Old Panama City is becoming new again, and that might be a problem

It was just over three years ago that I was last in Panama City, Panama to explore. That trip, like many of mine, was just a quick layover but I had the opportunity to both visit the Miraflores Locks in the Canal zone and also to explore Casco Viejo, the old city. It was rough and gritty, not particularly welcoming to tourists, but there were signs of change afoot. Lots of construction was underway and a few small restaurants and hotels had opened; these were the first outposts in the rebuilding effort.

The view from our balcony in Panama City’s Casco Viejo. Just across the street were long-time residents living life the way they always have. They’re being pushed out in the name of progress and it is a bit sad to see.

In the years since I had expected the restoration work to have been somewhat aggressive, bringing commerce and tourism back into the region. For this latest visit I was excited to stay in that neighborhood for our one night in town, hoping to experience the renewal and revitalization of the area. A friend of mine tried to temper my hopes as we chatted walking the streets of NYC a few months back, but I was still terribly optimistic. Alas, it was not really what I had hoped for.

To be fair, there is a lot in the area which is new again. Buildings have been gutted and renovated or razed and rebuilt. What once was squatters in crumbling structures is, in many cases, high-end shopping, small restaurants or boutique hotels. We stayed in one of the hotels and dined in one of the restaurants and drank at one of the roof-top bars; it was all fantastic. But the city is far from being rebuilt and restored.

There are still many facades which are crumbling, held up by I-beams to prevent their collapse. Many of the locals are being pressed out of the buildings so that the reconstruction can happen; with each restored building another group of residents is moved out of the area, replaced only with tourists. I wonder if ultimately it will be similar to Venice, Italy, where there are no locals, just tourists and commuting workers.

The good news is that the work isn’t done yet. There are still plenty of local residents still in the neighborhood. Looking out from our hotel balcony I was face-to-face with a family in the apartment across the street. At least three generations living there; they’d been in that space for a while. It was nice to be able to share their space with them, even though I was clearly an intruder. I worry that the regentrification of the neighborhood is actually just a disneyfication, making it pretty for the tourists and “authentic” while not actually being real.

On the plus side, the development is dragging along rather slowly so there is still time to visit and see some of the old town before it is gutted and rebuilt. But my previous high hopes for the neighborhood have been dashed a bit.

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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.


  1. Seth,
    So funny you used the word “disneyfication”. I was in Casco Viejo summer 2010 and pulled out a note I had written (pre-blog days):

    Casco Viejo reminds me of an genteel old lady who had family money and a late husband who squandered it. Slowly she sells off her jewels to Walt Disney. It´s fascinating the watch the process of ´renewal´. Certainly the decrepit buildings needed repair, but I am concerned in a few years it will be ´ye olde panama citie´ complete with ´natives´ hawking authentic Panama Hats (which are actually made in Ecuador).

    A relief to see at least the Estate sale is going slowly. Maybe I can squeeze in another visit before they have to bus in the actual Panamanians, who can’t afford to live in Casco anymore.

  2. Funny – I visited Casco Viejo on a whim during my stay in Panama City, also back in 2010. And yes, back then there were tons of scaffolding and rebuilding, kind of like any gentrification of any major US city.

    One highlight was Chinatown, where I had one of the best dim sum in this hemisphere. I even order dishes that my host didn’t know existed. Fun fact: Panama is one of the few countries that maintained diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and provided visa-free travel. When I went through immigration with my Taiwanese passport, it caused some confusion, but ultimately it was a non-issue.

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