Whenever a waiter asks where we are from, we reply ‘Somos de Inglaterra’ – we are from England! This usually then gives the waiter opportunity to test out his very good English and for us our poor Spanish. So after spending time in Casco Viejo, the English words we used and wrote down for the waiter to describe the old town were Shabby Chic.
This compact old historic quarter of Panama City also called Casco Antiguo is a work in progress. There are nearly as many neglected dilapidated buildings as there are gorgeously renovated ones. In places there are grimy buildings covered in peeling paint but look inside and there are hints of former beauty on the tiled floors and on the rusty lattice balconies. Remodeled buildings have been restored into luxury hotels, city council offices and museums. If we were to return in 10 years I’m sure it will be outrageously trendy with all traces of fixer upper crustiness transformed.
The original Panama City, was attacked by our Welsh friend that rascally 17th century pirate Henry Morgan. He seems to pop up everywhere we go and it would seem pretty much ransacked a lot of Caribbean Central America! Panama Vieja is now just a bunch of old ruins, we chose not to visit the remaining stone crumbles as it was so rainy and with high humidity my face kept slipping off!
The old city fell due to poor defences and attack through the jungle from the Caribbean side, therefore a new Panama city was settled in 1673 to the west. The new city San Felipe was build on a peninsula jutting out into the sea with strong City walls surrounding the town. It’s claim to fame is that it’s the oldest European settlement on the Pacific Americas. Casco is now surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped periphery bypass road giving the city a halo effect from above.
Built in the Spanish colonial and baroque styles there is stunning architecture throughout. Stones were transferred from the old city to rebuild the church entrance facade of the ‘Iglesia Nuestra Senora de la Merced’.
Casco Viejo (Spanish for old town) with its fabulous history and beauty was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. As usual I’m a sucker for buildings with pretty balconies taking far too many photos. I’m sure on a sunny day these beauties would be far more glossy.
Decked out in our rain coats getting all hot and sweaty, popping into any shop along the way with A/C to cool down for a few minutes, we wandered through the narrow streets admiring the new renovations and imagining who might have lived in the empty buildings over the years.
Like most Spanish styled cities there are many town squares or plazas. Plaza Bolivar is extremely pretty lined with cafe’s, the beautiful recently renovated Palacio y Salon Bolivar, the Teatro Nacional and a statue of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general known as the ‘Liberator of Latin America’.
Plaza de Francia is dedicated to the French nation in their efforts in building the Panama Canal and to the thousands who died due to diseases. Outside The French Embassy we saw the obligatory and probably only Peugeot in Panama City!
We pretended to be James Bond and Strawberry Fields at the faux ‘Andean Grand Hotel’ as ‘teachers on sabbatical’ on the steps of The National Institute of Culture. Parts of Casco Viejo doubled up for Bolivia in the 007 movie Quantum of Solace. I’m sure Daniel Craig didn’t get such a sweaty face here though!
We didn’t stray too far from the main Casco area, as a bit further out are some very sketchy slum areas in Santa Ana with burnt out cars, rubbish everywhere and apartment blocks with bars at the windows. It’s quite a shock in comparison to the luxury glass fronted condo’s less than a mile away along the Cinta Costera. Many squatters were moved from the Casco rundown decrepid buildings to make way for renovations and I’m sure there is resentment for the new money and wealth moving into Casco Viejo.
At the ruins of the convent of Santo Domingo and church we viewed the Flat Arch – El Arco Chato. We read that one of the reasons for Panama City being chosen to build the Panama Canal was due to its seismic stability and the arch symbolises this to stand without any outside reinforcements since its construction by Dominican Friars in 1678.
Casco Viejo is incredible, it’s a complete contrast to the Miami style high rise modern Panama City and has a sweaty sensuous Havana Latin American feel to it. Parts of Casco Viejo might be shabby now but give it a few more years and it will just be chic.