Day one of our Panama trip was a busy one. After visiting the Panama Canal and the Biomuseo, we visited Casco Viejo, the old quarter. The Old Quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has undergone remarkable transformation from being poverty ridden to being much sought after.
The original city of Panama (now Panama Viejo) was settled in the 16th century and was an important port for the Spaniards. It served as a command center for Spanish expeditions to Central and South America and for the transfer of about 60% of the precious metals that Spain took home from its colonies.
The latter was a reason that the Panamanian town became a prime target for pirates. In 1671, Henry Morgan attacked the city and won. The gun powder explosion set off during the battle led to the destruction of the settlement thus making it uninhabitable. In order to avoid a similar mistake, the new city was established in the current Casco Viejo area, surrounded naturally by rocks. The natural elevation of the land made it resistant to flooding but also provided natural defenses against enemies who could be easily sighted. Also a military style fortress was built around the new city further enhancing protections.
At the time of the UNESCO recognition in 1997, it appears that Casco Viejo had fallen into disrepute. Riddled by poverty, it was not a place where most Panamanians ventured, fast forward to today and the revamping of the old town is evident everywhere. In fact, I tried to book hotel accommodations in the Casco Viejo and came up short. I looked into a few like Luna Castle, Clementine Inn, Magnolia Inn but they did not have availability.
Our driver told us Casco Viejo has two main avenues, nine streets, 7 churches and four main plazas. Casco Viejo is now an amalgamation of old style and newly restored buildings. The word “quaint” comes to mind. Narrow streets, the smells of coffee, tempting displays of food, green plazas and a constant traffic of people make for an involved evening visit.
One can easily spend an afternoon exploring this area. The area is home to many restaurants, famous hotels, various sights of interest and many different churches. The architecture of the homes and buildings that line the streets is captivating. We did not make it to the Fish market, the Mercado de Mariscos, but for seafood lovers, this would be a must visit. The Panama Canal Museum is located here as also the History Museum of Panama.
The Iglesia San Jose’s famous baroque style golden altar was saved by a creative priest who painted it black thus saving it from certain destruction during the Panama Viejo looting.
The Plaza Bolivar pays tribute to the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, who fought tirelessly to liberate Colombia, Panama and their neighbors from Spanish rule. The Panama Metropolitan Cathedral was getting a facelift at the time of our visit pending the pope’s visit to Panama in 2019.
The Plaza de Francia is home to monuments that recognize the French effort to build the Panama Canal, its engineers but also the multitudes that gave their lives to the Canal construction efforts.
The Flat Arch at the convent of Santo Domingo is of historical importance. Built by Dominican friars, the church was burnt down in the fire of 1756. Although the wooden structures were lost, the flat arch of the church remained standing. It was considered a feat of engineering and remained intact until 2003 when it finally collapsed and has since been reconstructed.
We stopped for snack and coffee at a small cafe called Caffe Per Due. The owner was behind the counter and showed us all the freshly made desserts for that day. We tried a blueberry tart, and a chocolate torti and both were delicious, not too sweet and entirely good for the soul. The caffè was small and we chose a place in the back. There was an outdoor patio in the back as well. The coffee was robust and hot.
We also walked around to the area where the street vendors marketed their wares. We came across several members from the Kuna yala tribe selling their colorful ornaments. There were several bags of varying sizes and textiles made in their traditional Mola style. Traditionally colorful and intricate, the molas are very alluring. I tried haggling at a couple of stalls but got frowned upon by my children. They were embarrassed and angry that I would even bother to haggle on the price. I, eventually, paid the price they asked for, but it’s always fun to try your hand at this. Haggling is an art and one not easily learnt!
There are official guided visits around the Casco Viejo on Friday or Saturday mornings at 10 am, 10:30 am and at 11 am. There are two good sites for Casco Viejo information:
I have shared some other photos from our visit to this historic site in Panama City.