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  • Writer's pictureMark Vogel

Panama Viejo: Pirates, Crypto Jews, and the Ruins of Panama’s Original City

Panama City, Panama


Panama Viejo in Panama City, Panama
Panama Viejo in Panama City, Panama

On a recent visit to Panama City, Panama, my girlfriend and I were transported back in time as we wandered through the archaic yet magnetic ruins of Panama Viejo (Old Panama), the original city of Panama. Founded in 1519, Panama Viejo once flourished as a strategic hub for the Spanish conquest, laden with gold, prosperity, and cultural fusion. However, the devastating attack led by the infamous pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 left the city in ruins, a ghostly shell of its glorious past, eventually leading to the establishment of a new city, known today as Casco Viejo.





“One exhibit that particularly caught my attention was about the Crypto Jews. It revealed the stories of Jewish individuals who, amidst persecution, managed to maintain and pass down their faith in secrecy during the Spanish Inquisition.”

Walking through Panama Viejo, the air seemed thick with history, tales of explorers, conquests, and civilizations long past. The ruins stood as silent guardians of time, each stone telling a tale, each pathway echoing the footsteps of the bygone era. A highlight of the site was the Old Panama Cathedral. I climbed up the bell tower to view the ruins of the city from high above.


Reaching the top, breathtaking views unfolded before my eyes. The modern city skyline against the lush greenery and vast Pacific Ocean offered an overwhelming sight. The blending of the blue skies with the historic ruins created a surreal landscape.





I also spent some time viewing the exhibits at the small museum in Panama Viejo. The museum tells a tale of the city’s rich history. One exhibit that particularly caught my attention was about the Crypto Jews. It revealed the stories of Jewish individuals who, amidst persecution, managed to maintain and pass down their faith in secrecy during the Spanish Inquisition. Learning about their lives, struggles, and the ingenious ways in which they preserved their beliefs despite the oppressive conditions was deeply moving.


Features of Panama Viejo


1. Architectural Marvels:

- Beyond the cathedral, Panama Viejo is home to a variety of structures that echo the architectural brilliance of the past. The scattered ruins encompass remnants of convents, homes, a hospital, and other municipal buildings, each with unique designs and stories.


2. Cultural Significance:

- The site is a melting pot of cultural influences from Spain, Africa, and Indigenous groups. This diversity is reflected in the various aspects of the city, from its architecture to the artifacts found during excavations.


3. Educational Visit:

- For history and archaeology enthusiasts, visiting Panama Viejo is an educational treasure. Interpretative signs are strategically placed around the site, offering valuable insights into the historical context and significance of the ruins and artifacts.


4. Tour Guides:

- Engaging tour guides are available to enrich your experience. With a well of knowledge and passion for the site’s history, they bring the ancient stones to life with fascinating tales and historical facts.


5. Surrounding Nature:

- Nature graces the ruins of Panama Viejo, with vivid green landscapes enveloping the site. This creates a serene ambiance, making your historical exploration a tranquil experience as well.


6. Artisanal Crafts:

- Near Panama Viejo, you might encounter local artisans who display a variety of handmade crafts and souvenirs that reflect the cultural essence of Panama, providing visitors with a chance to take home a piece of this magnificent country.


7. Special Events and Programs:

- Occasionally, Panama Viejo hosts special events and programs that allow visitors to delve deeper into its historical and cultural richness. These include exhibitions, lectures, and cultural performances that breathe life back into the ancient city.


8. Accessibility:

- Panama Viejo is quite accessible from various parts of Panama City. Various modes of transport, including taxis and buses, make it convenient for visitors to reach this historical haven.


Exploring Panama Viejo isn’t merely a walk through ancient ruins; it’s a holistic experience that marries history, culture, and natural beauty, allowing visitors to witness the illustrious past of Panama City in a multi-dimensional way. I enjoyed learning the history and I think you would too. So, when you find yourself in Panama, don’t miss the chance to visit Panama Viejo.


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