Walking through history amid the colonial architecture of Panama City’s Old Quarter
When you see the clusters of white skyscrapers in the skyline of Panama City, Panama, it is easy to forget that Panama City is actually an old city, founded by the Spanish in 1519. But in the colonial city centre of San Felipe, more commonly known as Casco Viejo, you walk through the city’s history.
Casco Viejo dates not to 1519, but to the 1670s. After its founding, Panama City quickly flourished as a base for further Spanish conquest and as a transit point for goods, both plundered and legitimately traded. Its prosperity attracted pirates. In 1671 buccaneer Henry Morgan sacked the city. During the attack the city became engulfed in flames. Some claimed Henry Morgan set the fire, but it is likely the detonation of the city’s gunpowder supplies as ordered by the Spanish governor played a larger role. The city was rebuilt on a rocky peninsula with defences strong enough that the city was never attacked again. The new location was named Panamá Neuvo and is now known as Casco Viejo. (The ruins of the old city, Panamá Viejo, can also be toured and are located in a suburb of the modern city.)
Casco Viejo fell into decline in the middle of the twentieth century. In 1997 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site and renovation began. The best way to explore this area is on foot. Streets are narrow and some are closed to vehicular traffic. The area includes restaurants and cafés, offices, apartments, and craft markets. Note that it is not very handicapped-friendly as street surfaces can be uneven and some of the curbs are quite high.
We started and ended our self-guided walking tour of Casco Viejo at Café Coca-Cola, an old-school diner on the outer edge of the Casco Viejo area. It boasts of being the oldest café in the city, established in 1875. Famous diners included Che Guevara. It also seems to be a gathering spot of older Panamanian men who sit and visit over coffee.
The area is home to the Palacio Presidencal (Presidential Palace) which is the government office and residence of the President of Panama. The Palace was originally built in 1673 for an unscrupulous judge who embezzled state funds to furnish his mansion. The building was later a customs house, a teacher training college, and a prison before being rebuilt in 1922 as the presidential palace. Streets around the place are blocked off and guarded, but pedestrians are allowed access via Calle 5 during the day to view the exterior. I’ve read that free guided tours are available if pre-arranged via a letter in Spanish suggesting possible dates. I did not attempt to arrange a tour so cannot vouch for this myself.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Plaza was used for bull fighting and theatrical shows. It became a park at the end of the nineteenth century.
Inside a restored three-storey French colonial building is the Museo del Canal Interoceánico (Panama Canal Museum) which offers a comprehensive look at both the French and U.S. endeavours to build the Canal. In addition to information about the engineering aspects, the museum has a strong focus on the human factors – life in the Canal Zone and the apartheid living conditions of gold and silver workers. There is also information on the deteriorating Panama-U.S. relations which led to the eventual handover of the Canal from the United States to Panama. The first section of the museum takes a look at Panama history in general, well before the Canal was even considered. There is a lot of text in Spanish. Headsets with taped English information are available and the small fee is well worth it. The top floor holds an impressive collection of photographs across the years. The building itself once held offices of the French Canal Company and the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission.
A bougainvillea-covered promenade sits atop of what were the ramparts, the defensive sea wall. The shady walk provides a respite from the sun and great views of the water and the newer parts of Panama City. Booths along one side offer crafts for sale.
The Santa Domingo church and convent were completed in 1678. Restoration work is ongoing. It is famous for its Arco Chato, a flat arch over its entrance which spans 15 metres with no external support. It was reputedly cited as evidence of Panama’s stability when debating where to build the Canal amid concerns of earthquakes and volcanoes. The arch collapsed years later, in 2003, but has since been rebuilt.
Casco Viejo is located in the southwestern tip of Panama City. It is easily reached by taxi from anywhere in the city. Taxis are lined up at the edge of the area, ready for your return trip. When you inquire about the fare, you are likely to be quoted a higher price than your trip to the area. If you are so inclined, you can bargain to get the lower price.
Another option for getting to Casco Viejo is to take a bus or the Metro to Plaza Cinco de Mayo and walk up Avenida Central. The walk takes you through one of the least safe areas of the city. Some guides I read suggested the walk as the best way to get to Casco Viejo. Others advised against walking through any of the areas bordering Casco Viejo. We chose to take a taxi. No matter how you decide to get to the area, it is worth visiting.
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