Casco Viejo is an up-and-coming part of Panama City. This 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 area’s 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
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 safe 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.