Panamá la Vieja
Known in English as Old Panama, the extensive ruins on Panamá la Vieja (8:30 A.M.–6:30 P.M. Tues.–Sun., US$4 adults, US$2 students) are all that’s left of the original Panama City. The ruins are on the eastern outskirts of the modern-day city, an easy drive east along Vía Cincuentenario. The Corredor Sur arcs right by it, making for an especially impressive sight at night, when the ruins are illuminated. Note that the site is commonly known as Panamá Viejo, though that’s not its proper name.
The city was founded on August 15, 1519, by the notorious conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila, better known as Pedrarias, and burned down during a battle with the equally notorious Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. After that disaster, the Spanish moved Panama City to a more defensible site a few kilometers southwest, in the area now known as Casco Viejo.
Since most of Panamá la Vieja was made of wood, only the partial remains of a relatively few stone buildings were left standing. Two of the best-preserved structures are near the main entrance.
The first is the cathedral tower, which is largely intact. It’s one of Panama’s national symbols and was built between 1619 and 1626. The cathedral was known officially as La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, a name that was later transferred to its replacement in Casco Viejo.
The other well-preserved structure, a bit farther in, is the Casa Alarcón, also known as the Casa del Obispo (Bishop’s House). Built in the 1640s, it was a three-story building with a wooden top floor. It’s the largest and most intact house on the site, but it’s still just fragments of walls. There are other ruins worth exploring, but try not to wander too far—the more distant ruins border a neighborhood plagued by crime and gangs.
For that same reason, I also recommend visitors come only during regular opening hours, even though parts of the site can be explored anytime. It’s also the only time visitors can climb to the top of the cathedral tower, something that has only recently become possible.
A restoration project is buttressing the crumbling, rough-hewn stone walls with red bricks completely out of keeping with the original architecture. There are now signs in English and Spanish that explain the history of some of the ruins.
There are lots of souvenir kiosks in the buildings next to the ruins that sell devil masks, molas (hand-crafted blouses), Ngöbe-Buglé necklaces, and various other trinkets. There’s a cafeteria inside as well. An ATP information booth is on the premises, but you’ll have a better chance turning up lost pieces of eight than finding anyone actually working there.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition