David is not a pretty town, and it has little that qualifies as a true sight. The best way to get a feel for the place and its people is to wander around, especially near Parque Cervantes, the plaza at the center of town. As one might expect, it’s the symbolic heart of the city.
The park recently got a facelift that I have mixed feelings about. Some of the huge, lovely old trees have been cut down, robbing the park of shade. The street vendors have been kicked out (some can be found on Calle A Norte east of the park), making it less colorful and interesting. And in the center is a weird, diamond-shaped metal fountain that’s just plain ugly. On the other hand, the park does feel more spacious and inviting than it used to.
The church on the northwest side of the plaza, Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia, dates from the 19th century, but the current interior is newish and generic and has all the ambience of an income-tax office.
There are some colonial-era buildings on the southeast side of town in an area of a few square blocks known as Barrio Bolívar. This area is also sometimes known as El Peligro (The Danger).
There are different theories about how it got that name. My favorite is that the barrio is in the vicinity of a church, a cemetery, a funeral home, and a jail. Don’t let the name put you off: It’s worth roaming around a bit here.
Museo de Historia y de Arte José de Obaldía
Most notable of the buildings in Barrio Bolívar is the Museo de Historia y de Arte José de Obaldía (Avenida 8 Este between Calle Central and Calle A Norte, tel. 775-7839), a small museum housed in the 19th-century wooden, red tile–roofed home of José de Obaldía (1806–1889). Note: The museum has been closed for restoration for years now. Call before venturing out to see it. An important figure in 19th century Panamanian history, Obaldía was instrumental in the founding of Chiriquí province in 1849. Among his other notable accomplishments was a stint as acting president of New Granada, which encompassed Panama and Colombia, 1854–1855.
This “history and art” museum is an extremely modest place, though not unusually so by Panamanian museum standards. The displays, which have virtually no descriptions, include a metate (a flat stone used for grinding corn) and a broken statue from the ancient Barriles culture, whose roots in Chiriquí date to 734 B.C. There are also some Spanish colonial swords and wooden church figures. Some mementos from the War of a Thousand Days are upstairs. Several items in the museum’s collection have been stolen over the years. The attendant can give a little information about the place to those who speak Spanish.
Fundación C. Gallegos y Culturama
Next to the Obaldía museum is Fundación C. Gallegos y Culturama (Avenida 8 Este and Calle Central, tel. 774-0536, 8 a.m.–noon and 1–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.). It’s a nonprofit foundation and cultural center that’s recording the history, including oral histories, of as much of Chiriquí as it can. This is all too rare in Panama, and the commitment of the participants is inspiring.
The place is of possible interest to visitors because it’s another 19th-century building with character, it contains historic photos of David and its leading residents, and it has a substantial library of historic books and documents. Visitors are welcome, and the friendly, enthusiastic members have interesting information to share on the history of the area (at least with those who speak Spanish).
The street that runs past the front of the museum and the foundation, Avenida 8 Este, was once David’s main street. If you squint, you can get a sense of what the city must have looked like a hundred years ago.
Catedral San José de David
Near Avenida 10 Este and Calle A Norte is the crumbling tower of the Catedral San José de David, which was consecrated in 1891. The cathedral was built on the site of a shrine that first appears in the historical record in 1722. Repeated “restorations” over the years have destroyed the cathedral itself. It now looks like a warehouse, though it’s still a hub of civic activity; worshippers often gather in the evening while families play with their children in the neighboring park.
The tower is the only part of the cathedral that’s more or less intact, though it looks fragile and still bears the scars from bullets that struck it during the War of a Thousand Days. The cathedral bell hasn’t rung since Panama’s centennial celebration in 2003, but the local padre says that has nothing to do with fear the tower might collapse.
Museo y Antiguedades la Casona
Be sure to stop by the Museo y Antiguedades La Casona (Calle Central between Avenida 6 Este and Avenida 7 Este, tel. 775-2239, 9 a.m.–noon and 3–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat., free). The museum contains a curious mixture of antique furniture, religious artifacts, and displays illustrating traditional chiricano life, all housed in a private home that dates from the 19th century. The museum has a more interesting collection of historic pieces than many of the country’s public museums.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition