Panama City: a capital of contrasts

Casco Viejo is the oldest district of Panama City. Jutting out into the sea on a peninsula (a site chosen to guard against invaders), Casco was initially abandoned as modern Panama City sprouted its skyscrapers across the bay.

Skyscrapers and fishing boats
Skyscrapers and fishing boats

Just fifteen years ago tourists were warned not to stay here. Even now we were given a map with clearly defined no-go areas marked on it. But after many years of neglect, Casco is experiencing a renaissance and in 1997 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is still very much a work in progress: beautiful colonial-era buildings are in various states of disrepair, some are in the process of being redeveloped, some are already gentrified and some are crumbling ruins. In just a short wander you can see chic new boutique hotels, hip cafes and restaurants and the president’s residence; alongside locals sitting on old sofas in the street, trees growing through ruinous former ballrooms and pastel facades held up with makeshift scaffolding.

This contrast was exemplified as we strolled around Casco’s seawall on the Bougainvillea lined promenade where locals, tourists and street vendors mingle. From here you can see both the modern Singapore style skyscrapers across the bay in downtown Panama City and historic Casco.

We filled our days exploring the crumbling buildings, churches, palaces, plazas, restaurants, cafés and markets. One day we headed to the Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market) and gorged on spicy ceviche, crispy fried sea bass and garlic prawns, washed down with a Panama beer.

After four days we left on a busy Saturday evening passing Panamanians dressed up for big night on the town.


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