5 Heritage Sites You Must See In Panama
While Van Halen’s 1984 hit song ‘Panama’ travelled worldwide to international appeal, today this destination bordering both Central and South America is a hub for endless summer sustainable experiences, eco-friendly cloud forest adventures, 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites, a vibrant urban cultural core in Panama City, and rainforest canopies. A plethora of regenerative travel experiences are also available through authentic tour guides that embody the spirit of a place that locals call ‘bannaba’ or ‘far away’. Looking for some key places to start your sustainable heritage journey? Try one of these UNESCO sites below.
Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo and Historic District of Panamá
Panama City, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the Pacific coast of the Americas, was founded in 1519, as a consequence of the discovery by the Spanish of the South Sea in 1513. The archaeological remains of the original settlement (known today as the Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo) include the Pre-Columbian vestiges of the Cuevan aboriginal occupation of the same name, and currently encompass a protected heritage site covering 32 ha. The settlement was a first rank colonial outpost and seat of a Royal Court of Justice during the 16th and 17th centuries when Panama consolidated its position as an intercontinental hub. Its growth in importance, as it profited from the imperial bullion lifeline, is reflected by the imposing stone architecture of its public and religious buildings.
During its 152 years of existence, the town was affected by slave rebellion, fire and an earthquake, but was destroyed in the wake of a devastating pirate attack in 1671. Since it was relocated and never rebuilt, Panamá Viejo preserves its original layout, a slightly irregular, somewhat rudimentary grid with blocks of various sizes. There is archaeological evidence of the original street pattern and the location of domestic, religious and civic structures. The site is an exceptional testimony of colonial town planning; the ruins of its cathedral, convents and public buildings showcase unique technological and stylistic characteristics of its temporal and cultural context. It also offers invaluable information on a variety of aspects of social life, economy, communications and the vulnerability of a strategic site within the geopolitical dynamics at the height of Spanish imperial power.
In 1673 the city was moved some 7.5 km southeast, to a small peninsula at the foot of Ancón hill, closer to the islands that were used as the port and near the mouth of a river that eventually became the entrance of the Panama Canal. The relocated town, known today as Casco Antiguo or the Historic District of Panama, not only had better access to fresh water but could be fortified. The military engineers, moreover, took advantage of the morphological conditions that complemented the wall surrounding the peninsula, all of which prevented direct naval approaches by an enemy. The area within the walls had an orthogonal layout, with a central plaza and streets of different widths; outside the walls the suburb of Santa Ana had an irregular layout. There is a centrally-located main plaza (which was enlarged in the 19th century) and several smaller post-colonial plazas on the fringes. Most of the seaward walls of the colonial fortifications and parts of the landward bastions and moat survive. Several buildings within the District are identified as important for the country’s 17th-20th century heritage. Most outstanding are the churches, above all the cathedral with its five aisles and timber roof; San Felipe Neri, San José, San Francisco and especially La Merced with its well-preserved colonial timber roof. The Presidential Palace originally built in the late 17th century and partially reconstructed in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, is a revealing example of the transformations that characterize the Historic District as a whole. The House of the Municipality, the Canal Museum building (originally the Grand Hotel), the National Theatre, the Ministry of Government and Justice and the Municipal Palace are outstanding buildings of a more recent period. There are several exceptional examples of domestic architecture from the colonial period, above all the mid-18th century Casa Góngora, and also several hundred houses from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries that illustrate the transformation of living concepts from the colonial period to modern times. These include not only upper-class houses from the entire period, but also 2- to 5-floor apartment houses and wooden tenement buildings from the early 20th century erected to satisfy the requirements of a more stratified urban society
Particularly relevant is the Salón Bolivar, originally the Chapter Hall of the convent of San Francisco, which is the only surviving part of the 17th-18th century complex. The Salón Bolívar has special historical importance as the site of the visionary, but abortive attempt by Simon Bolivar in 1826 to establish what would have been the world’s first multinational and continental congress.
The present-day appearance of the Historic District is marked by a unique blend of 19th- and early 20th century architecture inspired in late colonial, Caribbean, Gulf Coast, French and eclectic (mostly Neo-Renaissance) styles. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, building styles evolved significantly, but spatial principles were fundamentally preserved. The Historic District’s layout, a complex grid with streets and blocks of different widths and sizes and fortifications inspired in late Renaissance treaties, is an exceptional and probably unique example of 17th-century colonial town planning in the Americas. These special qualities, which differentiate the Property from other colonial cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, resulted from the construction, first of a railroad (1850-55) and then a canal (1880-1914) that linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The construction of the canal, a landmark in the history the Americas and the world, had a tangible effect on the development of the Historic District and its surrounding area.
Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo
The Fortifications on the Caribbean side of Panamá: Portobelo and San Lorenzo are located along the coast of the Province of Colón. There are diverse fortification sites around the Bay of Portobelo, denominated San Fernando fortifications: Lower Battery, Upper Battery and Hilltop Stronghold; San Jerónimo Battery Fort; Santiago fortifications: Castle of Santiago de la Gloria, Battery and Hilltop Stronghold; the old Santiago Fortress; ruins of Fort Farnese; the La Trinchera site; the Buenaventura Battery; and the San Cristóbal site. Forty-three kilometers away, at the mouth the Chagres River stands the San Lorenzo Castle (originally “San Lorenzo el Real del Chagre”) with its Upper Battery as a separate structure.
The component parts of the property represent characteristic examples of military architecture developed by the Spanish Empire in its New World territories largely between the 17th and the 18th centuries. The first plans for fortifying the entrance to the Bay of Portobelo and the mouth of the Chagres River were prepared in 1586 by Bautista Antonelli. Following his recommendations, the first fortifications in Portobelo were begun in the 1590’s. As a whole, these structures comprised a defensive line to protect Portobelo’s harbour and the mouth of the Chagres River, which were the Caribbean terminals of the transcontinental route across the Isthmus of Panama. The defensive system includes fortifications in different styles, some of them skilfully integrated into the natural landscape as part of its military defensive design. They were also adapted to the changing needs of defensive technologies in the course of three centuries in order to protect the capital resources sent from colonial America to Spain after crossing the Isthmus of Panama. In the earliest constructions, a military style with mediaeval features prevailed, while in the eighteenth century the structures were rebuilt in the neo-classical style, which can be observed at the forts of Santiago, San Jeronimo and San Fernando, and also at San Lorenzo.
On the regional scale, these military compounds belonged to a larger defensive system, including Veracruz (Mexico), Cartagena (Colombia), and Havana (Cuba), to protect the route of commercial trade between the Americas and Spain. Portobelo, where the famous fairs were held, was one of the principal Caribbean ports and played a leading role controlling the imperial trade in the Americas.
The site is a key element to the understanding of the adaptation of European building models and their impact on the New World transformation during the modern era. This property demonstrates the strategic organization of the territory and represents an important concept of defence and technology development mainly between the 17th and 18th centuries.
The town of San Felipe de Portobelo was founded in March 20th, 1597, as a Caribbean Terminal of the trail through the Isthmus of Panama, to replace Nombre de Dios as a port of transit and trans-shipment. The need to ease the overland path along the Isthmus during the rainy season called for an alternative route. The Chagres River-Cruces path, a mixed fluvial and land trail, was the counterpart of Camino Real from Panama City to Portobelo, built as a response to this need.
Coiba National Park and its Special Zone of Marine Protection
Coiba National Park and its Special Zone of Marine Protection, is located in the Republic of Panama in the Gulf of Chiriqui, in the western sector of the country. The property protects Coiba Island along with 38 smaller islands and the surrounding marine area and is immersed in the Tropical Eastern Pacific, forming part of the Tropical Eastern Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR). It is the last refuge for a number of threatened animals and an essential area for migratory species, including the essentials for the maintenance of the ecological balance of the oceanic masses, and valuable habitat for cetaceans, sharks, sea turtles and a large variety of pelagic fish species of high importance to regional level fisheries.
The property contains marine environments that have characteristics of both a continental and oceanic influence, and include insular marine coastal and terrestrial island ecosystems. This wide range of environments and resulting habitats is a result of the property’s location, close to the edge of the continental platform and at the same time to the mainland. These features combine to produce landscapes of incomparable beauty that are home to an exceptionally high level of endemism for mammals, birds and plants. An outstanding natural laboratory, the property provides a key ecological link to the Tropical Eastern Pacific and an important area for scientific research.
The size and length of the property allows for the protection of a whole and healthy ecosystem that is one of the last major refuges for rare and endangered species of tropical America. The conservation of the property is the main objective of close cooperation between the several stakeholders that form the Coiba National Park’s Directors Board, the authority responsible for the governance and management of the property.
Darien National Park
Darien National Park extends across some 575.000 hectares in the Darien Province of Southeastern Panama. The largest protected area in Panama, Darien is also among the largest and most valuable protected areas in Central America. The property includes a stretch of the Pacific Coast and almost the entire border with neighbouring Colombia. This includes a shared border with Los Katios National Park, likewise a World Heritage property. From sea level to Cerro Tacarcuna at 1,875 m.a.s.l., the property boasts an exceptional variety of coastal, lowland and mountain ecosystems and habitats. There are sandy beaches, rocky shores and mangroves along the coast, countless wetlands, rivers and creeks, palm forests and various types of rainforest, including the most extensive lowland rainforest on Central America’s Pacific Coast. The property is also culturally and ethnically diverse, as evidenced by major archaeological findings, as well as Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples of the Embera, Wounaan, Kuna and others living within the property to this day. Darien National Park was groundbreaking by explicitly including a cultural dimension in the management and conservation of a protected area.
The large size and remoteness across a broad spectrum of habitats favour the continuation of evolutionary processes in an area of both cultural significance and exceptional diversity of flora and fauna with a high degree of endemism in numerous taxonomic groups. With future research likely to lead to further discoveries, hundreds of vertebrates and thousands of invertebrates have already been recorded. Among the impressive 169 documented species of mammals are the critically endangered Brown-headed Spider Monkey, the endangered Central American Tapir, the vulnerable Giant Anteater and near-threatened species like Jaguar, Bush Dog and White-lipped Peccary. The more than 530 recorded species of birds include the endangered Great Green Macaw, the vulnerable Great Curassow and a major population of the near-threatened Harpy Eagle.
Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves / La Amistad National Park
The Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves / La Amistad National Park extends along the border between Panama and Costa Rica. The transboundary property covers large tracts of the highest and wildest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America and is one of that region’s outstanding conservation areas. The Talamanca Mountains contain one of the major remaining blocks of natural forest in Central America with no other protected area complex in Central America containing a comparable altitudinal variation. The property has many peaks exceeding 3,000 m.a.s.l. on both sides of the border, including Cerro Chirripo, the highest elevation in Costa Rica and all of southern Central America at 3,819 m.a.s.l. The surface area of the property 570,045 hectares, of which 221,000 hectares are on the Panamanian side. The beautiful and rugged mountain landscape harbours extraordinary biological and cultural diversity. Pre-ceramic archaeological sites indicate that the Talamanca Range has a history of many millennia of human occupation. There are several indigenous peoples on both sides of the border within and near the property. In terms of biological diversity, there is a wide range of ecosystems, an unusual richness of species per area unit and an extraordinary degree of endemism.
The scenic mountains and foothills contain impressive footprints of Quaternary glaciation, such as glacial cirques, lakes and valleys shaped by glaciers, phenomena not found elsewhere in the region. The property is a large and mostly intact part of the land-bridge where the faunas and floras of North and South America have met. The enormous variety of environmental conditions, such as microclimate and altitude leads to an impressive spectrum of ecosystems. The many forest types include tropical lowland rainforest, montane forest, cloud forest and oak forest. Other particularities of major conservation value include high altitude bogs and Isthmus Paramo in the highest elevations, a rare tropical alpine grassland. Longstanding isolation of what can be described as an archipelago of mountain islands has favoured remarkable speciation and endemism. Some 10,000 flowering plants have been recorded. Many of the region’s large mammals have important populations within the property, overall 215 species of mammals have been recorded. Around 600 species of birds have been documented, as well as some 250 species of reptiles and amphibians and 115 species of freshwater fish. Most taxonomic groups show a high degree of endemism. The large extension and the transboundary conservation approach entail a great potential for the management and conservation of an extraordinary large-scale mountain ecosystem shared by Costa Rica and Panama.