Exploring Panama City: Historic Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo de Panama) sits at the center of old Panama. After the original 16th century settlement of Panama Viejo was burned to the ground by the famous English pirate Henry Morgan, this second town was built several miles away. The 17th century Casco Viejo contains many of the city’s historical treasures and most interesting architecture (especially if you’re a fan of the Spanish baroque style, which it’s full of – Casco Viejo itself was built by the Spanish settlers around that period.)

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The baroque district of the city is filled with plazas like you see in the picture above. The monument in the center is dedicated to Simon Bolivar and the revolutions that tore most of the Americas away from Spanish royal rule in the early 19th century.

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Despite all that, a lot of the architecture in Casco Viejo is a result of Spanish influence. This skeleton of a structure used to be the Church of the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuit order. It was devastated by a fire and a later earthquake, but its frame still stands. It’s now a home for old Panama’s stray cats.

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This guy didn’t seem to mind having his picture taken. He must be used to tourists.

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One of the most remarkable places in the old city is hidden away in a narrow alley. The Church of San Jose is hard to find (just like everything else in Casco Viejo, in fact.) But it’s well worth finding.

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

The golden altar of the Church of San Jose does involve some real gold – it’s covered in gold leaf. It’s also unique for its history. This altar first stood in the original 16th century city of Panama Viejo. The settlement was plundered and put to the torch in 1671 by the aforementioned Henry Morgan, but he didn’t bother to carry off this priceless piece. To disguise its value, the Jesuit brothers of the church painted the whole thing black. Once the coast was clear, they removed it and sent it along to the new capital of Panama – the district now know as Casco Viejo – and built a church around it.

Casco has a few major plazas lined with cafes and restaurants. Most of them have free wireless, but there’s no reason not to stop by one of the neighborhood’s many locales. Panama has a lot of good coffee and cheap beer to offer, and a lot of it’s served in Casco Viejo.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The Plaza de Francia is situated right on the tip of Casco Viejo facing out towards the Pacific Ocean. The French plaza was built in the 19th century to commemorate the original French effort to build the Panama Canal, and it still hosts the French mission to Panama. I really liked this part of the neighborhood. The monument itself (below) was off limits for some kind of construction or maintenance, though.

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Casco Viejo is a grid of narrow alleys broken up by a few plazas. Pictured below is the Plaza de la Independencia, seemingly the central square of the old city. Casco Viejo feels a little bit like a scaled-down version of old Madrid – there’s nothing nearly as grand as the Puerta del Sol or the Plaza Mayor, but it has a similar atmosphere. The biggest difference is that while Madrid’s old city lies right in the center of the modern metropolis, the true center of Panama City has long since shifted away from Casco, so Panama’s old city feels a little bit deserted – especially on a weekday.

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If you ever stop by Panama City, you can’t afford to miss Casco Viejo. It’s just a $3-4 taxi ride from the center of town (cheap compared to taxis in the US, but from what I heard later I might have been overcharged.) The neighborhood has plenty of nice cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs and has an active nightlife.

Be sure to visit the Canal Museum during a daytime trip to Casco Viejo. The Miraflores Locks, situated at the Canal near Panama City, is a must-see, but the museum in Casco has all of the actual documents and mementos associated with the Canal itself. It’s cheap to visit and the building is air-conditioned. I’ve said that before, but it’s worth repeating. You’ll really want to get out of the heat for a while.

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