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St Joseph Church

Panama City

Panama Viejo




Panama Viejo was the first European city built on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It was founded in 1519 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila. The city was to become an important site for the shipment of gold and silver back to Europe, which made it attractive to pirates and was consequently subject to a number of raids. On 28th January 1671, an attack was instigated by Captain Henry Morgan who, with 1,400 men marched through the jungle from the Caribbean coast and brought about its total destruction. Today the ruins of the site are a major tourist attraction.

Panama Viejo was the first European city built on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It was founded in 1519 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila, although there is evidence of Pre-Columbian habitation at the site.  The site soon became one of the most important trade centres in the Americas, especially for gold and silver. 

Following its creation, it was to become the base for various expeditions into Peru and the main centre from were gold and silver was to be dispatched from the new world to Europe. In 1521, the settlement was promoted to the status of a city.

The city had parts destroyed by fire in 1539 and in 1563 but despite this it continued to grow reaching a population of 5000 by 1610. At that time, it had a cathedral, convents, chapels and a hospital.

A number of other misfortunes affected the city, at the beginning of the 17th century, the city began to come under attack from pirates. On 2nd May 1620 an earthquake resulted in the damage of many of the city’s buildings and on 21st February 1644 the Great Fire destroyed many more buildings including the cathedral. The city was also subject to a slave rebellion.

The fact that it held such an important position with regard to the shipment of gold and silver back to Europe made it vulnerable as this made it particularly attractive to pirates and was subject to a number of raids. This culminated on 28th January 1671 with an attack by Captain Henry Morgan. with 1,400 men who had marched through the jungle from the Caribbean coast.

This resulted in the destruction of the city and the deaths of thousands of people. Although it is not clear if the city was actually destroyed by Morgan or if that was the result on the city’s commander exploding his gunpowder reserves before they fell into enemy hands, resulting in a fire that destroyed the city.

Morgan was later apprehended for the attack and charged with this in England, as it had violated a peace treaty between Spain and England, although Morgan was able to prove that he didn’t know about the treaty so was subsequently released.

Following its destruction, the city was not rebuilt, and a new city was founded 8km to the west which was to become known as Casco Viejo.

Today the ruins of Panama Viejo are a major touristic attraction and contains the remains of houses, administrative and religious buildings including the cathedral, churches, abbeys and convents and a hospital. Each building displays a sign in both Spanish and English providing details of the buildings. The site has a visitor’s centre and a museum displaying artefacts and telling the story of the city and its destruction. 

The most prominent building of the site is the tower of the cathedral.  The cathedral was originally built in 1540 of timber, on the same site on which the current cathedral stands. In 1619 it was built of stone and stands on a stone mound east of the Main Plaza.  Its tower is 30 metres high and apart from holding the bells, also served as a lookout tower. It has been subject to a conservation project since 2001 and visitors are able to go up the tower and look out over the site.

Excavations have also been carried out within the cathedral and have uncovered a number of graves which have revealed details of the burials of those days.

Located next to the cathedral and separated from it by a narrow aisle was the City Hall, consisting of a portico on the ground floor with two additional floors, it was built in 1620 and 1630. 

The colonial town was arranged on a grid system, similar to planned settlements of the time in Europe. Modern non-destructive techniques have been able to reveal plans of the layout and the road systems detailing their width and composition.

It is known that the Dominican friars established themselves in Panama in 1566 and that a convent was established in the city in 1571.  Originally built of timber it was not until the beginning of the 17th century that it was started to be converted to masonry, something, due to the lack of finance, was to take many years. The remains of this building can be visited.

Leading off the main plaza was one of the main roads which contained a number of convents (abbeys) such as the Jesuits and Franciscans. 

The old city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997 due to it containing “an exceptional testimony of colonial town planning; while the ruins of its cathedral, convents and public buildings highlight the unique technological and stylistic characteristics”. It also offers invaluable information on a variety of aspects of social life and the economy at the height of Spanish imperial power. 


Ruins of the site

Cathedral Bell Tower

On Site Museum

              All  Photographs were taken by and are copyright of Ron Gatepain

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