“What do you want to do for your birthday?” John asked me a while back. I didn’t have to ponder this question for long. “Well, let’s go to Panama City and play. We never get to do that. And I want to really dig in and explore Casco Viejo.” I got my wish last weekend — and to top it off, the timing gods smiled on us and we were able to pick up our permanent visas from the Migración office in the city. We’ll cover that experience in a separate post, but here’s our perspective on Casco Viejo (in English, Old Quarter), Panama’s historic district.
Casco Viejo was established in 1673 when the locals had to start over from scratch after the pirate Henry Morgan (yeah, the Captain Morgan rum guy) sacked and burned the original settlement of Panamá. (The ruins of that site, Panamá Viejo, are also well worth a visit, but we saved it for another time.)
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and Casco Viejo, a gem of colonial architecture and the cradle of Panamá’s more recent heritage, had basically fallen into wrack and ruin. We visited there in 2004 when we first arrived in Panamá on our boat, and restoration efforts were just getting underway. Gangs had taken over and squatters were squatting, and it was a pretty sketchy place to walk around in, especially at night. The gangs had moved out and (for the most part) cleaned up their act, and things were a lot better when we came back in 2014, but even then the tourist police were warning us not to go down certain streets.
What a difference three years makes. On this trip, we were gobsmacked by so many beautifully restored buildings, wearing their distinct architectural styles and fresh coats of paint like girls at the prom. With its mixture of perfectly restored buildings alongside “diamonds in the rough” and complete ruins, Casco Viejo reminds us a bit of Montevideo, Uruguay, and the old quarter in Havana, Cuba. Casco Viejo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and is therefore subject to very strict rules for restorations. Building owners are required to preserve the original structure and floor plan of the building, in addition to many other restrictions; as a result, restoration and reconstruction is up to four times more expensive in Casco Viejo than in other parts of the city. This means there are still plenty of empty and derelict buildings waiting their turn to be sold and restored, with a fair number of others in various states of reconstruction.
But overall, Casco is a dazzling showcase of colonial architecture and a real source of pride for Panamanians. The streets are spotless and it’s safe to walk around at any time of the day or night. There’s a strong police presence and lots of surveillance cameras, and it doesn’t hurt that Panamá’s Presidential Palace is located there (in fact, it’s a block over from the hotel where we stayed). There are a large number of churches in various states of restoration, including the Metropolitan Cathedral, which is getting a facelift in time for a visit by Pope Francis next year. Casco Viejo is also becoming known as Panama’s restuarant and nightlife mecca, with many great eateries and rooftop lounges that offer panoramic views of both the neighborhood and the city skyline behind it.
All of this has come at a price, and to say Casco Viejo is going upscale is an understatement. The owner of the apartment we stayed in told us that CV is the new hipster area and rents are the highest in all of Panama City. Even so, John the travel planner extraordinaire figured out how to make our trip really cost-effective. Since it’s off-season, we found a good deal on lodging through Booking.com, right on the Plaza Bolivar with a nice rooftop view of Casco Viejo and the Panama City skyline as a backdrop. John also purchased Oferta Simple deals for almost every restaurant we visited. (Oferta Simple is Panama’s version of Groupon, the popular online discount coupon service that’s familiar to many North Americans.)