We were still anchored off Fuerte Amador on the morning of January 10 when the alarm went off at an ungodly hour so we could meet our tour group by 7:30. We had a room service breakfast, showered & dressed & then headed out. We had visited this city on the 2016 world voyage:
Today we would visit one area visited then & one area that was new to us.
We tendered to a yacht harbor on Isla Flamenco, part of Fuerte Amador, and boarded a bus for the ride all the way across the city to Panama Vieja. Established in 1519, Panama Vieja was the first European city on the Pacific coast. It was the main Pacific terminal of the Spanish gold route, where gold & silver from Peru & spices and silks from the far East were stored before being transported by mule train across the Isthmus to Portobello to be loaded onto ships bound for Spain. It was quite prosperous, with numerous warehouses & churches, along with several thousand houses. In 1671 the English privateer Henry Morgan attacked & plundered the town, which burned to the ground.
We visited the museum for this site and walked through the ruins. After the town was destroyed the inhabitants moved to a new location about 8 miles away that was easier to fortify and defend. They used Panama Vieja as a stone quarry, thus further reducing the ruins. Today efforts are being made to restore some of the buildings, but most of it still looks like a rock pile. While we can’t identify all of these ruins, some of them are of a Dominican convent.
Our guide told us that the town’s name came from the Panama tree, but a plaque in the museum said that it was the local Indians’ word for “fisherman,” which they were. Perhaps the tree was named for the local fishermen & the town was named for the tree. Near the museum was a striking Banyan tree with many trunks descending to the ground from the wide branches.
The best preserved & restored structure is the cathedral tower, situated on what was the main square of the town. They have built a modern staircase to climb up for what is supposed to be an excellent view, but our group didn’t go up there. In front of the cathedral is a stone base that once held a stone cross. This is where Africans (presumably slaves) came to pray, because they were not permitted in the cathedral. The stone cross is now in the museum. Our guide told us that it was not known that this cross was the one that had been in front of the cathedral until one of the people she was guiding showed her a picture of her great grandfather praying there.
We walked back to the bus, passing more interesting ruins. Then we headed back across town to Casco Viejo, the site where they moved after the original town was destroyed.
We crossed through the contemporary city of skyscrapers. The city is impressive from afar, but from inside it just feels massive. The most interesting one is the Revolution Tower, which twists its way up to a white pinnacle. A lot of foreign (and particularly US) businesses have outposts here, such as Hard Rock Café, & there is also a Trump Tower. Our guide told us that the Trump Tower (which bears his name but is not owned by the US President) was sold last week & the new owners intend to change its name. We passed a fishing village that the developers apparently failed to dislodge.
Casco Viejo is the new old town of Panama City, established in 1673 by the folks whose original town had been destroyed by Henry Morgan. It is full of old buildings of two or three stories with interesting balconies. The streets & sidewalks are very narrow, so it quickly became crowded & difficult to navigate, especially if you are a group of 40 people, as we were. Here are some typical street scenes.
One thing you will notice in these pictures is the very extensive renovation work in progress all over this area. In 2016 we visited the cathedral & were glad we had the opportunity to do so when we saw it this time entirely covered in construction cloth. Its good to see, however, that they are restoring these old buildings rather than tearing them down for new construction.
We visited the Iglesia de San Jose, a church transferred from the destroyed town in 1673. It contains a very impressive carved wood altar covered in gold, called the Altar de Oro. There is a story, repeated as history by our guide, that the gilded altar was saved from Henry Morgan by a friar, who either had them hidden in the Pacific or painted black. When Morgan arrived & demanded the church’s valuables, the friar told him the church was unfinished for lack of funds & requested a donation. Morgan supposedly said “you are more of a pirate than I am” & ordered that the friar be given the donation he requested. But anyone visiting the church knows this story is untrue. There is a sign right in front of the altar that not only says this never happened, but says that the style of the altar indicates it was created much later, in the 18th century, and church records say that the gilding was applied in 1915. So why does a guide leading people ?
We walked by the façade of La Compania de Jesus, the Jesuit church & school. In the late 18th century this became the first college in Panama. It functioned until 1767, when the Jesuits were expelled from all of Spain’s colonies. The pope had decreed before the Spanish reached America that Christians could not be enslaved. This was a problem, beginning with Columbus, who wanted to convert the indigenous people but also wanted to enslave them. Apparently the Jesuits became more & more adamant against keeping African & Indian Christians as slaves until the Spanish authorities had had enough & removed them on the theory of out of sight, out of mind. Our guide said that part of the section on the right may have been rented out for use as the first Synagogue in Panama. The building was later destroyed by fire & earthquake.
We passed what is left of the Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo, a Dominican church & convent built in 1678. It is known for its “flat arch,” visible just behind the door, which is about 30 feet high & 45 feet wide, with no keystone or external support. It was cited as evidence of Panama’s geological stability during the debates on where to build the canal. It collapsed in 2003, but has been reconstructed.
Given 30 minutes of free time, we walked through a flower covered walkway onto a street along the city’s old walls. There was a great view of downtown Panama & there were a number of Kuna indians with booths selling the molas they make. Molas are very colorful needlework, in which there are several layers of different colored fabric & pictures are made by cutting through to the various colors. There was also an artist at work next to the wall.
We returned to our bus & drove back to the yacht harbor on Fuerte Amador where our tender picked us up & took us back to the ship. Later in the afternoon we set sail for Nuku Hiva, an eight day trip with nothing but water to see beyond the ship. It will feel good to step onto land again after that.