Many visitors to Panama spend only limited time in Panama City, before leaving for the islands or highlands. Casco Viejo is a convenient half-day trip packed with history and places of interest.
We have visited the old quarters many times and our love affair with it represents more than just a list of things to see. For us, Casco Viejo is a reminder of days gone by, a proffering of colonial Spanish style and architecture, and a glimpse of how former glory can be restored.
Our Casco Viejo adventure normally starts in El Cangrejo, the area where we stay whenever we visit Panama City. We would walk a few blocks to the nearest Metro station, mostly El Carmen, and after a short ride disembarks at Estación 5 de Mayo. A five-minute walk past barbershops and souvenir sellers brings the fish market into sight. Another short walk brings up Plaza V Centenario, a lovely area from where to start exploring or to rest afterwards.
A stunning location
Casco Viejo, the Spanish for “old quarter”, also goes by the names Casco Antiguo or San Felipe. Construction started in 1673, after the infamous Henry Morgan and his pirates ransacked and all but destroyed the original city, two years before.
The area is located on a peninsula, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the southern entrance to the Panama Canal. It boasts a magnificent view of the Panama City skyline. Surprisingly small, it comprises only four avenues of which one is a no-go. The no-go is home to the Palace of the Herons, the 1673 stately building that is the presidential office and residence.
Here is your link to a map of Casco Viejo. The area is already marked so you can just zoom in.
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1997, there are many buildings still in a state of disrepair, their facades being kept upright by makeshift scaffolding. However, the progress is noticeable and inspiring, and most of the completed renovations are truly spectacular.
A visit to the Metropolitan Cathedral with its two bell towers, the main Catholic church in Panama City, is a must. The Church and convent of the Society of Jesus is undergoing extensive renovation, but do offer very good photo opportunities. Another beautiful old site is the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo.
Delve into history
Panama is synonymous with the Panama Canal, and if you cannot visit the canal itself, the Panama Canal Museum is a worthy substitute. The audio-guided tour sheds light on the 34-year project which resulted in the linking of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans; an engineering achievement like few others.
History that is more recent presents itself in the form of Casco’s gangland past. Just a few years ago, gangs ruled the area, the most infamous being the Ciudad de Dios gang. Fortunately, things have changed and what used to be the gang’s headquarters, is now the American Trade Hotel, one of Panama’s most upmarket hotels. Former gang members offer tours and translators can be arranged.
Find a watering hole
Our favourite spot for a cold beer is Finca del Mar, on the way to the southern tip of the peninsula, near the Plaza de Francia. Once you have quenched your thirst, the plaza offers excellent photo opportunities.
If you want to kindle the pirate spirit within you, you will have to find Pedro Mandinga. It is Panama’s first craft rum distiller and the first dedicated rum bar in Casco Viejo. Ask to taste the house rums or indulge in one of their many rum based cocktails.
Enjoy the street scene
One can spend countless hours walking through Casco Viejo’s narrow streets, simply absorbing its distinctive character. The promenade built atop the old city wall has some of the best views in town. It stretches from Plaza de Francia at the very tip of the peninsula, to the former Union Club. From there you can watch the ships waiting to enter the canal. Further along, you can appreciate the shade of the bougainvillaea canopy or look through the crafts sold by the Guna women.
There are many restaurants in Casco, and representatives holding a menu will most certainly approach you. Do not shy away, it is actually a convenient way to explore the menu, ask questions and compare options.
As much as we enjoy walking to Casco Viejo during the daytime, I would advise making use of a taxi after sunset. Uber is our preferred means of transport while Lyft also operates in Panama City.
I remain convinced that Casco Viejo is the best half-day trip in Panama City.
“Cities, unlike human creatures, may grow to be so old that at last they will become new.” – William Winter
I would love to have your thoughts, on Casco Viejo, or an old part of any city.