Panama City’s skyscrapers tower over the highways, shopping malls and subdivisions. Tucked into a corner of the harbor is the historic district called Casco Viejo (aka Casco Antiguo or San Felipe).
Panama City was founded in 1519 by Pedro Arisa De Avila. For a hundred and fifty years, boatloads of gold from Peru were carried overland to the Caribbean and then shipped to Spain.
In 1671 privateer Captain Henry Morgan’s 1,500 pirates routed an equal number of Spanish solders. Panama City was his. But as they fled with the gold, the Spanish set fire to the already bombarded city, rather than leave it to Morgan.
After Morgan’s departure the city was rebuilt on the site of Casco Viejo, a more defensible location, further protected by a surrounding wall. In Spanish Casco Viejo refers to this wall, meaning “Old Shell”.
The burnt out original city, called Panama Viejo was never reconstructed; you can still visit the ruined fortifications. But Casco Viejo is the city’s jewel with its narrow cobbled streets, colonial architecture, old churches, squares and museums. Its location on a point of land jutting into the harbor adds to its charm.
From the shady esplanade along the shore (Paseo las Bovédas) there are magnificent views of the city’s modern skyline, the Amador Causeway, the entrance to the Panama Canal and the surrounding hills.
In 2003 Casco Viejo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hundreds of buildings have unique architectural features representing styles as diverse as Spanish colonial, French republican and neo-classical, art deco, and Caribbean.
Like most tourists, I wandered Casco Viejo’s narrow streets absorbing the atmosphere. The old town is a work in progress with many of its building lovingly restored to glittering authenticity. Other structures are in the midst of restoration, while others still remain decayed husks.
I was drawn to the renovation. The sights and sounds of work crews tearing away centuries of debris and hammering in new fittings was entertainment for me and other vacationing home handymen.
The Antigua Convent de Santa Domingo also called the Arco Chato (Flat Arch) is an abandoned convent, one of the more picturesque ruins. Other buildings are re-purposed as souvenir stores, art galleries, restaurants, hotels and private homes. Overhanging balconies shade the narrow streets; the flower baskets cast a tropical scent.
Central is the Plaza de la Independencia, or Plaza Mayor, adorned by a gazebo, shady trees and bronze busts of Panama’s founding fathers.
Prominent on the plaza is the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. Its ornate altarpiece is surrounded by stained glass and biblical paintings.
Also on the plaza is the Museo del Canal Interoceanico (the Panama Canal Museum) housed in a 19th century building originally intended as a hotel, but taken over by the French company that first set out to build the canal.
Next door to the Canal Museum is the Museo de Historica de Panama (the Museum of Panama’s History) set in the colonial Palacio Municipal.
The Iglesia de la Merced (Mercy Church) was assembled in 1680 from elements of its predecessor in Panama Viejo which was gutted in the fire of 1671. The baroque façade survived and was rebuilt onto the new church.
Iglesia de San Jose (Saint Joseph’s Church) has a solid gold alter, another surviving relic from the fire in Panama Viejo.
Casco Viejo also draws tourists and locals alike for its nightlife. The old cobbled streets house dozens of bars and nightclubs.
A note of caution is necessary. The neighborhoods surrounding Casco Viejo are some of Panama City’s poorest and most crime ridden. Robberies are common at night among the barren concrete apartment blocks, and visitors are advised to avoid tempting fate; ride in and out of the old town by taxi.