Tag Archives: Henry Morgan

A Tale of Three Cities: Panama City

We celebrated our last few days in Central America and Panama and splurged a bit by returning to Panama City and renting a charming apartment in the tony area, Casco Viejo, with rooftop views of the city and the bay.Casco Viejo rooftop view

When thinking of Panama City the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Panama Canal.  But Panama City is far more than this modern marvel and encompasses two old and venerable cities within its boundaries: Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo.  In between these two entities, each of which shares the distinction of being selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contemporary Panama City carries on its robust and active life with towering skyscrapers, billboards and neon signs and three and four lanes of traffic jammed with honking, speeding cars.  All of which were jarring to our senses after days spent in a tranquil, seaside village.Panama City traffic

Panama Viejo, or old Panama, is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  Founded in 1519, it grew in importance as the Spanish empire expanded in South and Central America. Panama Viejo’s value to the crown was the fact that it served as the port city for most of the silver, gold, pearls and other loot that was stripped from the Andes of South America and the rain forests of Central America. From there it was moved overland, by land or water, depending on the season, to be transported to Spain. Not only did Panama Viejo flourish, it became a tempting prize for the many pirates who prowled the equatorial waters seeking lucre. Being alert to this danger the city was situated inland from the coast and fortified by a defensive wall.

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo

It was put to the torch by its Spanish rulers just prior to being overwhelmed by the notorious pirate, Henry Morgan.  He was now a more respectable English admiral but still commanded a pirate army that had crossed the isthmus after razing the garrison at San Lorenzo.  Panama Viejo was abandoned and fell into oblivion except for providing building materials for the new city which arose at a point roughly six miles southwest along the coast. This site, later known as Casco Viejo, was protected by fortified walls and a reef which allowed access to the city only at high tide.Panama Viejo

But the remains of Panama Viejo are magnificent and inspire an almost reverential awe as one walks among its ancient ruins.  The old city’s remaining skeleton contained houses and a hospital as well as the remnants of the Cathedral with its adjacent tower which, as its medieval shape implies, probably served as a watch tower. The Iglesia de la Concepcion housed a convent for the nuns and their servants in addition to the church with its altar, sacristy and nun’s choir. The site’s location, quite near to massive, towering modern structures, offers a quick comparison of the fate of the long-ago dead in the modern era.Panama Viejo with skyscrapers as backdrop

And the city that was literally rebuilt from many of the stones of Panama Viejo?  This is the rapidly changing old quarter known as Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial city that replaced the vestiges of Panama Viejo in 1673. When the Americans’ began construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 the old town of Casco Viejo was all that existed of Panama City. However, with the completion of the canal and the natural growth of the capital city many of the country’s elite began to abandon the old quarter and it deteriorated into an urban slum. The stately homes, hotels and government office buildings fell into disrepair. But recently, a new wave of gentrification has emerged and the process of decay is being reversed and eradicated. Even now, part of the charm of the place is the grungy disrepair which stands in stark contrast to the modernized and revitalized buildings.Casco Viejo gentrification

Casco ViejoIf the trend continues, and there appears to be no reason at that this point to assume that it will not, Casco Viejo may be one of the most in-demand neighborhoods in the capital. It is filling rapidly with a mix of traditional Panamanian and gourmet restaurants serving a variety of menus aimed at satisfying every taste, chic shopping venues and large colonial buildings that are being converted to stylish condos. Most of the old churches remain along with many government buildings, the national theater and the original offices of the French Panama Canal organization. And so, Casco Viejo stands alongside Panama Viejo and the contemporary Panama City in a perfect trifecta and a tale of three cities.Panama City Bay

By Richard and Anita

 

Plundering, Protecting The King’s Gold And Pirates: Fort San Lorenzo

San LorenzoBy the map it’s only eight miles west of the Caribbean port city of Colon, Panama to the UNESCO site of the colonial Spanish fort at San Lorenzo on the northern border of Panama.  However, this abandoned citadel hidden away at the end of a two-lane road through dense jungle is a world away from the hub-bub of the Canal Zone of which it was once a part.  As with many things Spanish in Central America, San Lorenzo represents conquest, exploitation, untold wealth in precious metals and empire.San Lorenzo on the bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea

The remains of the crumbling fortress, perched atop a bluff eighty feet above the Caribbean Sea and further protected by a dry moat on the landward side, provided a clear vantage of ships approaching to attack or to blockade the mouth of the Chagres River.Facing the Chagres River

This ability to protect was a vital necessity, for the Chagres River was the eastern terminus of the wet season treasure route that funneled gold and silver from the Incan empire in Peru down through Panama City and across the isthmus and, eventually, to the royal coffers in Spain. Old cannon, some with insignia still visible, litter the site lying awkwardly in broken cradles or sprawl about near crumbling fortifications no longer capable of defending the interests of the crown.

scattered cannon

At one time San Lorenzo was a player in the game of international wealth. The initial fortress was a battery built at sea level. But starting in 1560, shortly after its construction, pirates began to assault the lucrative target and the trail of gold stretching back to Peru. The attackers were persistent and in 1670 Henry Morgan, the Welsh privateer, brigand and English admiral, defeated and leveled the original fort. Using it as a base, he provisioned his troops and took his motley assemblage of buccaneers across the isthmus and sacked the mother lode – Panama City.San Lorenzo facing towards the Chagres

The old fort destroyed by Morgan was abandoned and the current fortress that commands the heights above the River Chagres was constructed by the Spanish only to be attacked anew by pirates and adventurers as well as by the English navy.  When the Spanish fort at Portobelo, further east on the Panamanian coast, fell to Admiral Edward Vernon, San Lorenzo was left the preeminent military garrison on the Panamanian coast.  However, the decision by Spain a few years later to ship its booty around the tip of South America at Cape Horn left the bastion on the Caribbean headland bereft and inconsequential.San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo’s star faded quickly. It was used as a prison for over a century.  Undoubtedly an ignoble death awaited as age claimed the deteriorating brick, wood and stone structures. As a part of the agreement with Panama in 1903 the lands containing the fort and those adjacent to the Chagres River were folded into the Canal Zone administered by the United States until December 31, 1999. But little was done by the Zone administration to conserve the structures that they had acquired in the transfer and the decay continued virtually unabated.San Lorenzo

In 1980 UNESCO designated San Lorenzo a World Heritage Site. There is much to be done. The fortifications at San Lorenzo remain in a state of ruination. The mosses, grasses and plants grow in profusion on a majority of the buildings allowing the eradication to continue day by day. The unabated destruction of the site is almost palpable.San Lorenzo

However, Fort San Lorenzo is a visually engaging site awaiting the attention that once brought it to prominence as a guardian of the riches of the new world. It now needs to be resurrected as a custodian of the history of a world long since passed away.San Lorenzo

By Richard and Anita, July 2014, Panama