Two contrasting attractions provide welcome escapes from the frenetic pace of the capital: to the east, a short bus ride away, lie the ruins of Panamá Viejo, once the premier colonial city on the isthmus; to the southwest, and an hour by boat, tropical Isla Taboga provides a peaceful setting for some gentle hiking and beach-lounging.Read More
On the coast about 8km east of the city centre stand the ruins of PANAMÁ VIEJO, the original colonial city founded by Pedro Arias de Ávila in 1519. Abandoned in 1671 after being sacked by Henry Morgan and his band of pirates, many of its buildings were later dismantled to provide stones for the construction of Casco Viejo, and in recent decades much of the site has been built over as the modern city has spread eastward – another new major road was being built through the site at the time of writing. Despite this encroachment, a surprising number of the original buildings still stand.
The best place to start a visit is the museum on Vía Cincuentenario near the ruins, where exhibits explain the changes that have taken place since this was a tiny Indian village around 500 BC. Only one section of the ruins, the former Plaza Mayor, requires an entry fee. The major draw here is the three-storey square stone tower of the cathedral, built between 1619 and 1629. It has a modern stairway with a lookout at the top and is flanked by the square cabildo (town hall) to the right and the bishop’s house to the left. Nearby, and free to the public, is the site of La Merced, the church and monastery where Francisco Pizarro took communion before embarking on the conquest of Peru in 1531. La Merced was once considered Panama City’s most beautiful church, and survived Morgan’s burning of the city by his use of it as a headquarters.
Some 20km off the coast and about an hour away by boat, tiny ISLA TABOGA is one of the most popular retreats for Panama City residents, who come here to enjoy the island’s clear waters, peaceful atmosphere and verdant beauty. Known as the “Island of Flowers” for the innumerable fragrant blooms that decorate its village and forested slopes, Taboga gets very busy at weekends, particularly during the summer, but is usually quiet during the week.
Taboga’s one fishing village is very picturesque, with narrow streets, whitewashed houses and dozens of gardens filled with bougainvillea and hibiscus. Most visitors head straight for a section of beach, either right in front of the village or in front of the defunct Hotel Taboga, to the right of the pier as you disembark. The water is calmer here and the view of Panama City is magnificent, though the rubbish that frequently washes up on the beach is unsightly.
Behind the village, forested slopes rise to the 300m peak of Cerro Vigía, where a viewing platform on top of an old US military bunker offers spectacular 360-degree views. It’s about an hour’s climb through the forest to the mirador – follow the path some 100m up behind the church until you find a sign marked “Sendero de los Tres Cruces”, beyond which the trail is easy to follow. It’s a great area for spotting poison dart frogs and tarantulas, especially after some rain. The other side of the island is home to one of the largest brown pelican breeding colonies in the world and, together with the neighbouring island of Urabá, forms a protected wildlife refuge.