We’ve got to know Panama City fairly well over the past few years as we always make a two-three day stop there before heading to Bocas del Toro, on our bíku project recces. Without fail, on each trip we’ll make sure to spend some time in Casco Viejo – the ‘old quarter’ – a beautiful part of the city. Do not confuse this with Panamá Viejo, which is the ‘original’ city of Panama, founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1519. After being ransacked in 1671, the city was relocated to what is today known as Casco Viejo. Ruins are now all that remain of Panamá Viejo – they are a must see.
Right, so, Casco Viejo! Strolling through Casco Viejo itself and just taking in the beautiful, crumbling and cracked pastel facades is, in itself, half the charm of this part of the city. However, as the restoration of the Casco continues the number of cracks and crumbles are becoming less and less as these wonderful buildings are returned to their former glory. I have a love of ruins and the cracks and crumbles that come with that – so do hope that some of that will persist…
Casco Viejo is a pretty stylish neighbourhood with new bars, coffee shops, restaurants and boutique hotels popping up – I’m sure there’s something new each time we visit. We wanted to share with you a snippet of some of the places we like.
Mercado de Mariscos
On the cusp of Casco Viejo, the seafood market (Mercado de Mariscos) offers a piece of the real Panama. In addition to the traders market, there are a number of smaller seafood restaurants offering the freshest catch. But for us what’s best is picking up a cup of ceviche from one of the stalls in the market. This is no frills at its finest! Expect fresh and flavoursome.
Esteban Huertas promenade
If you’re looking for a great view out across the Bay of Panama and somewhere to pick up a trinket or two for those loved ones back home, Esteban Huertas is for you. The promenade is built on top of the old city’s outer wall. My favourite part of the paseo is strolling beneath the bougainvillea arches and perusing the crafts of the Kuna women (one of the seven indigenous communities of Panama, but probably best known / recognised). It’s the perfect place to take in the juxtaposition of old meets new – being in the old quarter looking out across the bay and the skyscraper skyline of the modern world.
Hotel Casa Panama
As with a number of the hotels, bars and restaurants in Casco Viejo, Hotel Casa Panama is a relatively new addition to the neighbourhood, opening in the past few years. The interior design is what drew us into the hotel’s courtyard – it brings a piece of Southeast Asian vibes – think Bali – to the Casco. The owners have been sensitive to the quarter’s history, maintaining and leaving exposed the old city walls – which are a strong feature in a number of the rooms.
The hotel offers a roof top pool and bar, with spectacular views of the entire Casco Viejo as well as the high rises across the bay. In addition you can sample some great Latin American cuisine at the Lazotea Rooftop Restaurant – which we love. For those wanting a bit more of a Spanish tapas-Argentine fusion, pop next door to the Restaurant Santa Rita – which is run by the same owners.
The hotel and restaurant(s) offer great value for money and great hospitality; the level of service is five star, not something you get everywhere in the city!
American Trade Hotel
To us, the American Trade Hotel is a sanctuary in the heart of Casco Viejo. Always cool and airy, it’s stunningly designed and somewhere you can escape the Panama heat! The hotel’s lobby boasts high ceilings and a modern twist on ‘colonial’ design. You feel like you’re stepping back in time but simultaneously are in contemporary surroundings – quite an achievement. As with many of the buildings in the Casco, the American Trade Hotel has an interesting history. Built in 1917, designed by Leonardo Villanueva Meyer, the building was home to a department store as well as apartments. I would strongly recommend reading the Yatzer article for further details about the hotel, its history and restoration.
This place is definitely worth a stay – try to book a room that looks out across Plaza Herrera for the best views of the bay. In addition, it’s become quite a hub for creatives, so expect MacBooks and entrepreneur meetings alongside the mocha. The latter can be picked up from Café Unido, also housed in the hotel’s lobby.
The restoration of Casco Viejo has saved many of the buildings. KC Hardin – the man behind much of the reinvestment in the Casco probably says it best, ‘you come for the buildings, stay for the people.’ And, bearing that in mind, I just hope that – with the reinvestment and restoration – the neighbourhood continues to be the home for local Panamanians who have lived there for years. After all, it is the people that give the place life and vibrancy.
Remember, stay up to date with our project by signing up to our newsletter.
Until next time, liveslow.