Casco Viejo has a long history. It was first built in 1673 when pirates destroyed the first settlement, Panama Viejo. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997. Panama City was founded in 1519 and taken down by the notorious pirate Henry Morgan. The new city was on a peninsula surrounded by the sea and defensive walls. Panama Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It is a mix of French, Spanish and American architecture and ancient city planning.
Like so many cities, wealthy people starting moving to the suburbs in the mid 20th century and it became a neglected neighborhood eventually rife with rival gangs. It’s not a place for a naïve tourist but it’s easy to navigate and hotels will supply you with a map that tells you where NOT to wander. I spent almost a week there and was perfectly safe.
If you are an idealist like me, it is gratifying to be supporting positive social change. The revitalization of Casco Viejo is a model in development. From what I’ve read, you can thank a corporate lawyer. HUH? His name is K.C. Hardin and apparently he moved to Panama to surf and accidentally fell into real estate development. The company is called Conservatorio and is redeveloping Casco Viejo using a business model that is a model in many other ways.
The American Trade Building is four stories high and was built in 1917 to profit from the new Panama Canal. By the time that Conservatorio got involved, it had been abandoned and was headquarters for a gang. It’s hard to imagine that now, which is to the credit of the sensitive restoration and Conservatorio’s inclusive attitude toward development. Gang members have been turned into entrepreneurs!
The American Trade Hotel is definitely a great pick if you can afford the tariff. I went for lower prices but did
indulge in a night of jazz at Danilo’s Jazz Club and highly recommend it. The American Trade Hotel has created a revolution (of the peaceful kind) in Casco Viejo. Across the street is Casa Casco, which also has four stories. It is definitely the new Panama and one of my favourite hangouts during the trip. Each level provides a different experience and cuisine. The rooftop is lovely but the food selection is a bit bizarre. It advertises itself as tapas but the selection is more sandwiches and pizza. One level does Japanese food so decided to go for sashimi. Really wanted tuna AND salmon but bizarrely that was not an option so went for tuna. I had to eat it in the dark and there was no rice but the tuna was outstanding, far better than my recent food in Japan…
I went again and tried the third floor, which was Mediterranean. Had an Instagram-worthy creative modern lamb dish.
Tantalo Hotel was also a great place to hang out. There is a bar and restaurant on the main level in addition to the rooftop. My food on the rooftop just OK but
the downstairs restaurant packed so likely worth trying. There is definitely a lively scene on the rooftop and it is an excellent place to hang out.
The hotel staff were very welcoming. I got a free drink in the bar upon arrival and they booked my birthday dinner in a sister restaurant called Caliope, where you get a discount as a hotel guest, as well as getting me VIP access to Teatro Amador. Not everyone speaks English so communication can be a bit challenging but it was a wonderful day. Got to spend my birthday evening in the VIP section at the Tantalo Rooftop and even got a piece of cheesecake with a sparkler in it just after midnight, when my birthday actually began. Jose was amazing and took me through the staff entrance so that I could put it in the fridge in my room to enjoy as breakfast on my birthday 🙂
You will need to beware of the touts preying on tourists. They are Latin so very charming and convincing. The places they steered me weren’t bad but you can likely do better. Probably my best meal was at Aki Sake Bar and Japanese Kitchen. A great cocktail and outstanding sushi rolls for an incredibly modest price. Casa Sucre is very good but not cheap. Do go for a drink at sunset on Plaza Bolivar – there are several options. The atmosphere is the main component. Do have at least one Balboa beer but, if beer is your thing, check out La Rana Dorado, especially during happy hour (the Hop on Hop Off bus happened to drop me off at just the right moment 🙂
If one of your guilty pleasures in life is all versions of ice cream, you will need some steely self-discipline to avoid spending your entire time in Panama at Granclement. It was just as well I didn’t find it until the end of my visit. I love ice cream but this is the first time I went twice in the same day! I did walk a lot between visits…
Casco Viejo is a capitalist Havana. It’s a fascinating place full of history and promise.