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I’ve always been enthralled by destinations that have a history of pirates. Stories of sailors looting and burning a town to the ground hold endless fascination for me. So what a surprise it was for me to stumble upon the remains of a pirate-pillaged town just outside Panama City on a recent trip.
Although the Panama Canal has long been on my bucket list, it never occurred to me that the same narrow strip of land that plays such an important role in world trade today had played an equally important role in the early Spanish rule of the Americas. In 1519, some 400 years before the Panama Canal became a reality, the Spanish built the original Panama City on the Pacific coast. At the time, Spanish sailors would park their vessels on Panama’s east coast, then haul their booty approximately 50 miles across land to Panama City, where they dispatched the gold to their colonies throughout the region.
By 1671, Panama City was one of the richest cities in the world. The lure of that wealth would attract pirates and privateers, including Sir Henry Morgan, who attacked and effectively destroyed the city in 1671.
Within two years, Panama City re-emerged in its current location, several miles to the west of where the old city’s ruins would remain untouched for hundreds of years.
Today the old city, called Panama Viejo, is well worth a visit. Located in a public park, this UNESCO World Heritage Site features a museum and impressive ruins of a cathedral, churches, a town hall and private houses.
Most of the buildings are little more than crumbled shells, but visitors can climb up the cathedral’s tower to enjoy sweeping views of Panama City and to overlook the ghostly remnants of its storied past.