Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Three Quiet Hours in Panama Viejo - 7-26-2012

Panama Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Panama Viejo, or Old Panama, is the original city of Panama that Henry Morgan burned down in 1671. The Welsh privateer split his forces in two and flanked the defenders. The poorly trained Spaniards broke and Morgan looted the richest city in the New World. A fire that either Morgan and his men or the defending Captain-General started burned the conquered city to the ground. Morgan was arrested and taken back to England because his attack violated a treaty between England and Spain. Morgan proved he knew nothing about the treaty and subsequently knighted then appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Captain Jack Sparrow should do so well.

Today, Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins run inland along a swampy lowland near the seashore in Panama City's far southeast. From my hostel, Hostal Aleman, the ruins were a 20 minute walk south and east. In the early afternoon sun, though, it felt much longer. Definitely bring water, no matter when you visit.

Panama Viejo is accessible just off a major road, but I took a detour through the surrounding neighborhood because I was curious about it. I did not wish to be rude, so I did not take pictures, but the neighborhood surrounding the ruins is struggling. Some of the houses looked like they could collapse at any moment. Many houses had heaps of trash in the front yards, and there was trash in the streets. Still, children played and parents watched over them dutifully. More than one resident asked if I was looking for "la ruena", the ruins, and helpfully pointed me southwest towards them.

I approached the ruins from their eastern end. This part of ruins are particularly poorly maintained. I waded through knee high grass that I didn't know was knee high until I stepped into gopher holes and hidden puddles. I nearly twisted my ankle when I stepped awkwardly into a particularly deep hole. Be careful if you approach the ruins from the east. To the west, modern Panama City's glass and steel skyscrapers rise several miles away.

Moving west, I followed stone paths past sections of centuries-old walls. I pass only three other visitors today; the ruins are nearly completely deserted. The ruins are quiet as a tomb except for the occasional chirp of a far off bird, or the chatter of crickets. I am only a couple miles from the noise and horns of a major street, but I feel hundreds of miles...and years...from 21st century Panama City. Very few buildings are identified, but the ruins stretch for hundreds of yards before me. No one is sure how large Panama Viejo is since much of the surrounding area is coastal lowlands, swamp, or barrio. It feels large, though.

Panama Viejo, Panama City, Panama
I come upon the ruins of Panama Viejo's old church, the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Cathedral of Our Lady of Asunción), built between 1619 and 1626, and the best-preserved building of the ruins. Not much remains, but I can see that what does hints at a tall, wide, majestic building with two side chapels so the building makes a cross shape when viewed from the heavens. A portrait of the Virgin Mary looks down on me gently from the wall behind where the altar once stood. Moving north and west past the church, towering wall sections stand silently. Birds of prey patiently sit at the top of a few sections.

Just north of the cathedral are the massive ruins of Casa Alarcón, the town's best-preserved and largest known private residence, which dates from the 1640s.

I spend about an hour among the ruins of what was once the New World's richest city. Though your own interest in archaeology might be limited, I do recommend visiting Panama Viejo. The juxtaposition of old Panama City's ruins with its sophisticated modern incarnation in the background is worth the visit. Finding an oasis of silence and calm among a crowded, steaming, chaotic metropolis is a good second reason.

Getting there:
Every cabbie in the city knows "La Ruena de Panama Viejo" is a major tourist attraction. A ride there from anywhere in the city should cost no more than $6.00. Cabs can also be found near the ruins, or on the main streets several blocks outside the ruins. Alternatively, you can take a Metro Bus or a diablo rojo to Panama Viejo, which will have stops near the ruins, but not at the ruins. The ruins themselves are surrounded by a very low-income neighborhood. The residents are accustomed to seeing backpackers and several people helpfully offered directions to me the afternoon I visited. Still, I recommend you NOT visit La Ruena after dark, as they are neither patrolled nor well lit.

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