Panama Viejo: Attacked and Sacked

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Dear Luke and Leia,

Today we had an interesting adventure to Panama Viejo, a city attacked and sacked by Henry Morgan, a British privateer. Quite conveniently, it is right next door to our apartment building.

Cathedral ruins in Panama Viejo, a city attacked and sacked
Also called Panama la Vieja, Panama Viejo has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its cultural significance as the first capital of Panama and because it was the first permanent European settlement in South America.

Why Panama Viejo was attacked and sacked

Model of Panama Viejo before Capt. Morgan attacked it
Museum model of Panama Viejo before Capt. Morgan attacked it

Panama Viejo is Old Panama, the original Panama City, built over 500 years ago. It is still obvious that the grounds of the city were stately and rather vast back then. As many as 8000 people once lived here.

Soon after it was built, Panama Viejo (back then it was called Panama) became an important port for the Spanish, who were in the process of conquering South America. All the gold they had stolen from the Incas in South America was brought there, then carried overland on the Camino Real to the Caribbean, where it was loaded on boats and brought to Spain. King Charles V of Spain awarded the city a coat of arms, and that was a big deal.

All that gold was way too tempting to ignore. On January 28, 1671, Captain Morgan attacked the city with 1,200 men, while the city was defended by 1,600 men. What might have seemed to be an evenly matched battled turned into a complete rout when Morgan’s group gained control of the high ground and wiped out the Spanish. Not wanting Morgan’s forces to occupy their city, the residents sacked it themselves and fled. Read more about the attack of Panama Viejo here.

They built a new community on a peninsula not far away, which we now call Casco Viejo. (Old Town. Haha – that’s something of a misnomer, isn’t it?)

They left behind some beautiful and interesting ruins, which we finally took the time to explore.

Panama Viejo Museum

Next to the historic site of Panama Viejo (and our apartment building) is the newly built museum complex. Being that we were playing tourist in our home town, we paid the admission and began there. We thought it would help give us more context as we explored the ruins, and we were right. It helps to study the diorama of the original city and gives you something to draw back on when you visit the ruins site.

The museum highlights the history of Panama Viejo

  • from its original founding in the early 1500s
  • to the attack and sack led by pirate/Captain Morgan (depends on who you ask!)
  • to the eventual move from this location to Casco Viejo, about 10 km to the west. 
Entrance to Panama Viejo Museum
Entrance to Panama Viejo Museum

Panama Viejo MuseumPanama Viejo Museum

Display at the Panama Viejo Museum
Looks like trouble ended this person’s life. Ouch.
Panama Viejo to Casco Viejo map with modern day Panama City
Panama Viejo to Casco Viejo map with modern day Panama City

Original cannon from Panama Viejo

Visiting the ruins of Panama Viejo

We are lucky I guess, because they are working to make the entire grounds a huge tourist attraction which they will call the Panama Viejo Historical Monument Complex. They are tearing up the streets around our building as we speak. By the time you get here you will probably have to pay admission to see anything, but right now we can freely walk around a lot of it any time we want. We never need to pay a fee unless we want to explore the area around the tower – like we do today..

Anyway, as I said, the grounds of Panama Viejo are extensive. It’s relaxing to walk through here under the cool, leafy canopy and hard to picture the mayhem when the city was actually being being attacked and sacked.

Other ruins at Panama Viejo

Old city wall on the edge of Panama ViejoGrounds of Panama ViejoThe historical complex

Maybe because it is part of a UNESCO site, but they have been doing a lot of excavation and restoration in the area. You need a ticket for the fenced-off area. It is worth it because it is pretty interesting, especially because there are informational plaques all around the area that explain a lot more. The two best preserved structures are the convent and the old cathedral tower. (The convent isn’t fenced off at the moment but Nana doubts that will last.)

Church in Panama ViejoSide of a church at Panama ViejoPanama ViejoRuins at Panama Viejo

Inside the standing church in Panama Viejo

View down from second floor of the church, Panama Viejo

The cathedral bell tower

The cathedral stood at the city’s main square, and its bell tower is still standing. We think it will be the icon for the complex.

Amazing that columns and arches still stand at Panama ViejoTop of the tower at Panama Viejo

Cathedral Tower at Panama Viejo
Remains of the courtyard in front of the Cathedral, Panama Viejo

Of course, our favorite thing is to climb the tower. I’m sure you would like it too. From the top of the bell tower you can easily see the tall buildings of Panama City in one direction and get a bird’s-eye view of the bits and pieces left of the old Panama capital in another.

Looking up to the top of the tower, Panama Viejo

View of the New Panama City from inside the tower at Panama Viejo

view from bell tower, Panama Viejo
view of Panama Viejo grounds from cathedral bell tower

Panama Viejo Shops

The shops for Panama Viejo are in the same area as the museum and are full of local color and flare. From hand carved figurines to stunning molas, you can find what you want in practically any color. Even the building reflects the colorful tribes that were native to this land.

Colorful mosaic interior of the gift shop at Panama Viejo Museum
Colorful mosaic interior of the gift shop at Panama Viejo Museum
Embera woven baskets that can hold water
Embera woven baskets that can hold water
Kuna Yala hand-sowen Molas available at Panama Viejo Museum gift shops.
Kuna Yala hand-sown Molas available at Panama Viejo Museum gift shops.

Molas and other gifts available at Panama viejo

Panama Viejo museum gift shop
I think she had a good time at last night’s party

Panama Viejo is a wonderful place to visit and because of the museum before seeing the ruins it allows you the chance to imagine yourself back in the times when the city was flourishing. However, it is time to close this letter for now.

Love you two and miss you,

Nana and Pap

Please share this story with your friends.

Written by Dan

Professional photographer specializing in street, food and travel shots at As We Saw It travel blog. “Photography is unique in that it captures light in all forms, and since the Bible says YHVH (God) is light, photography captures Him in many forms.”

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8 thoughts on “Panama Viejo: Attacked and Sacked”

    • Yes Noemi, they have done a tremendous job of preservation, even spending money to preserve an old bridge while fixing much needed traffic problems that Panama City used to be known for.

  1. I love visiting ruins like this.That cathedral looks so big, it must have been a very impressive church. Hopefully they are going to restore some of these buildings to their initial glory. I didn’t know Panma Viejo was the first permanent European settlement in South America, that’s very interesting. You guys were very lucky to spend so much time in South America. I always wanted to visit Panama, but I only got to stop there in transit when we went to Argentina. Those woven baskets are kind of typical for the entire South America. I’ve seen them in Brazil and Argentina as well.

    • Thanks Anda, I don’t think they have any plans to rebuild that area of Panama City. They are however doing what they can to preserve the buildings and surroundings. Yes, by all means you should visit Panama and spend a few weeks in that great country. We are planning to take a few friends on a tour and they are excited to see the sights. Panama is a very diverse country with something to offer every taste. I truly hope you go.

    • Hi Sally, The cool thing is that the Panamanians have turned this into a tourist destination and thus the call to preserve the buildings, protect them from further damage and offer a visitor a good reason to learn about the history of Panama.

  2. What a great find! I am not very familiar with Panama, so I didn’t even know there was a Panama Viejo. It looks gorgeous, and the ruins are fantastic. Definitely looks like a fun place to explore – hopefully, we’ll make it down there before too long! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • Hello Rob, By all means you should make it to Panama. There are three distinctly different cities all part of the history of Panama City and Panama in general. Panama Viejo, Casco Viejo, and modern day Panama City all have great things to offer the interested visitor, from the ruins pictured to fine foods and wines, you just can’t go wrong in Panama.


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