant local university student, who was assigned as our tour guide, explaining the history of the site and preservation work that is underway.
Marissa first showed us the plaza in front of the tower that once was part of the cathedral. It’s interesting to contrast the old tower against the modern buildings in the nearby neighborhood.
Many of the buildings have had some restoration to keep them from further decline. It’s believed that many of the stones and bricks were carted away to build other structures prior to its designation as a historic site.
Marissa shared that this remnant of a church is still used for weddings and other gatherings.
Not much is left of this building but it’s important to notice the modern causeway in the background. Since it was low tide, those in search of an adventure could walk all the way out to the bridge. Although intriguing, I resisted!
With so many out of town (and country for that matter) visitors, the historic site had actors dressed in period costumes performing living history reenactments among the historical ruins.
Marissa guided us to the tower that has undergone extensive renovation where the Spaniards were still keeping guard.
Here’s a photo of the plaza from the top floor of the tower. Note the modern Panama City in the background.
In the plaza, some of the actors were displaying merchandise for sale such as handmade jewelry, souvenirs, and snacks.
One couple was pressing and selling sugar cane juice flavored with lemon or orange. Marissa told us this drink would help to quench our thirst on a hot day. We tried the lemon and it was quite refreshing.
Nearby a musical group was playing for the crowd.
And a couple of people where showing off their costumes, one in the local dress and the other as a pirate, argh!
After a few hours of exploring the ruins and museum it was time to head back to our apartment. At the entrance, the gift shop was closed for a while and it was the only place to access the internet where we could call an Uber. What to do? Well if you look puzzled trying to figure out the next option, here comes Adrianna to the rescue! She’s originally from Spain and has been in Panama for about five years working at the historic site. Fluent in English, she offered to let us log on to her iPhone hotspot to connect with Uber. After a couple of minutes, our ride was on the way and she chatted with us until he arrived. A big shoutout to her for being so kind and helpful to a couple of seasoned American tourists!
If you ever find yourself in Panama City, a visit to Panamá Viejo should be on your list of things to do. Take an Uber, it’s only a few dollars and the easiest way to get there.
That evening, the sunset from our AirBnB was fantabulous! And the end to a great day. In this photo, look closely for the jumbotrons along the road set up for World Youth Day and the visit by Pope Francis.
Next up, more Panama with a visit to Casco Viejo.
Until then, happy travels.