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Located just east of downtown Panama City along the water’s edge is Panama Viejo, or the Panama Viejo Historical Monument Complex as it is currently known.
It was the first location in Panama City. The Colonial City was founded by Spanish colonialist Pedrarias Davilá on August 15th, 1519, and is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific.
At one time, a thriving city, Panama Viejo benefited from the Portobelo trade fairs and Spain’s great bullion lifeline —shipments were said to pass through Panama en route from Peru’s silver mines to Europe. The city quickly became a primary hub for merchants and landowners, with a population that reportedly reached 10,000 by the mid-17th century. In 1671, Panama Viejo was destroyed during Sir Henry Morgan’s invasion and never rebuilt. It was abandoned for two centuries, during which time the city’s location shifted to what is known today as Casco Antiguo.
Declared a Historic Site in 1976, the ruins enjoy government protection. Since 1995, Panama Viejo Historical Monument Complex has been administered by the foundation Patronato Panama La Vieja. On July 5th, 2003, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee added the Panama Viejo Archaeological Site to the World Heritage list, joining Forts San Lorenzo and Portobelo.
The ruins at Panama Viejo serve as a window into Panama's rich history and are scattered across 70 acres (28 hectares), and include 18 different historical sites. Many of Colonial City’s most meaningful buildings remain in some form. The grounds are clean, uncluttered, and manicured, with well-defined paths connecting relevant sites, making it easy to move around. Most of the structures are well-preserved and display descriptive text in both English and Spanish. Some of the ruins have been reinforced with bricks and cement to ensure their structural integrity.
The Cathedral, measuring nearly 100 ft. (30 meters) in height, is preeminent and the best-preserved of its buildings. It is also the structure you will most likely want to view and photograph. Inside the Cathedral is a square, steel staircase that leads up to the lookout. There are three levels or platforms, each separated by eight flights of stairs; each flight consists of 5 short steps. Large, open windows on all four sides, at each level, offer panoramic views of the ruins and surrounding area, including Panama City. You’ll find plaques in English and Spanish on the walls at each level with information related to the Cathedral.
Another building worth mentioning is the “Conjunto Conventual de La Concepción,” which lies along the gravel road and midway between the entrance and Cathedral. While not as well-preserved as the Cathedral, it is the only other structure that retained its original form.
The walking path around the grounds is mostly flat and measures approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) in length. Depending on your physical condition and level of interest, 1-1.5 hours should be sufficient to see all there is to see.
The Panama Viejo Museum resides alongside the Cathedral. It contains a wealth of information relating to the Colonial City and the Isthmuses' first inhabitants. Exhibitions include photographs, paintings, digital presentations, and a vast array of authentic artifacts housed in glass enclosures. In one of the rooms, you’ll find a large, interactive reconstruction of the city. Overall, the museum is very well presented and a must-see for anyone visiting the ruins. It’s so good, it’s worth a visit all its own. You should allocate 45-60 minutes for your visit.
All Metro buses that read ”Panama Viejo” pass by the ruins. They depart regularly from the Albrook Bus Terminal, and their route takes them along the Cinta Costera and in front of Punta Paitilla. You will want to get off at the Coco Bay bus stop, which resides just before the entrance. From there, you can walk. To return to the Cinta Costera or Albrook Bus Terminal, you’ll need to cross the street and take any bus that reads “Albrook.”
Before the entrance, off to the right, is a two-story souvenir center where vendors sell indigenous sell arts and crafts. Immediately following the entrance, to the left, is a bookstore/library.
The trip from the entrance to the Cathedral consists of a short walk on a flat, gravel road. There are ruins scattered along the road on both sides. For those who prefer not to walk, there is a free shuttle service. In what resembles an open golf cart that accommodates 16-20 people, visitors can hop-on or hop-off at any time. There is no minimum number of visitors required, so even you arrive alone, the shuttle service will accommodate you.
panama viejo ruins, panama city, panama