Panama city was founded in 1519 on the site of a native-Panamanian fishing village shortly after Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa made the reasonable claim that everything that touched the Pacific belonged to Spain. For the next 150 years it served as an important port for Spain and a launching point for the conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. Known as the ‘bullion pipeline,’ much of the gold and other wealth plundered from the Incas passed through Panama city, also making it a prime target for a series of pirate attacks. The city finally fell in 1671 to privateer Henry Morgan and over 1000 of his men. After looting the city of all its wealth, it was burned to the ground. England rewarded this deed by knighting Morgan and appointing him lieutenant governor of Jamaica. Of the hundreds of houses, churches, a mint, and stables, only scattered stone foundations remain today.
After its plunder, Panama City was reestablished on a small rocky peninsula north of the original site. This area is now referred to as Casco Viejo, meaning Old Compound. Protected by a shallow bay, moat, fortified stone walls, and watchtowers, the city was never again sacked by privateers. However, the overland trade routes to Panama City were subject to constant attack, so less than 100 years after it was reestablished, the city was in decline as the Spaniards stopped using the route. Panama city again revived with the construction of a railroad in the 1850s that was an important part of the route west for the gold rush. Rather than traveling by land across the United States and risk attack by American Indians, prospectors and miners from the East Coast of the US would sail to Panama, cross the narrow isthmus via rail, and then make their way north to California. The city continued to flourish as the French attempted to build a canal starting in 1880. This attempt was abandoned 13 years later after over 22,000 workers had died from malaria and yellow fever. We spent a steamy morning strolling the narrow streets of Casco Viejo, admiring the crumbling colonial architecture. A lot of restoration and reconstruction work is underway, and we imagine that in five or ten years the dilapidated buildings of rapidly gentrifying Casco Viejo will be restored to their former glory.