Views of Panama

The Treasures of Panamá La Vieja

Panama City was the first mainland city established on the Pacific coast by the Spaniards. Twenty years of continuous archeological studies have identified the living areas and food sources of the previous inhabitants, along with their funerary practices and grave goods. The architectural history, pottery, and certain customs and social beliefs from the colonial period have also been studied.

By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez y Mauricio Valenzuela


An unruly wind kicks along the beaches of Old Panama City, and the silt uncovered at low tide plays host to a raucous gathering of seagulls, pelicans, egrets, and cormorants.

A few yards behind this riot of life runs Cincuentenario Avenue with its rumbling combustion engines, but here, on the shore, watching the birds swoop down and enjoy the abundance of the sea, it is easy to imagine how the Cueva indigenous people might have lived.

Chronicles of the conquest of the Americas note that when the Spaniards arrived at the site the Cueva called ‘Panamá,” it was a settlement many times larger than the city the Spaniards would found years later. The modern neighborhoods of Costa del Este, Coco del Mar, and Parque Lefevre rise where the Cueva once lived and traded with other peoples living on the central Pacific coasts and in the Las Perlas Archipelago.

The Cueva were good fishermen, but their diet also included game and specially raised frogs. The first evidence of their existence was uncovered in the 1960s, when pre-Hispanic vessels were found during construction work to expand the Jardín de Paz cemetery in the Parque Lefevre area.

Much of the current knowledge about the ancient inhabitants of Panama City has been acquired from the pre-Hispanic cemeteries uncovered under the ruins of Old Panama City during archeological research reinitiated in 1995. For example, these studies have suggested that the indigenous peoples buried their dead near their homes ―one of the cemeteries abutted a house― and the position of the body, the offerings, and the body decorations (or their absence) indicated a person’s social status.

The excavations of the old colonial city have also revealed that the Cueva possessed sumptuary items (exemplified by a small gold frog), played music (a carved bone flute and a bird-shaped whistle were found), and that seashell necklaces and bracelets symbolized status and prestige.

Pedrarias Dávila, founder of Panama City, wrote in 1516 that in those times, “chiefs from near and far came to Panama City to have metal pieces cast and worked, since the area was home to great masters of this art.”

“The Cueva shared the area with the Spaniards, although it is not actually known how many years this coexistence lasted,” explains archeologist Mirta Linero Baroni. The Spaniards built their city on top of the indigenous settlement, and the story continues to unfold more than five hundred years later.

City of Churches and Cloisters

Panama City was a boggy, humid, and hot place. It fronted the Pacific Ocean, but two times a day that ocean turned into essentially a mile of slime. The city had little access to fresh water, with just a few wells in the center city for the whole population.

Founded on August 15, 1519, Panama City brimmed with convents, churches, and government buildings; the city served as a meeting place for travelers departing for points south in their quest for the riches of Perú. The first priests to arrive were the Franciscans (1520), followed by the Mercedarians (1522), the Dominicans (1571), and the Jesuits (1578). The first nuns of Our Lady of the Conception (the only female congregation in the city) arrived in 1598 from Perú and their cloister sheltered widows, orphans, and “single and loose women,” notes Linero.

Although these nuns were not the first to arrive, they had the vision others lacked. Along with the construction (incomplete) of the church and the cloister, convent lands included a cistern able to store some 33,000 gallons of water, making these women important suppliers of the vital liquid. The sales unit, the jug, sold for one real.

The Augustinians were nearly the last to arrive (early 17th century), and they sited their convent in the northern part of the city, in the poorer peripheral area of Malambo. They were so far on the outskirts that the Convent of San José escaped virtually unscathed when English pirates commanded by Henry Morgan attacked the city in 1671.

The last priests to arrive in Panama City were members of the San Juan de Dios order; in 1620 they took charge of the San Sebastián Hospital, which had been operating since 1540. The hospital’s history is horrifying: records and research show that the hospital was supported by alms and the work of women and slaves, but the limited medical knowledge of the times meant that patients were more likely to be carried out feet first rather than walk out. The situation began to change with the arrival of the priests, who managed to reduce the mortality rate in less than ten years. Nonetheless, well-off families did not use this hospital on Carrera Street, preferring instead to be treated at home.

While the nuns sold water and the monks helped in the hospital, the Mercedarians indoctrinated the slaves in the Catholic faith. Each order had its role and its function.

The Main Square: The Nexus of Power

As its name indicates, the Main Square was the nexus of all important social and political happenings. There stood the Cathedral, with City Hall on the south side, and the famed Terrín Houses on the north side. “The houses of Francisco Terrín were the five-star hotels of the period,” says Linero, standing in front of the ruins.

Francisco Terrín, one of the city’s wealthiest men, turned the houses into lodging for travelers, making good use of the strategic location ―facing the highly desirable Main Square― while he and his family moved to another house nearby.

City Hall was located in an arcade on the other side of the square. Much further away and separated by a ditch stood the Casas Reales (customs and treasury compound), the seat of Spanish political power, and the Royal Treasury, the Royal Court, and the governor’s house, among other official structures. Built on rocky ground, it was the healthiest and best-guarded section of the city, but these advantages were of little use against Morgan the pirate.

Wood houses and huts were situated well away from the church and the government buildings. As conquistadors, the Spaniards enjoyed the highest social status; the indigenous peoples and the slaves brought to Panama and sold at the Casa de los Genoveses were much lower on the scale.

The wet climate and the humidity made illness a constant threat, so Spanish families gave their children charms, such as carved jet hands, to “protect them from evil.” Even in the face of adversity, wealthier families were not inclined to give up their European luxuries and they ordered fine, imported cutlery and china, even though Panama eventually came to produce exceptional ceramics.

The excavations carried out behind the Convent of the Conception provided a great deal of information on trade in luxury goods and where the exchanges or markets were located. Some of the pieces recovered are on exhibit in the Archeological Site Museum.

The old city’s history ended in 1671, when Morgan and his more than two thousand men reached Panama City after several days of exhausting trekking through the jungle. The inhabitants of the city had already learned of the pirates’ presence in the Isthmus, and children, women, and nuns ―along with a load of silver― had been sent to Perú some days earlier.

The Spaniards lost six hundred men in their first engagement with the pirates. Bruised and battered, they resorted to an odd Plan B: a herd of bulls was unleashed on the marshy battleground, leaving the men trapped and open to decimation. Faced with certain defeat, it is said that the governor himself decided to set fire to the city to make Morgan’s job more difficult and reduce his plunder, but even so, the English pirate departed with 175 mules loaded with bags of gold and silver, which was not actually that much, considering the size of his forces.

Twenty-eight days later, Morgan left Panama City with several hundred prisoners, leaving behind only ashes. In 1673, the Spaniards began construction of the second Panama City, now the Historic District. The first structure built in the new settlement was a wall for protection from pirates; in an ironic twist, stones from the destroyed city provided the material.


How to Get There

The ruins of Old Panama City are located inside present-day Panama City on Cincuentenario Avenue (Parque Lefevre area).

Buses from the Albrook Terminal (“Panamá Viejo” route) are available, although the city’s mass transit is not always reliable, making taxis a better option. Hotels will provide rates and help contact the service. Visitors should ask the driver to drop them off at the Visitor Center, near the Estatua Morelos (Morelos statue).

Hours and Admission Fees

Open Tuesday through Sunday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For non-Panamanians, admission is eight dollars for adults, six for retirees, and three for children. The tour through the museum and the archeological site takes two hours.

Hours and Admission Fees

Open Tuesday through Sunday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For non-Panamanians, admission is eight dollars for adults, six for retirees, and three for children. The tour through the museum and the archeological site takes two hours.