Casco Viejo: Panama City’s Historic District
Panama City, Panama
Founded in 1519, Panama Viejo is the original part of Panama City and the oldest European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. It was a point of departure for the first explorations of the Pacific Coast and most likely, indigenous population slaughter (I didn’t read that last part anywhere at all…). At the time it was a thriving city as all the gold from the Incan Empire passed through on its way back to Europe, but was looted and destroyed in 1671 by an English pirate, Henry Morgan, who had taken Portobello three years earlier. After the attack, its residents were desperate for an easier and safer location to defend so they reestablished and fortified themselves on a peninsula slightly southwest in the area Casco Viejo (now the Old Quarter), which quickly became the commercial and administrative center of the colony. When bullion from upper Peru began to be transported to Spain via the River Plate, the city lost prosperity and in turn, its strategic significance. It saw a short boom during the California Gold Rush when many people traveled to ‘thin’ Panama to continue to California by ship as opposed to crossing the entire North American continent by land, but the town really expanded enormously when they gained independence from Columbia and the United States took over and completed the canal project. However, with the more desirable properties on the outskirts, the district then began to fall into decline as people moved out and the rest of the city grew around it.
Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 (extended in 2003), Casco Viejo (along with the remains of Panama Viejo) has grown to be the second biggest tourist destination in Panama. It’s a melting pot of cultures displaying a mix of Spanish colonial architecture with newer and more modern buildings. The area is home to the Presidential Palace (Palacia de la Garzas), various plazas (Plaza de Cathedral, Plaza de Francia), and it’s red brick streets are lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants (although all we found was Italian for the most part…).
Casco Viejo was really the one place in Panama City that I saw some character and charm and the historic significance of the area is immediately apparent. Newer government buildings stand alongside ruins of the colonial structures, classic steeples rise above small green cafe umbrellas, and monuments and statues have been constructed with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. It’s really beautiful, but the area also seems to be afflicted by both decaying structures, an expanding city, and extreme poverty. It’s under some major construction and redevelopment right now and streets were closed, buildings we crumbling alongside run down excavators, and an eye-sore of a road is now being built in the ocean around the district to circumvent traffic. And right outside Casco Viejo to the west was an area that I think I’d be pretty nervous wandering through with a pack full of camera gear. While sitting in a taxi two or three blocks from Plaza de la Independencia, an even more rundown and impoverished area came fresh with live concaine-blowing lessons, poor hand-to-hand combat technique demonstrations (a lame fight), and menacing gringo stares.
My take on Casco Viejo is that it is really interesting and charming, but I don’t think it’s as big of a draw as its reputation suggests. If you’re in Panama City looking to kill time, it’s absolutely worth the taxi ride – grab some Italian for lunch, stare up at a steeple, and snap some pictures of some plazas (I’m glad we did it). If you’re going to go out of your way (like we stayed in Panama City for an extra day to specifically to go here), I’d suggest just moving on. Or like I said a few days ago, maybe I’m just negative because the weather (bad light) sucked.