Crumbling ruins are all that's left of Old Panama (sometimes called Panamá la Vieja), the country's first major Spanish settlement, which was destroyed by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.
Panamá Viejo was founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedroarias Dávila. Built on the site of an indigenous village that had existed for centuries, the city soon became a busy colonial outpost. Expeditions to explore the Pacific coast of South America left from here. When Francisco
Pizarro conquered the Incan empire, the copious gold and silver he stole arrived in Panamá Viejo, where it was loaded onto mules and taken across the isthmus to Spain-bound ships. For the next 150 years Panamá Viejo was a vital link between Spain and the gold and silver mines of South America. Year after year, ships came and went; mule trains carried precious metals to Panama's Caribbean coast and returned with Spanish goods bound for the southern colonies. The city's merchants, royal envoys, and priests accumulated enough gold to make a pirate drool. At the time of Morgan's attack, Panamá Viejo had a handful of convents and churches, one hospital, markets, and luxurious mansions. The fires started during the pirate attack reduced much of the city to ashes within days.
The paucity of the remaining ruins is not due entirely to the pirates' looting and burning: the Spanish colonists spent years dismantling buildings after they decided to rebuild their city, now known as Casco Viejo, on the peninsula to the southwest, which was deemed easier to defend against attack. The Spanish carried everything that could be moved to the new city, including the stone blocks that are today the walls of the city's current cathedral and the facade of the Iglesia de la Merced. Panamá Viejo is part of all city tours, which can be a good way to visit the site, if you get a knowledgeable guide. There are also sometimes guides at the Plaza Mayor who provide free information in Spanish.
The collections of walls that you'll pass between the Visitor Center and the Plaza Mayor are all that remain of several convents, the bishop's palace, and the San Juan de Dios Hospital. The Plaza Mayor is approximately 1 km from the visitor center, so you may want to drive, or take a cab. Try to visit this site before 11:00 am, or after 3:00 pm.
Centro de Visitantes. Start your visit to Panamá Viejo at the Centro de Visitantes —a large building on the right as you enter Panamá Viejo on Vía Cincuentenaria. From ATLAPA, that street heads inland for 2 km through a residential neighborhood before arriving at the ruins, which are on the coast. Once you see the ocean again, look for the two-story visitor center on your right. It holds a large museum that chronicles the site's evolution from an indigenous village to one of the wealthiest cities in the Western Hemisphere. Works on display include indigenous pottery made centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, relics of the colonial era, and a model of what the city looked like shortly before Morgan's attack. Keep that model in mind as you explore the site, since you need a good dose of imagination to evoke the city that was once home to between 7,000 and 10,000 people from the rubble that remains of it. Vía Cincuentenaria, 2 km east of ATLAPA, Panamá Viejo. 507/226–1757 for Visitor Center. $3 museum, $4 for ruins, $6 for both. Tues.–Sun. 9–5.
Plaza Mayor. Vía Cincuentenaria curves to the left in front of what was once the city's Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza), a simple cobbled square backed by a stone tower that is the only part of Panamá Viejo that has undergone any significant renovation. If you have previously paid admission at the Visitor Center, then you will need to show that ticket, or you can buy a separate ticket to enter the plaza alone. Climb the metal staircase inside the Torre de la Catedral (Cathedral Tower)—the former bell tower of Panama's original cathedral—for a view of the surrounding ruins. The structure just south of the tower was once the city hall; walls to the north and east are all that remains of homes, a church, and a convent. The extensive ruins are shaded by tropical trees, which attract plenty of birds, so the nature and scenery are as much of an attraction as the ancient walls. Av. Cincuentenario, about 3 km (2 mi) east of ATLAPA, Panamá Viejo. 507/226–8915. www.panamaviejo.org. Tower and ruins $4; Plaza Mayor and visitor center $6. Daily 9–5.
Mercado de Artesanía. Next to the Centro de Visitantes is the Mercado de Artesanía, where dozens of independent vendors sell their wares in shops and stands. You can buy many traditional crafts here, including Emberá baskets and Kuna-made molas. Prices vary, but there are some good buys. Av. Cincuentenaria, next to Centro de Visitantes, Panamá Viejo. 507/560–0535. Daily 9–4.
Vía Cincuentenaria, Panama City, Panama