Panama City’s Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is up-and-coming part of Panama City. Which might sound like an odd thing to say about some of the oldest parts of the oldest city on the Pacific coast of the Americas.
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
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Casco Viejo is up-and-coming part of Panama City. Which might sound like an odd thing to say about some of the oldest parts of the oldest city on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Quite a few of the buildings date back to the late-1600s.

But for a long time, it was neglected. The original settlement was actually a bit further around the bay, but that proved indefensible against raiders, so the town was moved onto a peninsula surrounded by shallow reefs, a position much easier to defend. And for a while, the town thrived, as you can tell from the beautiful churches and buildings. But the rich who once called Casco Viejo home moved to other parts of the city and established new downtowns. Through neglect, large parts of Casco Viejo became dilapidated.

That’s changing, but slowly. The area is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And some of its beautiful Spanish colonial architecture has been meticulously restored.

But there’s still a long way to go—the area has been up-and-coming for a long time now. In my totally unscientific count when wandering around the area’s streets, about a third of the buildings seem to be legitimately occupied, many of them with high end and trendy bars, a few shops, and hotels. About a third appear to be occupied by squatters in barely habitable conditions. And about a third are totally abandoned, many of them hollow shells, often without roofs.

Now that it has been reaping the income from the reclaimed Panama Canal, the country has money that can go towards restoring the area if it wants to. The buildings ooze charm, and with cobblestone streets, historic churches and public squares, the presidential palace, and all on a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean with sweeping views of the more-modern skyline of the new downtown of Panama City (and, unfortunately, the much less attractive Cinta Costera III highway just offshore). In short, Casco Viejo is brimming with possibility. In ten years it could be quite something to behold. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if in ten years nothing much has changed, and we might still be saying then that it’s still up and coming.

For now, it’s an area in transition. I’m a fan, but if you go you should expect the odd mix of abandoned buildings that hint of both potential splendor but also something of a ghost town feel. A fancy new nightclub or hotel will probably share a wall with an abandoned shell of a building. On weekends, the areas new rooftop bars are the places to be, and traffic pours in and clogs the roads.

Some hotels, like the American Trade Hotel right in the heart of it, are looking to recapture the old-world Havana-esque charms and have done a remarkable job of it. Others are going to need far more than a new coat of paint.

Photos of Casco Viejo

Ancon Hill Panama City View of Casco Viejo and Coastal Beltway

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Shaved Ice in Casco Viejo Panama City Panama

Paseo de Las Bovedas, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Couple Enjoying Evening View of Punta Paitilla Waterfront with Boats in Panama City, Panama

American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo Panama City

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Ancon Hill Panama City View of Casco Viejo and Coastal Beltway

Nave of Oratorio San Felipe Neri, Panama City, Panama

Panamanian Fishing Boats

Fishing Boats and Modern Panama City

Paseo de Las Bovedas, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Rocky Shoreline of Casco Viejo

Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Casto Viejo Boardwalk

Casco Viejo Waterfront Buildings

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo Waterfront Buildings

Plaza Simon Bolivar in Casco Viejo in Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Panama City

Catedral Metropolitana, Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Plaza Carlos V, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Plaza de la Catedral Casco Viejo Panama City

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Shaved Ice in Casco Viejo Panama City Panama

Panama Hats for Sale in Panama City Panama

Casco Viejo Street Market Panama City Panama

La Iglesia de la Merced Casco Viejo Panama City

Iglesia San Jose Casco Viejo Panama City Panama

Bell Tower of Iglesia San Jose Casco Viejo Panama City Panama

Iglesia San Francisco de Asis Casco Viejo Panama

Iglesia San Francisco de Asis Casco Viejo Panama

Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Iglesia Santo Domingo in Casco Viejo

What To Know Before You Go

  • You’ll also sometimes see the area called San Felipe.
  • You can stay in one of the newer areas Panama City and cab into Casco Viejo, but it’s also possible to stay right in the heart of it. There are an increasing number of hotels setting up, from hostels to higher-end hotels.
  • Because the presidential palace is here, there are a lot of presidential police out and about (they’re the ones in the red berets). There are also tourist police around with a ostentatious presence day and night. So those streets are safe (with sensible personal safety precautions, of course). There are, however, some surrounding areas that aren’t recommended for walking at night, as well as some neighboring areas that aren’t considered during the day either.
  • The mix of occupied and unoccupied buildings creates a bit of an odd feel, which is worth anticipating.
  • On weekend nights it’s buzzing as partiers flock to the bars and nightclubs. That means lots of traffic, lots of horn tooting, and lots street noise. Some streets are obviously quieter than others–it varies block by block. But if you stay in a hotel in the thick of it, be prepared for street noise and church bells.

Where to Next?



Travel Advice for Panama

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Panama (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Panama here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Panama here.

Guidebooks for Panama

If you're looking for a guidebook to make the most of your visit, these are some of the most popular ones currently for Panama. Some are available in both paper and e-book formats.

Lonely Planet Panama 8 (Country Guide)
  • Fallon, Steve (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
The Rough Guide to Panama (Travel Guide) (Rough Guides)
  • Guides, Rough (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
Fodor's In Focus Panama (Travel Guide (2))
  • Fodor's Travel Guides (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
Frommer's Panama (Complete Guide)
  • Frommermedia Llc
  • Gill, Nicholas (Author)

Travel Insurance For Your Trip to Panama

I never travel without travel insurance, and I've run into several situations where I've had to make claims. I consider it essential.

But shopping for travel insurance can be a pain and confusing. Thankfully, there are some travel insurance comparison sites that show you a wide range of plans, make it easy to compare coverage, and can save you money at the same time. And the coverage can be much better tailored to your specific needs than the checkbox offering at travel booking sites or through your credit card.

These are some good places to shop for travel insurance for your next trip to Panama :

Hopefully, you won't need it, but if something goes wrong, you'll sure be glad you have it!

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