The Diablo Rojo bounced up and down as it charged over bumps and fell into potholes. With each bump, I dig my nails further and further into the cheap leather seats, trying to balance myself and avoid falling into the lap of a fellow passenger. As if in a maniacal frenzy, the driver swerves in every possible direction in attempt avoid buses, cars and the occasional cyclist. I glance out the window only to be greeted by rows and rows of houses. Thirty minutes have passed since we boarded the bus at Albrook Mall. The Diablo was marked “Panama Viejo” and after further confirmation from the driver, we had hopped on without further concern. After a solid five minutes of solemn contemplation, I finally muster up the courage to ask someone in broken Spanish whether we had missed our stop. He nods in agreement and screams at the driver to stop the bus. I am suddenly thrown into the arms of a complete stranger as the bus jerks forward. We disembark in the middle of nowhere and we are told to walk “in that direction” until we reach Panama Viejo Panama.
When we arrived at Panama Viejo Panama, I was not impressed. However, initial reactions change once the history behind the ruins are explained. Panama Viejo is one of the oldest and largest Spanish settlements on the Pacific Coast. It was founded in 1519 by conquistador Pedro Asias de Avila and was originally home to a number of indigenous tribes that date back to 500 B.C. It survived many catastrophes, including an earthquake in 1620 and a fire in 1644, but it was eventually abandoned in 1671 after being pillaged by the famous pirate, Henry Morgan and his crew. Mr. Morgan, who was later knighted by King Charles II of England, set fire to the city, causing the loss of thousands of lives. In 1672, Panama city was moved some 7.5 km southeast to a small peninsula at the foot of Ancon hill. The relocated town is known today as Casco Viejo.
Travelers wishing to explore Panama Viejo can get to the ruins by bus or taxi. Taxis are more convenient and the fare should be around US$5 one way. The best way to beigin exploring the site is to first stop by the impressive on-site visitor center and museum. The compound itself is quite big and since the ruins are not fenced in, they can be seen at any time. However, one section requires an entrance fee: the Plaza Major. The most important attraction within this section is the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. The Cathedral was built between 1619 and 1626 and includes a three-story tall square-stone bell tower that was also the watchtower for the city. The best features of the bell-tower are the modern stairway that leads to the top and the spectacular view that the building offers.
As you walking through the rows of ruins, it’s hard not to be transported back in time. Travelers can easily get lost on the compound and should plan to spend at least an afternoon walking through the ruins. At the end make sure to stop by the Mercado Nacional de Artesania (The National Artisan’s Market). It is located next the ruins and although the prices are a little steep, it is one of the best places to purchase a wide variety of Panamanian souvenirs. It is open daily from approximately 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.