Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Panama Viejo

World Heritage Site

A vibrant new city is framed between the windows of 500 year old ruins.  Skyscrapers designed by world renowned architects dance across the landscape, erasing a past mired in brutality, disease, treachery and death.

We began our orientation from the top of the restored bell tower of La Catedral de Neustro Senora de la Asuncion.  From here, we could see both the new Panama City and the old.  The first Panama City was founded in 1519.  Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is an archaeological treasure of one of the most wealthiest cities of the Spanish Colonial era.  This city was a vast holding tank of looted treasure.  Gold.  Silver.  Emeralds.  Pearls.  This precious cargo was then loaded onto mules and carried across the isthmus to the Caribbean where Spanish galleons awaited to carry it back to the Motherland.

But word got out.   For those notorious Pirates of the Caribbean, this source of unimaginable wealth was too good to ignore.  Attacks in the Caribbean became a common annoyance.  The Spanish added flotillas to help guard the ships.  Fortifications were built along the coast.  But still the pirates came, and in 1671, one such pirate was the Welshman Henry Morgan who managed to make it all the way to Panama City and burn it to the ground.

All that remained were the stone foundations of government buildings, churches and convents.  All the other structures, constructed from wood, were completely destroyed.  Nothing remained but ash.  Instead of building anew, the entire city was moved to higher, less marshy ground.  A new era would begin.

Diablo Dancers
That night back at the hotel, I awake with a bright light in my eyes and the thudding sound of bass.  What in the world?  I look outside the window and the street is flooded with spotlights.  Construction workers in hard hats and heavy equipment are working in the streets.  Music is blaring.  I learn later that they are working on a new subway system.  They must work at night so they don't add to the daytime gridlock of traffic.

I watch them work.  Beyond the skyline is a vast swath of black.  A city surrounded by jungle.  I am here only one day and already I am struck by a country of extremes.  Historical ruins.  Modern architecture.  A paradise.  And a living hell.  I am not able to get back to sleep until the sun begins to rise.

Welcome to Panama!

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