Founded in 1519, Panamá Viejo was the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It was abandoned in the mid-17th century and replaced by today's Historic District, which has preserved its original street plan, architecture, and an unusual mixture of architectural styles.
Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo
Panama City, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, was founded in 1519 due to the discovery by the Spanish of the South Sea in 1513.
The settlement was a first-rank colonial outpost and a Royal Court of Justice seat during the 16th and 17th centuries when Panama consolidated its position as an intercontinental hub. Its growth in importance, as it profited from the imperial bullion lifeline, is reflected by the imposing stone architecture of its public and religious buildings.
During its 152 years of existence, the town was affected by slave rebellion, fire and an earthquake but was destroyed in the wake of a devastating pirate attack in 1671.
The Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo is the remaining part of the old Panama City and the former capital of Panama. It is located in the suburbs of modern Panama City. Together with the Historic District of Panamá, it is a World Heritage Site.
The archaeological remains of the original settlement (known initially as Castilla del Oro) include the pre-Columbian vestiges of the Cuevan aboriginal occupation of the same name and currently encompass a protected heritage site covering 32 ha (79 acres).
Since it was relocated and never rebuilt, Panamá Viejo preserves its original layout, a slightly irregular, somewhat rudimentary grid with blocks of various sizes. There is archaeological evidence of the original street pattern and the location of domestic, religious and civic structures.
The archaeological site of Panamá Viejo is an exceptional testimony of colonial town planning; the ruins of its cathedral, convents and public buildings showcase unique technological and stylistic characteristics of its temporal and cultural context.
The site also offers invaluable information on various aspects of social life, economy, communications and the vulnerability of a strategic location within the geopolitical dynamics at the height of Spanish imperial power.
Historic District of Panamá
In 1673 the city was moved some 7.5 km (4.7 mi) southeast to a small peninsula at the foot of Ancón Hill, closer to the islands that were used as the port and near the mouth of a river that eventually became the entrance of the Panama Canal.
The construction of the Panama Canal, a landmark in the history of the Americas and the world, had a tangible effect on the development of the Historic District and its surrounding area.
The relocated town, known today as Casco Antiguo or the Historic District of Panama, had better access to fresh water and could be fortified. The military engineers, moreover, took advantage of the morphological conditions that complemented the wall surrounding the peninsula, all of which prevented direct naval approaches by an enemy.
The area within the walls had an orthogonal layout, with a central plaza and streets of different widths; outside the walls, the suburb of Santa Ana had an irregular layout.
A centrally-located central plaza (which was enlarged in the 19th century) and several smaller post-colonial plazas are on the fringes. Most of the seaward walls of the colonial fortifications and parts of the landward bastions and moats survive.
Several exceptional examples of domestic architecture from the colonial period, above all the mid-18th century Casa Góngora, and several hundred houses from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, illustrate the transformation of living concepts from the colonial period to modern times.
Particularly relevant is the Salón Bolivar, originally the Chapter Hall of the Convent of San Francisco, the only surviving part of the 17th-18th century complex. It has particular historical importance as the site of the visionary but abortive attempt by Simon Bolivar in 1826 to establish what would have been the world’s first multinational and continental congress.
The Historic District’s layout, a complex grid with streets and blocks of different widths and sizes and fortifications inspired by late Renaissance treaties, is an exceptional and probably unique example of 17th-century colonial town planning in the Americas.
Several buildings within the District are identified as important for the country’s 17th-20th century heritage. Most outstanding are the churches:
- San Felipe Neri
- San José
- San Francisco
- La Merced, with its well-preserved colonial timber roof
The Presidential Palace, originally built in the late 17th century and partially reconstructed in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, is a revealing example of the transformations that characterize the Historic District as a whole.
Outstanding buildings of a more recent period include:
- House of the Municipality
- Canal Museum building (originally the Grand Hotel)
- National Theater
- Ministry of Government and Justice
- Municipal Palace