Most of La Villa de Los Santos ’s few sights surround Parque Simón Bolívar, the town plaza. Unless a festival has taken over the town, which happens pretty frequently, visitors can see La Villa’s attractions in about an hour.
La Villa’s church, sometimes spelled Iglesia de San Atanacio, was declared a national monument in 1938, though what’s inside is more impressive than the building itself. It has a huge main altar, an ornate wooden affair in gold and blue that was erected in 1733. That makes it older than the current church, whose beginnings date from 1773.
The altar and other fixtures recently underwent a major restoration. (The decaying church building itself has not.) Among the church’s other features is a tall, fantastically ornate archway, also erected in 1733, that is covered with gold arabesques and splashes of reds and blues. It looks almost Chinese. The church is in the center of town, next to the plaza.
This little museum (tel. 966-8192, 8:30 a.m.– 4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 9 a.m.–noon Sun.) is on the northwest side of the church plaza. As is so often the case with Panama’s museums, its name (The Museum of Nationality) is far grander than its offerings. Ostensibly tracing the history of the area from its earliest days to its role as the first town in Panama to call for independence from Spain, in reality it makes the most it can with a few scraps of history and little explanation of their significance.
The museum is installed in the house where the town leaders signed their famous letter to Bolívar, declaring they wanted in on his revolutionary movement. The centerpiece of the museum is a display commemorating La Grita de La Villa. It attempts to replicate the room where the letter was signed, using furniture from the period. Other than that, the displays consist mainly of a few pieces of pre-Columbian pottery, some random 18th-century religious objects, rusty conquistador swords, and the like.
This school for students of folklore is run by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC). While not set up to receive tourists, it’s housed in a pretty, old blue and white building that’s worth a quick peek. Lucky visitors might hear, through the upstairs balcony doors, the strains of students practicing traditional music. It’s a couple of blocks southwest of the plaza, toward the highway.