Exploring the Casco Viejo of Panama City

Casco Viejo, also known as the old city or the ancient city (Casco Ancien) is the bit of Panama City that exists out on a small peninsula at the western edge.  It is the remnants of bits built 300-400 years ago, as well as the site of important buildings like the president’s residence and offices.  It is also, as was recently relayed to me in a story, home to many of the “glue sniffers and prostitutes” that the city has.  Yeah, it isn’t particularly glorious as far as places to visit, but if you’re in Panama City and don’t stop by you’ve done yourself a disservice.  It is a combination of old and renewed, destitute and restored, degenerate and upscale.  It is everything all at once.  And it is a bit scary, but that is a good thing.

As you head into the area there are a few things to consider.  One of them is that many of the buildings surrounding you are derelict and appear as though they might collapse at any given moment.  Even the restored buildings look a bit suspect in many cases.  And then there is the fact that you are out on a peninsula.  That makes it easy to defend in the good old days when the attacks would only come from the sea.  These days, with the maze of one way streets and dead ends it just increases the risks of getting lost, turned around and otherwise confused in a slightly sketchy part of town.

Lest my introduction to the area seem less than ideal, let me be very clear.  I wouldn’t at all be intimidated into skipping it.  The area itself is completely safe (lots of cops around) and has a certain sense of beauty to it, even amongst the run down buildings that make up large parts of the area.

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We arrived in the area somewhere around 10am and still hadn’t had breakfast.  As we drove around, hoping to find a building that resembled something historic rather than something derelict, we passed a reasonably nice looking cafe.  We found a parking space around the corner, in the shadows of the Cathedral, and wandered back to grab a quick bite to eat.  The Gourmet Cafe actually produced pretty good food.  The menu was all in English and the contents of the store were all up-scale.  Plus, they have free WiFi.  It was clear that they were catering to the tourist population, not the locals.  And I am only a bit saddened to admit that as we ate our breakfast I looked across the street into a local place with a very different target market, wondering if the food would be better there.  That’s not to say that either of our sandwiches (bacon, egg and cheese on an english muffin and a “cajun” shrimp on ciabatta were bad – quite the opposite – but the slightly dirtier places often appeal to me and it is hard to pass them up.  I did briefly consider ordering a second breakfast but passed on the opportunity as we had limited time and sights to see.

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After breakfast we wandered about the neighborhood a bit.  We found the president’s residence and offices (when the guard barks at you just open your bag so they can look inside) and some phenomenal views of the new Panama City off to the east.  We also took in the Cathedral (impressive, but not amazing, I’d say) and a few other buildings in the area.  There are nice sights to be seen and a visit is imperative on any Panama City visit itinerary lasting more that 36 hours, but do not go in expecting to see a beautifully restored old city like in many European locales else you discover great disappointment.

There is also quite a bit of construction going on these days in Casco Viejo; they are working very hard to clean up the area and rebuild the various buildings into structures that are beautiful (and inhabitable).  Given a couple years I think that they can truly accomplish that and greatly regentrify the area.  In the interim, I’d be a tiny bit worried about wandering around there at night.  Yes, there are several hotels and restaurants and bars and a lot of armed cops in the area, too, but you do need to be VERY careful in the area.  Much like the old town of Quito, Ecuador surrounding the Plaza de Independencia, there are many questionable characters that you need to be on alert for, even with the increased patrols by the local police who are trying desperately to secure the area for the tourists.

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Oh, and there was that one “bum” on the streets of Casco Viejo that remembered us from two days prior on Calle Central.  That was intriguing, surprising, interesting and scary, all at once.  Just like the Casco Viejo area of Panama City.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.