Panama History

Panama City - Old Panama

Founded on August 15, 1519 by Pedrarias Dávila, it was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast. Gold coming from Peru passed through Panama toward the port towns of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios, where it was loaded onto ships bound for Spain. In 1671, twelve hundred men led by the English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked and subsequently destroyed the city.

Today, you can visit the remains of the old city: the cathedral, six convents and churches, the city hall building, the House of the Genovese, Fort Natividad, the Hospital San Juan de Dios and three colonial bridges. You can also view the Casas Reales - the compound where the Spanish customs and treasury was located.

Towards the Major Square (Plaza Mayor), you'll find the City Hall, the cathedral and the Bishop's house. The Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption, constructed between 1519 and 1626, is the best preserved of all the buildings. Following the style of the time, it is cross shaped. The bell tower was located at the back and probably served a double purpose as bell tower and watch tower of the royal houses.

Further north is the Convent of Santo Domingo, constructed in 1570 and its respective church, erected 20 years later. They are the best preserved religious buildings in the city. Panamá La Vieja offers a site museum, which exhibits a maquette of the city before 1671 as well as colonial and pre-colombine artifacts brought from Spain.

Casco Antiguo

When Panama City was destroyed in the 17th century, its inhabitants moved to the foothills of the Cerro Ancón. On January 21, 1673, Antonio Fernández de Córdoba y Mendoza founded the new city of Panama. The new location was chosen as a defense against new pirate attacks. A formidable set of walls in close the city at the beginning of 1675. The walls had two main doors, one facing land and one facing sea, in addition to these two it also had five side gates.

The new city was apportioned lots and was intended for specific functions: religious, administrative, military, commercial and residential. From its cross-sectioned design emerged 38 blocks, 3 main streets running from east to west, 7 streets running from north to south and others that were shorter.

The urban development of Panama City was interrupted during the 18th century due to various fires that devastated its streets. In 1737, the "big fire" destroyed two thirds of the city, and the "small fire" of 1756 destroyed more than 90 houses. These and other catastrophic fires help explain why so few colonial examples exist today.

In 1846, the discovery of gold in California spurred the economic development of Panama. The result was the construction of the transisthmic railway, which joined the two oceans for the first time, and the beginning of the construction of the French Canal. The city gradually changed its aspect, transforming itself into a cosmopolitan city with a 19th century European resemblance.

In 1997, UNESCO declared the Casco Antiguo of Panama City a Patrimony of Humanity, underscoring it rich architectonic diversity from the 19th and early 20th century.

Thanks toInstituto Panameño de Turismo (IPAT): 1-800-231-0568