The World Heritage site in Panama City, inscribed for being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, comprises two components. Both somewhat confusingly have the moniker “old” in their names. Casco Viejo (or Casco Antiguo) is the historic heart of the city but is actually “the new town” compared to the archaeological site of Panama Viejo. The latter is the original settlement of the 16th-17th centuries. I managed to visit both parts of the site on our recent stay in town.
The prevailing opinion among the WH-chasing community is that Casco Viejo is not overly special. Not without occasional fine details but lacking a critical mass of outstanding features, or rather, lacking in the department of “Outstanding Universal Value”, which provides justification for being added to the WH list in the first place.
Having been prejudiced by that opinion but also being a visual person, I found Casco Viejo exceeding my expectations in terms of how much I ended up liking it. Yes, killer features are in short supply. Some streets are clogged with cars. Plenty of buildings are in a less-than-perfect state. And yet, the overall ensemble of the colonial architectural styles is rather pleasing to the eye, in no small part due to the various balconies that adorn upper floors. Casco Viejo is sometimes rightly called “the city of a thousand balconies”.
An occasional juxtaposition of ruins or otherwise abandoned buildings with well-maintained colonial houses adds a measure of interest. You can see it at Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús…
… at Arco Chato…
… on the central square…
… or elsewhere in the neighborhood.
As befits a predominantly-Catholic country, churches are the most impressive sights in Panama. The faςade of the Church of the Mercy was covered in scaffolding leaving only the small side chapel exposed…
… but the interior offered the original wooden roof, the unusually thin wooden support columns, and the exuberant variety of chapel altars.
The exterior of the church of Saint Joseph is fairly modest.
Inside, though, you can find the luxurious Golden Altar, probably the most unmissable example of ecclesiastical art in Panama.
Another incredible piece of art, found in the church treasury, is the largest and most elaborate Nativity Display that I have ever seen.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Santa Maria Antigua is as close to an architectural standout as anything else, with its gleaming-white towers flanking the weathered-stone faςade.
The main altar inside the basilica is more than worth admiration.
20th-centuries architecture and decorative elements can be found in town here or there as well.
Casco Viejo was founded in 1673, following the abandonment of the original settlement, which was sacked and destroyed by the famed pirate Henry Morgan. The ruins of Panama Viejo, located about 12 kilometers northeast of Casco Viejo, are all that remains from the settlement’s 150-year-long history.
“Ruins” is the operative word, of course. Only a couple of structures remain in a shape that does not strain your imagination in order to recognize their original function. Most of the visual impact of Panama Viejo comes from the views that combine the remnants of the ancient town with the distant modern residential towers of the present-day city.
Here is one of the largely-surviving buildings, the church of the Convent of La Concepción.
The tower of the erstwhile cathedral on what used to be the main town square is the standout preserved monument.
The views from the top level of the tower.
The on-premises museum of Panama Viejo is, in a sense, the most illuminating part of the archaeological site, providing plenty of information about the prehistory, founding, expansion, day-to-day functioning, and ultimate demise of the town. The model of Panama Viejo in its heyday and a good collection of religious and domestic artifacts are on display.
Overall, the two components of the WH site certainly do not rise to the mark of “incredible”, but they are definitely a worthwhile combination that charts the history of the region.
If all you do is walk around and visit churches, you can see all of Casco Viejo in about two hours. Roughly the same is needed to see the archaeological site including the museum. Uber is widely used and inexpensive throughout Panama City, and may be the best approach to traveling between sites, except the traffic in the city is occasionally insane, and a few kilometers may take half an hour to navigate.