Casco Viejo, the Old Town of Panama City

Tired as an old goat, I stumbled into the Atlanta airport this morning at 6am. I have a bad habit of obsessing the night before a trip. I get my packing done, finish work and household chores. Then I get this wild notion that I must change the oil in the car, wash all the linens in the house and polish the silver.  I make sure I’m totally exhausted by the time I start a vacation. Needless to say, I was sound asleep before the plane took off.

As the plane began its descent into the Tocumen Airport, here in Panama, I was stunned by my first view of this city of 1+ million people. Forty or fifty ships lined up, waiting their turn to get through the locks of the Canal. They sat frozen in the beautiful blue hues of the Gulf of Panama, on the Pacific side. The water, transitioning from aqua to deep indigo, contrasted beautifully against the lush green rolling mountains and valleys and the red clay tiled roofs, all lined neatly in rows. Lining the beach were skyscrapers – huge ones – one after the other, glistening in the early afternoon. Such a diverse visual.

A nice young woman met us at the airport and as she drove us to our hotel, she graciously pointed out various highlights of the city. Construction is going on everywhere. This city is on fire. Their new subway system opens in just a few months. A new wing is being added to the bustling airport. Even the graffiti-adorned buses, the famous Diablo Rojos, are being replaced with nice, new, “proper” buses. Couldn’t have been a more hospitable way to begin this trip.

Our hotel is really quite delightful, set in Casco Viejo, the historical part of town (settled in 1683). Old and quaint, full of tiled floors and cool nooks and crannies, it is very Spanish. It’s not quite as pretty as the pictures online, BUT, it works quite well – has a huge tiled shower and the air conditioner works phenomenally in this humid 90-degree heat. On the roof is a terrace with the most spectacular view of the sea and the city in the background. That’s on one side. If you pivot you see only remnants of what this community used to be. Quite sad, really.

The tour books describe this city of half New Orleans and half Havana. Sounds about right, although I’ve never seen Havana.

As soon as my sister and I unpacked our things, we stepped outside for a walk. Beautifully restored buildings butted up against hollowed out caverns of decaying stucco structures. Rusted handrails and looped barbed wire atop walls. Cats wandering through the streets. Police everywhere, most yielding guns. Neither of us said a word but it was quite clear we were both doubting our choice of areas to call home. We kept walking.

We came upon the old town square where older men milled around, enjoying each others’ company. A young mother stood nearby as her children drew pictures in the sand that covered the bricks. A young flutist in the center of the square played a delightful tune for any donation he could get. All this activity came to an abrupt halt when guards approached the square. They marched up to the flagpole. Michele and I walked nearer to see what was happening. Two of the older gentlemen gave us the eye. We got it. They had all stopped and stood still as their flag came down. This honor of their flag and country was actually quite moving to me.

As we walked we again found great contrast. Open doors here and there allowed us views into  the life of this old part of town. Through one I could see a tiny, dark living space, quite barren, active with children and Grandpa watching a tiny TV set. Directly next door was a spanking new, New-York quality restaurant, serving dishes ranging from $20-up. We walked on and got lured in by a restauranteur who insisted we stop and have his famous frozen pineapple drink.

After finishing a so-so meal outside in the balmy night of 85-degrees, we retraced our steps back to the hotel. We were stunned by the transition we saw in the streets we had walked just hours earlier. They had totally transformed! Waiters had brought tables out into the town square and covered them with starched white linen tablecloths. The place was buzzing with nicely-dressed young professionals, 20-somethings drinking wine and mojitos. Valet parkers maneuvered brand new BMWs and Audis into parking spaces along the little streets. Music flew out of windows, filling the air with jazz as tiny white lights glistened from the trees. I swear it was a different place.

Maybe the dark covered up the bruises, but it certainly brought out the city’s most vibrant and brought this area alive. This place is happening. There is a beautiful gem unfolding here in Casco Viejo. (read about it in the New York Times)

So off to bed I go. I can hear a parrot downstairs, squawking about something. He’s not going to keep me awake. I am bone tired.

Goodnight.

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14 Responses to Casco Viejo, the Old Town of Panama City

  1. linda says:

    Lisa,
    You write beautifully! It makes me feel like I am there with you! Enjoy your time making memories with Michelle.

    • lisaweldon says:

      Oh, Casco Viejo is a very cool place but you’ve got to be adventuresome. Such poverty right down the street from beautifully renovated hotels. In 2 years this place will be THE place to come. I can’t wait to write about today. We struck up a conversation with a machine shop owner and got invited into a home right above his shop.

      • Rhonda Murrah says:

        Oh Lisa, sounds like you are really enjoying your exploration there. Sure enjoyed reading your blog. I feel like I am with you in spirit. We loved Panama, but did not get to see Casco Viejo. Hope you are able to get up to the mountains of Boquete. It’s a charming place as well, and I think you will love it! Have a great time!!

  2. This sounds like the start of an adventure! Looking forward….
    Carol
    http://www.carolcassara.com

  3. Margot says:

    In honor of your trip, we ate at Willie’s and think of you and Michelle doing the “real” Spanish thing! Have fun…..can’t wait to see your pics!

    • lisaweldon says:

      You will NOT believe this, Margot. We passed a man on the street who was wearing a GaSouthern sweatshirt. We were so excited to see another Georgian, that we almost accosted him. Nope, he said in his broken English, he’d bought it in a clothing store. I think we two American broads scared him to death.

  4. Do your strolling in the daytime.

  5. Margot says:

    You should have taken his picture! Too funny!! Just enjoy the days!!! (Reminds me of wandering through Turino, Italy….armed guards, walking in 3, but the next day, we wandered into a church, and stood in line to find we were at the Shroud of Turin…..you never know what is around that next corner (but do it in daylight!)..

  6. A wonderful glimpse into your day in Panama (and so very well-written)! Thank you!

    How did you come to choose Panama as your vacation destination? (Perhaps that question is answered in a post I have not seen, if so, forgive me!)

    Not to sound like I am trying to convince you to do anything other than follow the loving advice given you above, but Casco Viejo proper (from streets 1-9) is safe late into the night…those police you mention having seen, some are members of the SPI or presidential police, and some are tourist police. They do a fantastic job of making sure visitors can walk about Casco (where the presidential palace is located) unmolested.

    So going out for dinner at night is definitely ok! Exercise whatever common-sense big city precautions you did in Paris (where I have been robbed several times…. Interestingly, I’ve never been targeted in any way in Casco Viejo!)

    Enjoy the rest of your vacation.

    Best regards,

    Jessica Ramesch
    Panama editor
    International Living Magazine

    P.S. My favorite spots in Casco are La Forchetta (dinner) and Tantalo (food or drinks). For jazz (this is jazz week with the jazz festival ongoing, as I’m sure you’ve heard) try late night jam sessions at Platea. There are also events at the American Trade Hotel but the place is kind of a mess! Just opened and not a clue!

    • lisaweldon says:

      How delightful to hear from you. You are right, after being here for two days, and being the recipient of wonderful hospitality, I totally agree it’s a very safe place to be. Thank you so much for your kind response. PS: We had a wonderful dinner at La Clementinas…outside in the rear terrace. The other party on the terrace was a boda (wedding party)! Our second day here in your country has been delightful! Downtown tomorrow, then to see the Canal.

  7. The young man from UPS who scanned and sent the photo to you spent a summer recently on the beach at Panama, worked as a bouncer at a local night club at night and loved the experience. I gave him your old e-mail address but he caught and corrected it so hopefully you received it OK.

    We are hoping to receive photos from your end.