In the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City sultry, sexy, and slum mingle into one very, very cool cocktail. It feels like a compact version of Williamsburg but because the resident hipsters are Latin they’re a lot more casual about their cool. The wood and cast iron architecture would fit right into the French Quarter of New Orleans. Travelers will find the best boutique hotels, back alley bars, fine dining, and the best places to buy ice cream or indigenous crafts in Panama. Welcome to the hippest neighborhood in Central America.
Casco Viejo (which means Old Quarter in Spanish) is also sometimes called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe or, more commonly, just plain Casco. Casco Viejo was built by the Spanish in the 1600s after Panama Viejo was burned to the ground by residents ahead of an attack by the pirate (and rum lover) Henry Morgan. That means that Casco Viejo really should be called Casco Nuevo, but whatever.
Pirates, dictators, and US bombs in Casco Viejo
The site for Casco Viejo, a narrow peninsula ringed by a treacherous reef, was chosen because it seemed easy to defend, especially with the help of a massive sea wall which was built around Casco Viejo to keep pirates out.
Those walls couldn’t protect Casco Viejo from bombs which fell in 1989 during the US invasion of Panama which was part of the hunt for Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (one of his stomping grounds was a waterfront club in Casco Viejo which is being turned into a hotel). After that, squalor and crime pretty much moved in and Casco became a no-go zone swallowed up by an ever-expanding Panama City.
After recent waves of gentrification and hipsterfication, however, the walls around Casco now seem to be there to keep the cool in as some of the most compelling and creative hotels, restaurants, and shops in Panama move into the neighborhood alongside renovated buildings, artists of all stripes, and a growing expat community. Thankfully, not all of Casco’s original inhabitants have been pushed out and the place retains enough diversity, edge, and gritty reality to give it balance. For now.
Hip stuff to do in Casco Viejo
Mostly, Casco is about wandering through the streets, admiring the architecture (the remaining ramshackle, squatter filled shells were as beautiful to us as the many lovingly restored homes), sharing the sidewalk with the cool kids and the poor kids, looking at street art, indulging in all kinds of eats and drinks, and getting happily lost as you soak up the hip.
The Canal Museum of Panama (US$2) in Casco is a great place to bone up on your Panama Canal history. We actually thought this museum, which focuses more on the history rather than the engineering, rivaled the more famous canal museum at the Miraflores lock right on the canal. However, all displays are in Spanish so if you’re something less than fluent it might be worth investing in the English language audio tour (US$5).
You can’t miss the atmospheric remains of the crumbling church of the Convent of Santo Domingo at the corner of Avenida A and Calle 3. But don’t just stand and stare. Walk inside the roofless shell and you’ll notice a weirdly flat brick arch spanning the 50 foot (15 meter) width of the building.
Dominican friars built the church with the flat arch (arco chato) and though all reasonable engineering wisdom tells us that arches get their strength from their, well, arches, this ancient nearly flat one survived fires, hundreds of years, and many earthquakes–a fact that helped convince skeptics that Panama was a suitable place to build the Panama Canal despite its natural disasters.
The original flat arch finally collapsed in 2003 but multiple engineers and architects were unable to rebuild it the way the friars had and ultimately reconstructed the arch with a supporting core running through it.
Hip places to sleep in Casco Viejo (and one stern warning)
Downtown Panama City can keep its business hotels and mutli-national chains. The best boutique hotels and B&Bs are in Casco Viejo and more are opening up all the time.
Conservatorio is a ground breaking group in many ways. They’ve been involved in the overall preservation, restoration and renovation of buildings in Casco Viejo for years and those efforts now include two of the best hotels in the hood including the stylishly homey, all-apartment Las Clementinas (read our full review of Las Clementinas) and the 55 room American Trade Hotel which was in the final stages of renovation when we were in Casco Viejo.
You know that moment when you come across the website for a hotel and it lodges in your brain, assuming an undeniable place on your travel wish list? You WILL stay there. That’s how we felt when we discovered the website for Casa del Horno, a boutique hotel built in a former bakery (casa del horno means house of the oven in Spanish).
Sadly, our first impressions were not good. Yes, our room was chicly appointed and enormous with a kitchen and dining/sitting area separate from the bedroom. But the A/C in the bedroom didn’t work. Neither did the TV and after two staffers hauled the monster out and replaced it with a TV from another room we discovered, to our grave disappointment, that the jetted tub wasn’t working either.
These initial disappointments were eased by an enormous and fantastic included breakfast featuring fruit salad, freshly-squeezed OJ, well made coffee any style you like, a proper croissant, and toast with sliced meats and cheeses.
We ended up being more excited about Casa del Horno’s sister hotel, Casa Nuratti. Built as an inn in the 19th century, the building has been restored into a 14 room, design-centric, mid-range bargain (doubles from US$97 including breakfast). Furniture was made using wood from the original building. There’s a small but appealing roof bar with a long, narrow pool (there for sex appeal, not swimming) and a club-like bar serving small plates restaurant in the lobby where a DJ sometimes spins. Note: we believe this hotel is now called Hotel Gato Blanco.
The reigning poo-bah of hip hotels, however, is Tantalo. There’s a living wall next to the lobby bar. Art installations change on a regular basis. The rooftop bar is THE place to hang out. Rooms have each been decorated by a different artist. They even have an on staff creative director and it shows. Read our full review of Tantalo.
There are also some notable budget hotels in Casco Viejo including Luna’s Castle which dominates the hostel market and is often full and newcomer the Panamaricana Hostel which calls itself a “design hostel” and actually lives up to that claim with cool stencils on the walls, bright colors, and modern furniture.
One warning: Do NOT stay at the White Lion Hostal in Casco Viejo unless you like super shady characters, dirty rooms, all-night noise and staff that tells you one price then charges you another.
Hip eating and drinking in Casco Viejo
Residents and travelers come from all over Panama City to eat and drink in Casco Viejo. Here’s why.
La Rana Dorada is a Panamanian microbrewery with four brew pubs in Panama City (the hippest, of course, is in Casco). It’s a shining example of the brew revolution going on in Central America. The beer is good and fresh and the food is worth a splurge too (try the plantain pizza). The staff knows what they’re talking about when it comes to beer and you get a free tasting flight when you sit down.
Veggie Moon was opened by budding restaurant mogul Claudia LaForgia who also owns nearby Diablicos which serves modern Panamanian food. Despite the name, Veggie Moon is not entirely vegetarian with fish, seafood and homemade pastas also on the menu. We enjoyed some of the best ravioli we’ve ever eaten and the Panamanian Vice President and his wife looked pretty pleased as well as they dined at a nearby table. When we were in Casco Viejo Claudia was planning a third restaurant as well.
Eric Theise, a transplanted New Yorker, opened Mojitos sin Mojitos in Casco and it’s a haven for anyone looking for affordable and delicious fresh-grilled burgers (US$5) and vegi burgers (US$6), good bar prices (US$2 beer; $US4 sangria), and a lovely open-air patio environment. Just don’t order a mojito. As the name implies, there aren’t any.
Granclament has been serving up homemade, all-natural, French–style ice cream and sorbet for years. It is not a secret. Be prepared to elbow your way to the counter and remember that they do give out samples if you’d like to try any of the more offbeat flavors (like basil) before you buy.
It can seem like there are more bars than anything else in Casco (the gringos and the fancy Panamanians that party there are thirsty). However, one stands out. But you have to find it first. Look for a graffiti-esque sign that says “La Vecindad” then head down the narrow alley into an open air space with tables, more graffiti and a small bar. Nico is probably behind that bar and he’s ready with US$1.50 ice cold beers and one amazing story.
Nico used to be just another gang member living in Casco as gentrification began. KC Hardin, who runs Conservatorio with his wife Patricia, recognized that community integration had to be part of any sustainable rise in Casco so he made a deal with Nico: KC would give him the right to use part of one of the buildings he owned rent-free if he promised to turn it into a business and drop out of the gang. La Vecindad (which means neighborly in Spanish) was born.
Capital Bistro Panama was created by Venezuelan (by way of France and Spain) chef Elias Murciano in the fully re-imagined shell of what was a fire station on the water’s edge. After a two-year renovation, there are now quilted leather booths, a hip soundtrack and gorgeous wait staff. We were given a tiny, dry hand towel when we sat down which was reconstituted in water so we could use it. But CBP, as it’s called, isn’t all flash and gimmick.
Our hours-long dinner included perfectly cooked scallops, succulent kofta on a bed of lentils, homemade breads and mushroom ravioli in pasta so delicate it was like eating clouds.The top level open-air bar is a fantastic place for breezy drinks with a view of the Panama City skyline.
At Manolo Caracol Spanish chef and owner Manuel Madueño conjures a delicious farm-to-table experience. There is no menu. You simply sit down at long communal tables and get ready for a cavalcade of dishes, many of them made with ingredients grown on nearby farms. Our meal consisted of eight balanced and unexpected small plates including imaginative (but never silly) soup, meats, seafood dishes, salad and dessert preceded by homemade bread with homemade butter. The set price of US$38 per person is a bargain, even if it doesn’t include alcohol. Reservations are a must and some special dietary needs (including kosher and vegetarian) can be accommodated.
Since we explored Casco we hear the street food scene has evolved considerably thanks, in part, to the fact that road construction crews are finally done tearing up and re-doing the streets. Another highly recommended option for affordable eats in Casco is the nearby fish market where tiny restaurants turn the freshest of fresh catches into fried fish platters and ceviche for just a few bucks. Delicious, cheap and the people watching is fantastic.
Hip places to shop in Casco Viejo
There’s a lot of cheap tourist crap being sold in Casco, including a long, long expanse of street stalls where traditionally dressed Kuna women sell a lot of cheap junk. Skip that and head to Papiro y Yo run by Zaira who designs new incarnations for traditional indigenous weaving and fabric crafts. Think modern clutch purses and beach bags made using traditional reed weaving techniques and one-of-a-kind coasters made from rolled paper.
Panama City’s Trump Tower ordered 40 of her hand-made hats to use as décor in one of its restaurants and when we were there Zaira was planning on opening a second shop across the street from Papiro y Yo where she planned to sell fashionable takes on the classic “Panama” hat (which originated in Ecuador, by the way).
Footnote: Casco Viejo was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, however, the construction of the Cinta Costera elevated highway which travels over the bay and arcs around the neighborhood, has residents up in arms and UNESCO has made noises about rescinding Casco’s World Heritage Site status. The highway project was the brain child of former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli who was voted out of office. You can see the Cinta Costera clearly from many vantage points in Casco. If you pay attention, you may also see Panamanian actor/singer/one-time Presidential candidate Ruben Blades. He lives in Casco.
Here’s more about travel in Panama