We celebrated our last few days in Central America and Panama and splurged a bit by returning to Panama City and renting a charming apartment in the tony area, Casco Viejo, with rooftop views of the city and the bay.
When thinking of Panama City the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Panama Canal. But Panama City is far more than this modern marvel and encompasses two old and venerable cities within its boundaries: Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo. In between these two entities, each of which shares the distinction of being selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contemporary Panama City carries on its robust and active life with towering skyscrapers, billboards and neon signs and three and four lanes of traffic jammed with honking, speeding cars. All of which were jarring to our senses after days spent in a tranquil, seaside village.
Panama Viejo, or old Panama, is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Founded in 1519, it grew in importance as the Spanish empire expanded in South and Central America. Panama Viejo’s value to the crown was the fact that it served as the port city for most of the silver, gold, pearls and other loot that was stripped from the Andes of South America and the rain forests of Central America. From there it was moved overland, by land or water, depending on the season, to be transported to Spain. Not only did Panama Viejo flourish, it became a tempting prize for the many pirates who prowled the equatorial waters seeking lucre. Being alert to this danger the city was situated inland from the coast and fortified by a defensive wall.
It was put to the torch by its Spanish rulers just prior to being overwhelmed by the notorious pirate, Henry Morgan. He was now a more respectable English admiral but still commanded a pirate army that had crossed the isthmus after razing the garrison at San Lorenzo. Panama Viejo was abandoned and fell into oblivion except for providing building materials for the new city which arose at a point roughly six miles southwest along the coast. This site, later known as Casco Viejo, was protected by fortified walls and a reef which allowed access to the city only at high tide.
But the remains of Panama Viejo are magnificent and inspire an almost reverential awe as one walks among its ancient ruins. The old city’s remaining skeleton contained houses and a hospital as well as the remnants of the Cathedral with its adjacent tower which, as its medieval shape implies, probably served as a watch tower. The Iglesia de la Concepcion housed a convent for the nuns and their servants in addition to the church with its altar, sacristy and nun’s choir. The site’s location, quite near to massive, towering modern structures, offers a quick comparison of the fate of the long-ago dead in the modern era.
And the city that was literally rebuilt from many of the stones of Panama Viejo? This is the rapidly changing old quarter known as Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial city that replaced the vestiges of Panama Viejo in 1673. When the Americans’ began construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 the old town of Casco Viejo was all that existed of Panama City. However, with the completion of the canal and the natural growth of the capital city many of the country’s elite began to abandon the old quarter and it deteriorated into an urban slum. The stately homes, hotels and government office buildings fell into disrepair. But recently, a new wave of gentrification has emerged and the process of decay is being reversed and eradicated. Even now, part of the charm of the place is the grungy disrepair which stands in stark contrast to the modernized and revitalized buildings.
If the trend continues, and there appears to be no reason at that this point to assume that it will not, Casco Viejo may be one of the most in-demand neighborhoods in the capital. It is filling rapidly with a mix of traditional Panamanian and gourmet restaurants serving a variety of menus aimed at satisfying every taste, chic shopping venues and large colonial buildings that are being converted to stylish condos. Most of the old churches remain along with many government buildings, the national theater and the original offices of the French Panama Canal organization. And so, Casco Viejo stands alongside Panama Viejo and the contemporary Panama City in a perfect trifecta and a tale of three cities.
By Richard and Anita