Today is the final post in an unplanned series of features on all things Panama. Over the past week I’ve covered everything from my experience at/on the Panama Canal to why Ecuador’s most famous export is called the ‘Panama’ hat.
The series began last Wednesday, when Part I of my Stroll Through Old Panama City took me to the Spanish settlement’s origins at Panama Viejo. Today my wanderings continue in the other half of the Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo and Historic District of Panamá UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Historic District of Panamá, more commonly called Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter), was founded in 1673, two years after Panama Viejo was destroyed following an attack by the pirate Captain Henry Morgan. Unlike its predecessor, much of this second Spanish settlement survives to this day. I spent a lovely couple of hours in the late afternoon being shown around this colonial gem of the New World by Nghiem of Panama Your Way.
As I mentioned last week, the ‘new’ location for Panama City was influenced by both military and practical reasons. Firstly, the site was easier to defend, a pretty important point, considering the fate of Panama Viejo.
Secondly, the new location was closer to the entrance of the river that formed part of the route across the narrowest strip of land (or isthmus) between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In the 20th Century, this river became part of the World’s most famous artificial waterway, the Panama Canal.
Like its predecessor, Casco Viejo was constructed on a grid system. At its heart was the Plaza Major (Main Square), which today goes my the name Plaza de la Independencia, overlooked by the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral.
Part of what makes Casco Viejo so culturally important is its diverse mix of colonial influences, from places such as the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, France and, of course, Spain. It also preserves examples of how architectural styles evolved in this region between the 17th and 20th Centuries.
Despite the success of the Panama Canal, Panama as a nation saw little economic benefit for almost a hundred years, until it took over running the waterway on December 31st, 1999. Consequently, much of Casco Viejo still has a slightly rundown and neglected feel, although this is changing.
Nghiem told us that a lot of investment is being channelled into the historic Old Quarter, of which there’s plenty of evidence. However, the renovation process is being done gradually, in part so that the whole district doesn’t become one huge building site. I’d love to go back in 10 or 15 years to see how the restoration of Casco Viejo comes along!
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