“I could live here”, I said like a broken record roaming the streets of Casco Viejo, Panama’s old town. It can be your Buena Vista social club, an open air gallery of street art, a time capsule of French colonial architecture or a living, crumbling museum of rich Latin American culture and history. It is the very heart and soul of Panama City.
Full of hidden gems and oozing charm, the Casco Viejo doesn’t need instagram filters. It’s a little Cuba without the worries of getting there or getting lost– the neighbourhood is spread over a small point in the city’s southeast corner and its timeless plazas and narrow avenues can easily feel familiar after an evening stroll.
So why didn’t anyone tell me about Panama’s old town before? Why didn’t I have photos of Panama pinned all over the travel section of my Pinterest account? While everyone has been wanderlusting over Cuba’s old Havana, Panama’s Casco Viejo is still enjoying its last moments on the verge of world discovery. Because only ten years ago, this old town was a no-go town– a dangerous ghetto avoided at all costs.
Before the skyscrapers began sprouting across the bay, the Casco Viejo (spanish for old shell) was the capital of Panama for 300 years, built in 1673 following the near-total destruction of the very first Panama city when it was attacked and looted by pirates. With the help of the famous canal, by the 70s and 80s Panama had become an international banking centre and needed an ultra modern skyline to match its new image.
So the Casco and its charming old world architecture was abruptly abandoned. Gang culture, poverty and neglect moved in. It was an area written about in travel guides only to tell tourists not to venture there.
Today, the Casco is entering its renaissance. Boutique hotels, hip eateries and nightspots are popping up all over town in between shells of dilapidated colonial townhouses squatted by several families settled into comfortable chaos. So many buildings look as if they might collapse any second– except they won’t.
Propped up by building support systems, awaiting the right investor, since the Casco was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997, thankfully there will be no skyscrapers taking their place anytime soon. The old world charm is here to stay, and so are the locals– the ones that will hopefully keep the Casco from selling its soul somewhere down the line.
One of the very first things you should do when arriving the Casco is take “the gang tour”. I know, I know, I usually hate guided tours too, but this one obviously sounds a little different right? Well it is. The “tour” starts at the American Trade Hotel, the hip Ace Hotel group’s Panamanian outpost in Latin America, which also happened to be old the headquarters of a notorious gang formerly known as Ciudad de Dios. And your tour guide is a former gang member– a reformed Ciudad de Dios gang member, now part of the graduating class called Fortaleza (they changed their name to get off the government’s gang ID list).
Fortaleza is now a non-profit organisation, a new wave of community leaders excited to tell the story of their streets; the past, the present and the future. The business is called Fortaleza Tours, a walking tour of their former stomping ground, which funds a gang intervention and reintegration program. Helping young men to earn a stake in their society while improving their own community, the unique program is setting an example for tackling gang culture worldwide (and you can read more about it on their website, where you can also book one of their tours). An essential and unforgettable introduction, the boys are honest, extremely knowledgeable about Casco’s history and make seriously entertaining guides. They are the key to the neighbourhood that will steal your heart.
The Casco Viejo still has its rough edges however, and its renaissance is working on Panamanian time (something we were very familiar with after a few days). Our Fortaleza tour actually ended with the former gang member bringing us to the end of a street which he told us never to pass. “Don’t go beyond this point”, he said with a knowing smile.
The organisation still has its work to do and its borders to cross, but in the meantime, you can find the best Daiquiris in town where it all started just a few blocks away in the beautiful Art Deco building that is the American Trade Hotel.
From Wednesdays to Saturday’s, the hotel hosts a jazz club with a local singer who teases you with her powerhouse vocals into the night.
When you’ve had your fill of Daiquiri’s, my favourite stroll is around the Plaza de Francia, where a small plaque at the French embassy commemorates the loss of French lives during their disastrous attempt at building the canal before the Americans came in.
Around the back of the embassy, you’ll find Finco del Mar, an al fresco bar (yes, more Daiquiris) in the shade of the trees playing chilled out Latino beats that echo out over the water. And if you’re looking for an empty beach hidden right in the middle of the Casco to watch the sunset, I have just the thing…
Head around the back of the beach, past the Bistro Paula Nani, where you may want to reserve yourself a seat for dinner later, overlooking the sandy shore. They have excellent seefood. Get it?! Okay come, on, let’s get our feet wet…
Keep going until you find a little alleyway (Calle 4a Oeste) that would seem like a dead end if it didn’t have the only access to Casco’s hidden beach…
Don’t ask me where everyone else was. The only people we had to share this sunset beach with were the local boys playing football next door…
Sandy feet dusted, it was obviously time for another Daiquiri.
This is that bar/ lounge I told you about under the trees, the Finco del Mar …
After a few too many and a couple rounds of ceviche, we continued our endless Casco strolling…
A couple more Casco addresses I noted down with my eyes and camera…
The Fish Market (pictured above) – an open air fish restaurant in the courtyard of an old colonial shell. There’s also the real fish market, but I’ll get to that in another post.
Las Clementinas (pictured below) – a beautiful boutique hotel and favourite fancy brunch spot (before the American Trade Hotel came along).
Casa Blanca – Plenty of outdoor ambiance and great seafood & Sangria on a charming plaza.
American Trade Hotel – the perfect transition after a day backpacking in the jungle. And you can get your artisan coffee fix at their Café Unido.
It might also be useful to follow these instagram accounts: @soydelcasco, @elbrunchblog, @elbreakfastclub.
Danillo’s Jazz Club – There should be more jazz clubs like this.
Tantalo Rooftop bar – a hip and lively place to exchange tips with fellow travellers, also a hotel.
Casa Jaguar – the night club of the Casco.
Casa Panama Hotel & Lazotea rooftop – Rooms surrounding a tranquil courtyard, more affordable than most boutique hotels in Casco.
Luna’s Castle – a hostel in the heart of Casco, well-loved by young travellers.
I’d also definitely recommend trying out the Cosmo-tropico-latino lifestyle for real and seeing what’s on Airbnb.
Diabolo Rosso – if Frida Kahlo spend some time in the Caribbean and opened a hip boutique/ café/ art space.
Victor’s – the most genuine and oldest Panama hat store in the old town.
Paseo Esteben Huertas – a covered walkway where artisans set up stands to sell their crafts. A perfect place to pick up souvenirs until sunset (pictured below at night).
I’m not a jealous lover, but there’s something a little comforting about the fact that most tourists think of Panama City merely as a stop-off point to reach more far-flung destinations and don’t take the time to explore, at least not further than to tick off the Panama Canal from their bucket lists. But like I said, I’m not a jealous lover, and if you give ol’ Panama City a chance, I promise you’ll fall in love too.