panama viejo ruins, panama city, panama
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 in 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 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 offer a window into Panama's rich cultural history. They are scattered across 70 acres (28 hectares) and include 19 different historical sites. (You can view the sites on this map, though the site's content is limited to Spanish. Under the illustration is a list of corresponding names.)
The grounds are clean, uncluttered, and manicured, with well-defined walking paths connecting relevant sites, making it easy to move around. The path is predominantly flat and measures approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) in length. The open areas separating the ruins consists primarily of grass/moss. If you wish to meander through those areas, proceed slowly and with caution because there are a lot of divots and stones concealed under the grass.
Many of Colonial City's most meaningful buildings remain in some form. Most structures are well-preserved and display descriptive text in English and Spanish. While some signs are a bit weathered, you should have no problem reading them. Several ruins, around archways and windows, have been reinforced with red, man-made bricks to ensure their structural integrity; the original structures are stone and mortar. You should have no difficulties differentiating between the two.
The Cathedral, measuring nearly 100 ft. (30 meters) in height, is preeminent and the best-preserved of its buildings and 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 and 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. Plaques in English and Spanish reside 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 midway between the entrance and the Cathedral; it's off to the left. Though not as well-preserved as the Cathedral, it is the only other structure in its original form. There are two areas of interest inside the convent. To the right, an entrance leads you into two adjoining rooms. To the left, a staircase leads you upstairs, where you'll encounter better views and several plaques referencing the convent and its restoration. As part of the rehabilitation process, they installed a wooden-plank floorboard and an artificial roof.
The Panama Viejo Museum resides alongside the Cathedral,and contains a wealth of information about 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. One room contains 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 on its own. You should allocate 45-60 minutes to see it all.
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, just before the entrance. From there, it is a short walk. To return to the Cinta Costera or Albrook Bus Terminal, you need to cross the street at the corner/curve (to the left of the ticket window when departing) and take any bus that reads "Albrook."
Before the entrance, off to the right, is a two-story souvenir center where vendors sell indigenous arts and crafts. Following the ticket window, to the left, is a bookstore/library.
The trip from the entrance to the Cathedral consists of a short walk on a flat, gravel/pebble road. If you prefer not to walk, there is a free shuttle service. The vehicle resembles a large, open golf cart and accommodates 16-20 passengers, allowing you to hop on/hop off at any time; it is in perpetual motion, ferrying visitors between the entrance and the cathedral. There is no minimum number of visitors required. Even if you arrive alone, the shuttle service will accommodate you.
All but a few of the ruins reside along on the left side of the gravel road.