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.