La Villa de Los Santos
Four kilometers south of Chitré lies La Villa de Los Santos, which, as the name suggests, is in Los Santos province. Río La Villa, which the road crosses just northwest of town, marks the border between Los Santos and Herrera provinces.
La Villa de Los Santos is commonly known simply as La Villa. It’s also sometimes called Los Santos, which makes it easy to confuse with the whole province.
This tiny town has played a big role in Panama’s history through the years. Founded by the conquistadors, its moment of glory came on November 10, 1821. On that date a group of La Villa residents wrote a letter to Simón Bolívar, who had recently defeated the Spanish and won independence for Gran Colombia. In it, they complained of exploitation by the Spanish governor and voiced their wish to sign on to Bolívar’s revolution.
This Primer Grito de la Independencia (First Cry for Independence) was followed just 18 days later by Panama’s actual declaration of independence from Spain and union with Gran Colombia, decided at a meeting in Panama City.
The house in which this letter was signed is now a museum, where each year La Villa commemorates the primer grito, also known as La Grita de La Villa (The Cry of La Villa) with a solemn ceremony attended by dignitaries, often including the president of Panama.
The area’s history goes much deeper than that, though. Indigenous peoples used nearby Cerro Juan Díaz, a hill at the edge of the Río La Villa, both as a village and as a burial and ceremonial ground off and on for 1,800 years, from 200 B.C. until the arrival of the Spanish. There’s an archaeological dig at the site, but it’s not set up for tourists.
Ornaments made from gold, shells, pearls, and the like have been excavated, along with a more grisly find: human jawbones from which the teeth were pried (postmortem, thankfully). Because teeth with holes drilled in them have been found at other sites, it’s believed the missing teeth were used to make grim necklaces.
The main town of La Villa de Los Santos consists of just a few blocks of homes and businesses, some quite old and well-preserved, on the northeast side of the Chitré–Las Tablas road. Places to stay and eat are in the newer suburban area directly across from town, on the southeast side of the road.
Getting to La Villa de Los Santos
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition