Panama City was founded more than once. It was originally erected in 1519. Just 15 years later, it was suggested to the authorities that it was important to move the population to a safer place. Thus, year after year, recommendations continued until 1591. And just a year later, Morgan and his pirates razed the city and forced the move.
About 8 kms away, a new destination was born with the same name. The epicenter of that new city was what we know and talk of today as the Casco Viejo. Here are some stories of our city, seen through buildings or emblematic spaces that can still be observed or visited.
The most emblematic and historic buildings and spaces in Casco Viejo are:
- La Merced Church
- The Flat Archway and Santo Domingo Convent
- San Jose Church
- Bolivar Plaza
- National Theatre
- France Plaza
- Independence Square
- Presidential Palace
La Merced Church (Iglesia de La Merced)
Back when this city was still walled, the first thing you could see when you crossed the Puerta de Tierra (Gate of Earth) was the La Merced Church. Moreover, although the wall was demolished a long time ago, you can still enjoy the church because it remains perfectly standing. Just imagine being a tailor or a laundress, that you live in the suburbs, arriving every day on time through the great gate to go about your work within the walled city.
The best story of this church is that it was kept safe during Morgan’s looting in the first city and then the population brought it, brick by brick to the new location, becoming one of the very few churches in the history of the world that was completely moved to a different location.
The Flat Archway (Arco Chato) and Santo Domingo Convent (Convento de Santo Domingo)
The Santo Domingo Convent, built in 1678, was one of the first to be founded in the new city. It was ravaged by two fires in the seventeenth century, which struck down the tower and the interiors of the building. But the walls and arches were still standing, especially the “Arco Chato” built to support the church’s wooden choir.
In the nineteenth century, after the independence of Spain and the departure of the monks from the isthmus, the building passed into private hands and the plot of the church, like its cloister, housed different businesses such as bakeries or carpentry workshops.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, this monument once again took on great importance shortly before the construction of the canal since its very existence meant that in Panama there was no excess of seismic activities. Presently, the ruins of the facades and internal arches can be seen as well as the chapel which has been completely restored and houses the Museum of Religious Art.
The original arch collapsed one night in 2003, possibly as a result of an independence day fireworks display. It was rebuilt by a team of international experts.
Photo: Carlos Siu
San Jose Church (Iglesia de San Jose)
This church is famous because of the story (perhaps just a legend?) of the Golden Altar. It is said that this altar was saved during the sacking of the pirates in the original city by a very cunning priest who painted it black to confuse the looters. Sometime later, the inhabitants moved the altar to the new city. It is currently open to visitors.
Bolivar Plaza (Plaza Bolívar)
In 1821, Panama became independent from Spain. The plaza square is named in honor of Simón Bolívar, the great liberator who considered Panama as the capital of the world. The most significant building in this area is the Bolivar Palace (currently functioning as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
The Palace is the site of the famous congress of 1826 organized by Bolívar to discuss the unification of Latin America. It is possible to enter the building and, with a little luck, observe not only its surroundings, but also take a look at the original conference proceedings.
National Theatre (Teatro Nacional)
Built on the foundations of the former Convent of the Nuns of the Conception (Convento de las Monjas de la Concepción), the National Theater was designed by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri in 1908. Although it has not been part of any national historical event of high importance, it is worth knowing for its beauty and of its frescoes, painted by the famous Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis.
France Plaza (Plaza de Francia)
The will to create a canal through Central America gained new strength in the nineteenth century. And France was the country that took the first step. After many comings and goings, work on the Canal began in 1881.
The obstacles were many; from land accidents to fierce outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever. In addition, the anticipated figures in the budgets were not adjusted to the real amounts. Finally, the so-called French Canal, could not be constructed. The economic losses were in the billions. Even without counting the human loss of life. Ten thousand French left their lives on the isthmus.
The Plaza de Francia was erected between 1921 and 1922 as a tribute from Panama to the thousands of fallen French workers.
Photo: Rodolfo Aragundi
Independence Square (Plaza de la Independencia)
In this square, on November 3, 1903 Panama declared its separation from Colombia. Here, there are several important landmarks. Starting with the Metropolitan Cathedral, which was recently restored. Perhaps the most special and meaningful of these landmarks is the Interoceanic Canal Museum.
Initially it housed the offices of the French Canal Company, then it became the headquarters of the Post and Telegraph office of Panama. Currently it keeps a permanent exhibition around the history of the Panama Canal.
Next to it is the Municipal Palace, a beautiful neoclassical building without excessive attractions, although it has a picture with the first map of the city of the new city of Panama and vestiges of the Puerta de Tierra.
Photo: Isaías Montilla
Presidential Palace (El Palacio Presidencial)
When the new city was starting our, a listener (administrator) was sent to make a mansion with a spectacular view of the bay. A calamitous fire turned the house into ashes. Years later, after proclaiming the independence from Spain in 1821, Panama joined the Republic of Nueva Granada (Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador). In 1875, the house that had been burned was rebuilt in the form of a palace, to become the residence for the Governors and sometimes Presidents of Sovereign States that were visiting in Panama.
By November 3, 1903 (date of our separation from Colombia) it became the official headquarters as the Presidential Palace for all Panamanian leaders. Later, in 1922, a living gift, received by President Porras, was added to the palace. It was a pair of herons, however the idea was that the number of herons corresponded to that of the Panamanian provinces. Therefore, today, the herons are ten. They are free to display their grace in the main courtyard of the palace, becoming a symbol of the presidential residence. It is for this reason that this building is also known as the Palace of Herons (Palacio de las Garzas.)
Great events have been celebrated in the Palace, such as the very special official visit of Queen Elizabeth II of England, celebrated with a great State Banquet, to commemorate 50 years of republican life.