There are people who adore Panama City, and there are people who use Panama City as a tolerated pit stop before sprinting to more far-flung destinations. In our eight days there, I learned an important distinction — those who tolerated Panama City stay downtown. Those who can’t get enough of Panama City stayed in Casco Viejo.
The downtown skyscrapers make for a beautiful skyline, but they lack old world charm — an asset the Casco, as locals call it, is overflowing with. Old world indeed — Casco Viejo was Panama City back in 1904, when the US broke ground on the Panama Canal. As time went on, the city expanded, and the Casco was abandoned in favor of what is now downtown Panama City. As a local tour guide explained to me, just fifteen years ago guidebooks only mentioned Casco Viejo in order to warn tourists not to step foot there — it had deteriorated into a dangerous, dilapidated slum.
But then somewhere in the past decade, things started to shift — the area earned UNESCO World Heritage Status, and a whirlwind of artists, visionaries, and all around It People started swirling through those colonial streets. Today, Casco Viejo is the Williamsburg to downtown Panama City’s Times Square. While the rough edges, thankfully, have yet to be smoothed out entirely, the Casco is ground zero for Panama City’s boutique hotels, hip eateries and happening nightlife.
The Casco is small; just three avenues wide. Addresses are hardly necessary, though when we check into our self-described boutique arts hostel, the receptionist pulls out a map and draws a large map over the area north of Calle 11. “Don’t go there,” she cheerfully explained. The Casco still has its edge — literally.
After our disaster in basing ourselves in Quito’s Old Town, I had been wary of booking our entire eight night stay within Casco Viejo. By the time Anders dragged me out of the city, I was ready to start apartment hunting.
While visitors draw comparisons between Panama City and Havana, New Orleans and Miami, the Central American city has a flavor all its own. From the rooftop of our hostel, we watched the world go by as the sun went down — literally. Lumbering container ships from around the world hovered hear the Pacific entrance to the Canal in one direction, while the glittering skyscrapers of the downtown’s global financial center lit up in the other. Down at street level on the Casco, we passed alternating universes — renovated luxury condos squeezed in between abandoned colonial mansions, the doors swung wide open to reveal families of squatters settled comfortable into chaos.
Panama City was the first destination in Latin America that made me stop and think, I could live here — though unfortunately I’ve got luxuriously renovated apartment taste on a squatter’s budget. But boy, was it fun to pretend for a while. I skipped all over that city, daydreaming about turning our hip restaurant-hopping into a routine, and making arty boutique-browsing a regular part of my leisurely expatriate schedule.
I don’t think I could ever live anywhere that didn’t feel vibrantly alive after the sun goes down — luckily, the Casco has nightlife covered. On the weekend we arrived, the city was pulsing with energy from thee annual Jazz Festival. One night, we sipped cerveza at hidden-away expat favorite . Another, we mingled at rooftop bar — arguably the city’s hippest — while watching the unusual scene below. In the Casco, we learned, there’s no such thing as valet parking. Instead, locals known as buen cuidados come tapping on the windows of the Range Rover SUV’s cruising through their neighborhood and guide the cars into parking spots, and watch over them while them owners play.
At the climax of our nightlife research, we spent a whole night dancing under the stars until the sun threatened to show itself over the horizon. Where one person might see a gutted old convent with nothing left but four crumbling walls, another sees a pop-up nightclub. So beats the heart of the Casco’s bohemian nightlife scene.
Of course not everything was perfect. Prices were high compared to the countries we’d spent the last few months traipsing through — often, I looked at my receipts and realize they revealed similar figures to what I might pay at home, though the value of what I was getting was undeniably higher.
Luckily, our favorite Panama City activity, getting lost with a camera in hand, was completely free (unless you wandered by ice cream by accident, and then it was $2.75 for a scoop.) My favorite photography subject? The street art hangover left by Casco’s vibrant arts scene.
I found another free activity to combat the ice cream addiction: jogging at sunset. The Cinta Costera boasts prime people watching, perfect for distraction from a body begging for the exercise torture to just stop already — the waterfront was bustling with families enjoying a pre-dinner stroll, fitness buffs getting in a final workout of the day, friends gossiping on their way home from work, and a rare few tourists snapping away at the skyline. Running from the Casco towards downtown and then back again was like making a literal jogging route out of Panama City’s historical timeline.
Casco Viejo stole my heart. This is where my own love affair with Panama began, where I first felt the inklings that this country was going to be special. Within days of arriving in Panama City Anders told me how nice it was to hear me laughing again, and I really did feel my step was lighter. Whether it was the sunshine, the salty sea air or something indescribably Panama, it was nice to find myself once again smiling, and in the throes of a wild love affair with an exotic new destination.
Have you ever had a city steal your heart?