Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Casco Viejo is the historical district in Panama City, Panama. Settled in the 1600s, Casco Viejo is in the midst of profound change. In the past 12 years or so, the neighborhood is undergoing a major rejuvenation with an influx of hotels, restaurants, galleries, artists, tourists and… developers.
Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Casco Viejo is a neighborhood where just a dozen years ago, no tourist would dare go for fear of… very bad things happening. Today, there are five star hotels, luxury apartment rentals, artists, art galleries, churches, plazas, vistas, coffee houses, nightlife and an incredible amount of construction.
I would compare Casco Viejo to the early 1990s in Soho in New York City or Venice, California. The artists were already there and the money was pouring in. The president of Panama lives in Casco Viejo and the tourist police station is there. Even though there are boundaries which tourists dare not go past (and if your eyes are open, it’s pretty obvious), Casco Viejo is a super safe part of town. It’s also a very walkable part of town in a city not known for its walkability.
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Staying at Los Cuatro Tulipanes made our whole Panama City stay a success. Aside from Casco Viejo being the most inviting neighborhood in the city, being able to stay in an apartment in a neighborhood rather than a high rise hotel room in a bustling part of the city was well suited for our family. In the afternoon when the kids were tuckered out from visiting the Canal or the BioMuseo, we felt safe dropping them back at the apartment and going out for a walk to art galleries, coffee houses and bars – places the kids find boring. They vegged out on the couch and watched cable TV and we felt OK about that. These are the trade-offs of traveling with kids.
We chose apartment 1A Monjas. With our two kids (9 & 11) on the pull out sofa bed, my husband and I were able to close a door on them from our bedroom, upstairs in the split level apartment.
A full kitchen and beautiful dining room table gave us the space to have breakfast before we went out — only happened once – hey! we’re on vacation.
One and a half baths meant that we only had to share with them when they needed a shower.
And having a laundry machine in the apartment has its plusses and minuses: nice to have clean clothes but who wants to do laundry on vacation? I could have paid them to do the laundry – it’s an available service.
Gentrification in Casco Viejo
We went on a Fortaleza walking tour ($20/person) with an ex-gang member as part of the Esperanza Social Venture Club. Established by developers in the neighborhood, it’s a way to give back to the people who are being displaced by the development. Former gang members are turning their lives around and working in the new tourist industry that now occupies the neighborhood.
To illustrate my point,we met our 25-year-old tour guide, Ricardo, in the lobby of the fanciest hotel in the neighborhood, The American Trade Hotel & Hall.
From there he told us the story of the neighborhood – through an interpreter, James, a Vietnam Vet who has dual citizenship and calls Casco Viejo home. We learned the history of the American Trade Hotel – how just a dozen years ago, the building was occupied by more than 65 families associated with the gang, Ciudad de Dios. Ricardo told us that it was so dangerous on the street, people were afraid to take the garbage out, so it all ended up in the elevator shaft of the building.
We learned all sorts of gnarly details about the neighborhood that in the blink of an eye will go from destitution and crime to opulence. When we asked if there was tension due to the gentrification of the neighborhood, we were assured there wasn’t. In truth, we didn’t see it, but it is hard to imagine it doesn’t exist.
I like to be in the middle of good food – and it was everywhere during our stay at Los Cuatros Tulipanes. Even the coffee provided in our apartment was delicious. Not something I often say about free coffee.
Right next door to Los Cuatro Tulipanes is a gelato store, Granclement with some of the most wonderful gelato and sorbet I’ve ever tasted. And we tasted it on three visits in four days. My favorite flavor was basil – it was that kind of store ($2.75/single scoop). Keep asking for tastes – when will you return? Perhaps the next day, but still…
And on the next corner was Manolo Carocol, a superb farm-to-table restaurant where we had a 10 course tasting menu ($41/Person – kids are comped) with the accompaniment of the chef, Andres Morataya (former chef to the Prince of Liechtenstein); highlight of the trip.
We also had a delicious cold-brewed iced coffee at Casa Sucre and met Americans Alyse & Rich Sherman, who run the boutique hotel upstairs. Alyse took us to see the hotel and show us family photos of Rich’s, from the old country – Russia circa late 1800’s, early 1900’s. They looked just like my family. Although we didn’t stay at Casa Sucre, I would put that bee in my bonnet for next time. They had very interesting, local art in the public spaces of the hotel and it was well located, just a block or two away from the Presidential Palace.
Just a 15 minute walk from Los Cuatro Tulipanes is the fish market – Mercado de Mariscos. We went for lunch – delicious ceviche for about $2. If you want a gallon, it’ll set you back around $30. We couldn’t distinguish one restaurant from the next, so we went with the most aggressive sales pitch after we got the lay of the land. There are all different kinds of ceviche: fish, shrimp, lobster, combo – we like the Mediterranean which was like a combo ceviche with olives added. Nice touch.
A brand new edition on the “things to do” list of the Panama City tourist is to go to the biodiversity museum, the BioMuseo ($22/non-resident adults, $11/non-resident under 18).
The colorful building was designed by Frank Gehry, and the mission of the museum, if I can paraphrase one of the guides, is to create a space where people can think about the importance of biodiversity. That means more than make people conscientious about recycling and eco-friendly in the abstract. It also provides a space where we can think about how to work with Earth’s gifts to make our lives better. From plants that could cure diseases to how our lives are intertwined and balanced in nature. By creating this space, he told me, they are creating a culture of people who understand the importance of living with Earth as a partner, receiving and giving in mutual beneficence.
The highlight of the BioMuseo was the Panorama room where screens three stories high as well as underfoot and overhead put the viewer in the middle of a rainstorm, the ocean, a jungle – the sound and the images are exhilarating. Not to be missed.
One of the main reasons we chose to visit Panama City was because of the canal. It’s bucket list travel for me – and well worth it. We chose not to go on an organized tour, though there are plenty. We simply hopped a $15 cab ride to the Miraflores Visitors Center ($15/adults, $10/children 12 and under). There, we saw a gigantic ship pass through – takes about 45 minutes – with locomotives and tugboats guiding the way.
Then we went through the museum. Yes, you should go through the museum – it could stand some updating but when are you going to be in Panama next? You’ll learn about the history of the building of the canal – did you know that the attempt by the French to build the canal was a mistake? Yup. Canal Museum says so. (ha!)
One hazy, humid morning, we went for a hike in Metropolitan National Park ($4/adults, $2/children). Give yourself about two hours for a beautiful jungle trail walk in the middle of the city. The payoff is the breathtking view of the city as well as industrious ants, sloths, lizards, turtles and more. It’s an easy walk, even for the kids. But it’s HOT. You will sweat.
Panama City was a great-three day stop at the end of our Costa Rica beach vacation. Nice to be back in an urban setting, easy to get around and truthfully, the beauty and functionality of Casco Viejo and our apartment in Los Cuatro Tulipanes made the visit much more interesting than it could ever be in a high-rise hotel.
It’s a sophisticated trip for young kids – the food, the art, the ex-gang members vs. the gentrification. We hope that our children understand that life is complicated and that there can be second chances and that people evolve. And how useful it could have been had they stayed in their dual-language school, to speak a second language is something they appreciate now through experience.
This post was written by Elizabeth Rodgers. She is an avid traveler, award-winning filmmaker and Los Angeles native who lives in Idaho.