When we arrived in Panama City, the first buildings that came into view were modern monoliths like we hadn’t seen since Mexico City eight months earlier and seven countries to the north. Panama’s capital has a skyline to rival most major US cities, and being located right on the water, the sight is breathtaking. However, as contemporary as these skyscrapers and super condos are, they are the exception to the rule here in Panama. Put simply, the rest of Panama could not look more different than this area of the capital. Only a few minutes away from the skyline so reminiscent of New York City, however, you enter a completely different world: Casco Viejo, Panama’s historic quarter. Developed in the early 16th century, Casco Viejo is the oldest neighborhood of Panama City, set on a little peninsula bordered by the ocean on three sides. Casco Viejo is as antiquated as the skyline is modern.
The flair that Panama City must have had in the late 19th century is still tangible when strolling between the colonial buildings and church ruins. In the well-maintained or newly renovated buildings, it is easy to imagine the bravado that must have been racing through the city’s veins, the amount of confidence Panama must have had in the late 19th century at the prospects of the prosperity to come, thanks to the construction of the Panama Canal, which would cement the city’s and country’s place on the world stage.
Today, however, that mix of former greatness and crumbling buildings reminded us, although neither of us have ever been, of what Havana, Cuba must feel like. In contrast to other colonial towns in Central America, the buildings in Casco Viejo are considerably higher and have between two and four floors instead of only one.
On a stroll through Casco Viejo, you will see several 15th century churches, green plazas and several grand buildings which house embassies and government bodies. Considerable funding, both national and international, has been invested in renovating Casco Viejo, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. The area has started to flourish once more, and high-end hotels and restaurants have moved in, as well as some mid-range spots we fell in love with including Caffe Per Due, an Italian restaurant with to-die-for pizza, or Café El Vienna, a German-run coffee house.
Despite World Heritage status, until just a few years ago, tourists were advised not to visit Casco Viejo. The area was dodgy, thefts and muggings occurred, and most of the buildings were run down and abandoned. In 2005, a tourism police force was put into place to reduce muggings and theft, and the number of crimes has been declining ever since. Whether it is because of the heavy police presence in the area or despite it, Casco Viejo feels very safe today. While we love exploring off the beaten path, there are some sincerely shady areas in Casco Viejo (multi-storey makeshift shanties and such) that would be better to avoid, especially at night.
Most of Casco Viejo’s buildings have had a fresh coat of paint slapped on, several have undergone major renovation, and the area has now been converted into one of the most well-preserved colonial towns of Central America. The influence of the Europeans is ever present and the high buildings, featuring the typical Spanish window shutters and grand French balconies, but the combination of renovated and run-down means you never forget that you are in Panama. Freshly-painted iron-gated balconies feature colorful flowers, while right next door, it is the colorful laundry which catches your eye as it hangs over the old rusty balconies which seem as though they could collapse at any moment.
Some buildings seem one breezy day away from falling down, but seen through the eyes of the temporary traveler, the buildings add to the neighborhood’s charm.
The indigenous Kuna women arrive in the early mornings, in their traditional dress, to set up their market stalls near Casco Viejo’s waterfront, where they sell their famous and unique hand-made ‘molas’ (clothes in Kuna language) and blankets in the typical bright colors. Over in the business district, where people identify more with the U.S. than with their own Panama, the Kuna presence is nearly non-existent, just one example of how the two areas of Panama City feel like two entirely different worlds.
End your stroll with a walk along the promenade, which offers marvelous views of Panama City’s skyline, especially at night. Pick up a Panama hat (you’ll never find them cheaper – surprise, surprise – than here in Panama) and other souvenirs. Get yourself a raspado, or shaved ice topped with fruit syrup and condensed milk, from one of the food carts and try to gobble up your ‘snow cone’ before it melts in the hot Panama sun.