It is one of the oldest and most historic towns in Central America, pride of the Spanish empire and wealthy beyond belief during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has classical Spanish colonial architecture, extraordinary colonial churches, lovely plazas, a sweeping view over the Pacific Ocean and an easy-going feel that could rival Cartagena in a few years time.
That will only happen when they finish renovating Casco Viejo, the former capital of Panama before the skyscrapers and strip malls of modern Panama City were constructed around it. When that process is complete, Casco Viejo is likely to be more lovely to look at but equally likely to be less interesting as its traditional life and inhabitants are forced out by boutique hotels, rising prices and a government determined to lure tourists away from neighbouring countries.
Even though contemporary Casco Viejo resembles a giant historic building site it is still a fascinating place to walk around. Although it was so hot and humid we had to keep diving into cafes to hydrate and take advantage of the fans/air conditioning. By hot, I mean riverlets of sweat literally running off me – it wasn’t pleasant and this is the ‘dry season’.
While just wandering the streets is rewarding in its own right, there are some must-sees in Casco Viejo. Opening times seem erratic due to the redevelopment of the area, but if you get the chance the Iglesia de San Jose has a remarkable and ornate alter; the Iglesia de San Francisco is worth a look; Plaza de la Indpendencia is leafy and surrounded by beautiful buidings, including the Cathedral; and the huge theatre has a beautiful interior.
Although Casco Viejo is safe to walk around day or night, a few short blocks away are poorer neighbourhoods which are anything but safe. A taxi driver told us he wouldn’t drive through these areas at night, and if you happen to be partaking of some of Casco Viejo’s excellent bars and restaurants at night be careful not to wander too far off the beaten path. Fast forward a couple of years and those areas will, no doubt, have been ‘cleansed’ as well.