When I was a kid, my mom used to take me to San Diego’s Old Town. I remember the dancing señoritas and the delicious snacks and the old architecture. I was fascinated with every aspect of old-fashioned living. The first time I strolled through Panama’s old quarter, Casco Viejo, it brought back instant memories of those fun childhood trips.
This is Panama’s version of old town; a town that existed solely to house Panama City’s residents after they burned Panama Viejo to the ground in anticipation of Captain Morgan and his pirates’ attack. The narrow slip of land that juts out onto the water, with its sea wall and reef, was the best defense the people had against surprise attacks from the sea.
Right after I moved to Panama, I got hooked on the hit T.V. show, Prison Break. When I reached season 3, the season that took place mostly in Panama (at a fake prison called La Sona), I kept thinking, “Where the hell are they filming this? I don’t remember seeing any area like that.” See, I’d visited Panama several times before moving here, but none of those trips included the must-see tourist hotspots. My first trip here was for my wedding and most of it was spent in the country’s interior, my second trip was so that I could get baptized in a Catholic church with my first daughter, and the third trip was for my brother-in-law’s wedding. I was always here on some serious business, so I never got the chance to do all the touristy stuff.
When I moved here it was pretty much the same story. I just kind of skipped all the tourist activities. I lived here three years before I visited Casco Viejo the first time. It wasn’t until I started really digging into Panama and trying to discover all the great things about this country that I actually got out and experienced all it has to offer. Casco Viejo is one of them.
Located at the end (or the beginning depending on which way you’re driving) of the new bay-front Cinta Costera, Casco Viejo, or what’s also referred to as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, is a UNESCO recognized World Heritage site, and one of the fastest renovation stories in Latin America.
Now, it’s an eclectic mix of modern nightclubs, restaurants, and cafes blended with old-world architecture, museums, and monuments—bottom line is it’s a kickass place to play, stay, and build your new life around. Let me tell you all about it.
What’s This Place All About?
One of our Panama For Real readers and friends recently mentioned his trip to Casco Viejo during a tour. He said that it reminded him of the French Quarter in New Orleans. I can definitely see that. After all, the Spanish and the French tried their hand at living in the seaside town, long ago, leaving their thumbprints on the local scenery. Most of the buildings are Spanish-Colonial, but the French influence is definitely felt.
This is a part of town where society’s elite once lived, but then abandoned for ruin when they got the urge to spread their wings and depart the town that was originally meant to be a security measure. Once the majority of the population fled, Casco Viejo went downhill, becoming one of the slums of Panama. Now, proud Panamanians are hard at work transforming this pretty, but neglected piece of historical significance into one of the hottest places the city has to offer.
This is a place for people who truly care about being a part of preserving the town’s historical authenticity. In the past, smart real estate moguls began buying real estate in the old town with the sole purpose of holding onto it long enough to resell it at a higher price. Basically, they were sitting on these properties with no intention of restoring them, so the district was having a hard time fixing up its area, with these dilapidated buildings blocking progress.
Finally, the government put its foot down and actually began threatening to yank the properties out from under these investors unless they began restoring the buildings they’d purchased. This is a town trying to climb out from under the rubble, so if you’re not interested in buying and helping with this endeavor, you’re best off staying out of the way of those who are. It’s not the place for the selfish. Assist progress or get out. That seems to be the message.
If you do decide to set up shop in the old quarter, you’ll find that it’s an amazing place to spend your days and a fascinating place to spend your evenings. Casco Viejo is alive with a happy buzz that seems so much chiller (as in laid back, this place definitely isn’t cold) than the hectic hustle and bustle you find just a little over a stone’s throw away in downtown Panama City. Life just seems to slow down once you reach the town’s doormat.
While most of Panama City would not be considered a walking town (as the sidewalks are known to be a mess), Casco Viejo gives you the opportunity to get out on foot and lose yourself in its antique-like aura.
Every time I visit Casco Viejo, I can’t help feeling like I’m on a Universal Studios movie back lot. Many of the old homes are painted with fresh, lively colors, like the soft blues and yellows you see in the photo below. Oftentimes you’ll find vendors pushing carts full of raspados (snow cones, usually with sweetened condensed milk drizzled over the top), the corn-based drink chicheme, or paletas (popsicles).
This is truly a tourist town. You can see that as soon as you drive in and find the row of buses lined up, parked, and waiting for groups to return from walking trips through the old town. As you make your way through the maze of one-way streets, you’ll see foreigners with cameras draped around their necks and big sun-blocker hats. Hearing English spoken is quite common as oftentimes the language is spouting from the lips of tour guides telling everyone the town’s exciting past and what lies ahead for its future.
I’m not going to go into all of the tourist sights as that would take too long. I tried to cover as many as possible in my Casco Viejo video, which you can see by clicking here.
You’ll find everything from the original Catholic churches to the National Theater where the IFF, International Film Festival of Panama, takes place. Even the Presidential Palace is located here, although I couldn’t get too close with the heavy security guarding the entry and exit streets.
It really is a museum town. Every street holds some sort of monument of historical significance and the best part is, walking around is absolutely free. You’ll pay if you want to have a guided tour or want to enter some of the museums, but if you’re looking for a very low cost way to spend the day, just walk around Casco Viejo for a while.
You know, here at Panama For Real, I have to keep it real, so it’s important that I tell you about some of the not-so-beautiful things you’ll see in Casco Viejo. It’s very important that people know about these things ahead of time, because when they don’t, they visit one of Panama’s towns, get a sour taste in their mouth, then head home to blog about all the unsightly things they encountered.
That said, the main streets in Casco Viejo are quite clean, but if you travel to the outskirts, you’ll find some garbage lying around, especially at low tide. I went out looking for this stuff though, so if you stay where the tourists usually hang out, you might not run into this at all. I like to know everything about a place, so I seek out the things you might bump into and be concerned about, like a homeless person I found sleeping on the sidewalk near the construction trade school in town. I saw the stray cats and dogs, some sleeping on the sidewalk, some scavenging for food. I took photos of some of it (not sure why now that I think about it, it’s not like you’ve never seen dog poop. If you’d like to see the dog poop, just shoot me an email).
Also, it’s important that you remember regular people live here. This is a typical Panamanian neighborhood being rebuilt, so you’ll see things that you’d see in any other neighborhood in Panama, like clothes hung up to dry out on many of the balconies. Right in the heart of Casco Viejo, where many of the cafes, restaurants, and bars are located, people are going about their normal lives.
As you make your way around the city, there’s a good chance you’ll see people hanging out on their front stoops, making you almost feel like you’re smack dab in the middle of Brooklyn. The last time I was in Casco at night, I saw a group of friends in one of the alleys sitting on lawn chairs with meat on the grill and beer in hand. I appreciate that and think it’s one of the things that makes this place great. Life goes on here.
Graffiti marks some of the walls in town. Some of it is kind of cool and adds a bit of artistic flair to the town, and then some of it is just ridiculous, like a person’s name written in what looks like a gigantic magic marker. I’d personally like to find the people responsible, probably teenagers, and give them a good caning (okay maybe that’s harsh, I just happen to be listening to Charlie Daniels’ Simple Man right now).
Another concern people might have, if planning to live here, is the amount of construction that’s going on. All day, most days of the week, you’ll see construction vehicles and workers tearing up some of the old structures and building new ones. It’s just part of the process. That, and you’ll still find a lot of dilapidated buildings sprinkled in with the newly revamped ones. It’s progress. This is a major facelift we’re talking about and it’s going to take a little bit of time. That’s something you’ll have to keep in mind.
It’s not going to be cleaned up over night, but when it finally reaches completion, I think Casco Viejo is going to be a sight to behold and everyone will wish he or she had gotten in early. So, if you’re headed to Casco Viejo for a visit, expect that you might see these things and just ignore them as they definitely shouldn’t play a factor in whether or not you like the area. Hell, when I went to see the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, I had to step over two homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, right out in public, so as with most things that can be cleaned up in the city, they’re not unique to Panama.
One thing you’ll definitely notice is the amount of police presence in Casco Viejo. The tourist police and presidential guard are on nearly every corner. Plus, you’ll see them riding around in golf carts, in patrol vehicles, or on bicycle.
The government takes the safety of tourists very seriously and wants to make sure no one has a problem while in Casco. Plus, with the Presidential Palace located here, the ability to have a swarm of police respond to any incident is of paramount importance. What does this mean to you? It means whether you’re just visiting or living here, you’re in one of the safest places in all of Panama City.
However, you’ll notice as you start to make your way around town, at one point the police presence begins to thin out. Suddenly there aren’t cops directing traffic anymore. This means you’ve wandered too far and probably need to turn around ASAP and hightail it back towards Casco Viejo, as you’ve probably reached Chorrillo, one of the not-so-safe areas, for tourists and Panamanians. I have to be honest here. I hate to badmouth any area of this country, but this is one part of town you don’t want to get lost in. So just stick to the brighter, cleaner areas of the tourist town and you’ll be perfectly fine.
Back to the fun stuff, Casco Viejo, for those visiting and those living here, is a great place to unwind and a popular lunch spot. During lunchtime you’ll find a bit of traffic congestion as people flock to the area to dine at the great restaurants. Tantalo’s macaroni and cheese is awesome. I can eat macaroni and cheese anytime, but Tantalo throws some shrimp into the mix and it’s to die for. Since I’ve moved on to the specifics, let’s talk about what it’s like to live in Casco Viejo.
What’s it like to live here?
Don’t expect to get a lot of shopping done in Casco Viejo as you’ll only find a few boutique clothing stores and souvenir shops. The great news is that you’re in Panama City, so getting to Albrook Mall, Multicentro, or Multiplaza malls is super easy. If you own a car it’ll take just a few minutes to drive to these shopping plazas or just hop in a taxi. Getting from Casco Viejo to the closest mall, Multicentro, should cost about $3 (expect to be quoted $15, which you could probably talk down to $5, if you’re wearing the typical gringo Hawaiian T-shirt). You can walk from Casco Viejo to Multicentro Mall (at the opposite end of the Cinta Costera), but I have to warn you, if you’re not used to the Panama sun and humidity, you’ll be soaked with sweat by the time you get there.
You can walk to Avenida Central, which is at the end of the street you’d take to depart Casco Viejo, but just be careful down there. You won’t find as many cops around. This is where you’ll find the more affordable folklore and tipico outfits for your kids’ school.
This is where my wife and mother-in-law took the kids to get cutarras (the leather sandals), sombreros, and faldas (skirts). The area where you’ll find this stuff is called Sal Si Puedes (translates to Get Out If You Can, but don’t let that bother you, haha).
The names of the streets and areas here crack me up. If we gringos knew Spanish well enough, we’d probably be too scared to go anywhere in this country.
“Hey Octavio, where do I go to get tipico clothes for my daughter?”
“Oh that’s easy, just hop on a Diablo Rojo bus (red devil) and take it down Tumba Muerto street (the dead tomb) until you reach the area of Sal Si Puedes (get out if you can). Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!”
Oh and please don’t follow those directions as Tumba Muerto doesn’t go anywhere near Sal Si Puedes.
Even the name of the town Arraijan is funny. There used to be a military police stop in the area, back when the Howard Air Base was operational. When people would go through the stop, they would be told to go to the right hand side. That went from “A Right Hand” to Arraijan. The story is something like that anyway, I’ve probably goofed up the details, but you get the point.
When it comes to grocery shopping, you won’t find any large supermarkets in Casco Viejo. I counted at least four mini-supers though, so picking up the necessities should be easy enough. You’d need to travel into downtown Panama City or farther to find a larger supermarket. If you’re a seafood lover, perhaps one of the best things about Casco Viejo is its close proximity to the Mercado de Mariscos, probably the best place to buy seafood in Panama City.
Each day, local fishermen bring their morning catch straight to the dock that’s located right at the back of the market, so you’ll always find the freshest seafood at bargain prices. I’ve heard the ceviche there is some of the best around. You can even stop for lunch at one of the several restaurants located there.
Getting money while in town is easy as you’ll find ATMs there, and branches for all of the banks can be found in downtown Panama City, especially at Marbella’s Banking District. I only saw one clinic in town, the Centro de Salud, but again, you’re practically in walking distance to downtown Panama City. You could walk all the way down the bay front Cinta Costera and reach the two major hospitals in the area, Centro Médico Paitilla and Hospital Punta Pacifica.
Other than the nightclubs, bars, restaurants (which I’ll get to in a second), boutique stores, and museums, you won’t find much else in Casco Viejo. I did see a tailer/seamstress, an antique store and pawn shop, a beauty salon, a tattoo parlor, and a photography business.
I saw two large police stations in town, so the cops are always just a shout away, plus I counted three schools. I also saw a construction trade school and one of the most popular language schools around, Casco Antiguo Spanish School. If you want to get in touch with them, here’s the company website, http://www.cascospanish.com.
One other place worth mentioning is Fundación Olga Sinclair, started by Olga Sinclair, a famous painter, who launched this foundation as a way to teach artistic expression to our youth. She teaches them to do something creative with their time (not spray paint the walls of Casco Viejo like some of the more destructive kids). The Olga Sinclair Foundation does some amazing things for the community. If you’d like to get in touch with them, go to http://fundacionolgasinclair.org/.
What’s there to do in Casco Viejo?
Entertainment brings most people to the area. Casco Viejo has a little something for everyone when it comes to restaurants and bars. You’ll find everything from typical Panamanian food to sushi, ceviche, and Italian. You can opt to stop for lunch at one of the vendor carts you see parked at a corner, grab a quick lunch at a small fonda, or a settle in at a fine-linen covered table at one of the higher-end fine-dining restaurants.
I think one of the best things about the area is the opportunity to grab a coffee and a light snack at one of the many cafes in town. You can sit outside and read a newspaper under a curbside, umbrella-covered table while the rest of the world scurries back and forth through the crazy Panama City streets just across the bay.
Or grab an ice cream or frozen yogurt at one of the cold treat joints in town and watch one of the frequent Casco Viejo parades go by before dipping through one of the town ruins to make it in time for your salsa class that’s about to take place in one of the local parks.
Speaking of parks, I love Casco Viejo’s open-air, clean and colorful parks. I might be exaggerating a little, but it seems as if there’s one every few blocks. I filmed the outro to our Casco video in one of the parks, Plaza Herrera, and I heard English all around me.
One couple sat down at a bench behind me (made recording a little bit uncomfortable as I tend to get a little shy with people watching), and just a few feet away, a camera crew was focused on their host, a pretty woman sitting cross legged on the grass, forcing the poor construction workers all around to stop working and stare for awhile.
A few blocks away, at one of the other parks, Plaza de la Independencia, some sort of political gathering was going on, with picket signs and people chanting. You’ll see that a lot in Panama, and it’s kind of funny because people seem so dedicated to their cause for about 30-45 minutes, then suddenly it breaks up as if someone looked at his watch and said, “Lunch break’s over guys, need to get back to work before the boss realizes we left.” This was like a political flash mob.
In the same plaza, I had someone approach me and start telling me all about the area I was standing in. I had to stop him and explain that I live here and that I’m not in need of a tour guide. So, even if you take a trip to the old quarter with no guide, finding one shouldn’t be too hard as people are usually around, more than willing to tell you all you need to know for a small fee.
The parks in Casco Viejo are great because they serve as a romantic lunch spot for couples escaping the workplace for a few minutes, a lunch-break rallying point for kids attending school in the area, and even the scene of many classes, as I’ve heard of everything from martial arts, to yoga, and even dance lessons being held in the parks.
One of the best benefits of living in Casco Viejo is the fact that you have the new bay front Cinta Costera right at your backdoor. You literally only walk down a few steps and you’re right there on the water, where you have free access to a ton of amenities. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is easier than ever.
At the Cinta Costera you won’t pay a dime to use the walking/jogging/bicycle trail, the awesome playgrounds for your kids, the tennis courts, basketball courts, ping pong tables, or even the outdoor gym. It’s all free and it’s all outdoors. How amazing is that? And if you act now and purchase my…just kidding. It did sound kind of like I was trying to sell the place right? Like I have stock in the Cinta Costera, hahaha.
If you think Casco Viejo looks cool by day, you have to check it out at night, as it transforms into a partygoers paradise. It’s definitely a favorite of the YEP group, Young Expats in Panama, which can be found at the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/YoungExpatsinPanama.PARTIES
YEP is always putting great get togethers…um…together. I’m not the biggest social butterfly. I try to have a decent grasp of what’s going on, but I hardly ever go out, so whenever someone asks about nightlife, I usually just point them in the direction of that group.
And it’s the nightlife that draws a lot of people to Casco Viejo. Many of the restaurants have great outdoor dining areas, sometimes even with live musicians stopping by to play for your entertainment, hoping for a dollar to be tossed into their hat. You’ll find everything from a jazz bar to a tequila bar and discos pumping the hottest new techno while laser lights fly past your face. The ability to just wander around and check out different bar scenes is quite convenient.
Plus, remember, you’re very close to downtown Panama City, so if you lived in Casco Viejo, you could take a short cab ride over to one of the other popular nightlife spots in Panama, Calle Uruguay. Or even head out to the Amador Causeway. If Casco doesn’t have what you need in the way of entertainment, you have casinos, movie theaters, shopping malls, tons of restaurants, and bars just outside of town.
Cost Of Living in Casco Viejo
I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t highlighted any of the super-affordable places to live in Panama City. That’s because the very affordable places in the city, aren’t usually the places most foreigners would be comfortable moving to. I hate to say it that way, but it’s true. You can find budget living options in the interior of the country that are nice and safe, country living, but unfortunately, you aren’t going to find a place where rent is as low as $300 per month in Panama City, at least not in a desirable location, and definitely not with the square footage you might be seeking.
Casco Viejo isn’t a low-budget destination. I did some research and what seemed to be the average, and this is for a 1-bedroom apartment, is $1,500 per month. A few were right around that price and then it went up from there. You might find something more affordable if you know someone living in the area who can hook you up or something, but most rentals were in the $1,500-$2,000 per month range and up.
Electricity should cost right around $250 per month, but can be much higher if you run the air conditioner all day and night. Water and garbage collection shouldn’t cost more than $20 total. You’ll notice that I set the food costs at $400 per month, which is on par with what I imagined you’d spend living on the Amador Causeway, mostly because you’re more likely to shop at the more expensive supermarkets in downtown Panama City. Keep your imported goods to a minimum and you might be able to bring that amount down quite a bit. Try to shop at the Mercado de Mariscos and the fresh vegetable markets in the area.
Entertainment is what will probably cost you the most. Avoiding the urge to go out to all the fancy restaurants and bars is going to be tough. Even more tempting is your close proximity to all the other fun places Panama City has to offer.
You’re really going to have to pull back on the reigns if you don’t want to spend a small fortune living in Casco Viejo. At a minimum, I think you’ll spend at least $300 per month on entertainment.
Take a look at the budget I’ve prepared below. Remember, these numbers are never concrete. Each person has his or her own standard of living. You might spend $100 on entertainment, but $300 on traveling to the interior of the country. You might want to add a section for frequent trips back to your home country or for a live-in maid. Play with the figures and see what works for you.
Monthly budget for a couple living in Casco Viejo, Panama (City)
Rent 1 bedroom apartment $1,500
Electricity AC can make this higher if you're not careful $250
Gas For cooking and dryer (2 small tanks) $10
Telephone/Internet/Cable Package deal $50
Phone card for calling the U.S. (if you don't use Skype/MagicJack) Telechip International, for 5 hours talk time $5
Food For 2 people $400
Entertainment Most of this would come from dining out or going out to the local bars. $300
Routine Doctor Visit Once per month for each person ($25 each) $50
Medication Varies, but for my monthly high blood pressure and diabetes meds this is what I'd pay just to give you an idea $45
Getting around town Buses and taxis $20
Travel outside of town By bus $40
Extras Other things you may need $50
Total Monthly Expenses For 2 people $2,720
My overall gut
If I haven’t made it clear enough already, I’m a fan of this old town. Why I haven’t spent more time there is beyond me. I think I’m just not a fan of the lack of parking in the area and the hassle of getting into and out of Casco Viejo (traffic getting to and leaving that part of the city is usually a pain). Looking back over my own report, I think I’m going to take the kids there soon just to walk around, hang out in the park, and have an ice cream cone.
I’m not sure that this is a good place to live for a family with young kids. Yes, there are parks and open areas, but the overall vibe is much more young adult, business owner, and retired couple oriented. So, if you fit into one of those three categories, you’d probably be very happy in Casco Viejo.
In fact, for the freelance or businesspeople with virtual offices, one cool place I forgot to mention earlier, which I just found out about not too long ago, is Casco Station. It’s an office in town that allows you to pay a fee to rent short-term office space. This is great for setting up meetings and collaborating with other like-minded entrepreneurs working out of the station. Here’s the website if you want to check it out: http://cascostation.com/. It’s kind of like the fast food of the virtual office-worker’s world, in and out with no mess and no fuss.
One thing that has been a topic of much heated debate, is the new highway that’s being built. It wraps all the way around the old city, on the ocean side. Many people are worried that the Panamanian government’s attempt to ease some of the traffic woes might strip the old quarter of some of its character, and possibly even harm its World Heritage Site status. At this point, the highway is nearly done, so there’s nothing to do but wait and see. Here’s a photo of what it looks like now, just so you get an idea. If you are hoping for unobstructed ocean views, you need to know that this highway will be out there…so you might just need to look a little farther out for those views.
What I love most about Casco Viejo is the seemingly endless supply of new, cool things to do. It seems there’s always some sort of jazz show going on or a new art display at one of the galleries. The national theater is located in town, and it has been one of the sites used for the recently launched International Film Festival of Panama: http://iffpanama.org/. Local bands perform in many of the bars and solo performers take to the street almost every night of the week. I can’t think of any other place in Panama where there’s so much going on at all times.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I miss strolling down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, mostly because I always bumped into random activities taking place on the street. It seemed there was always a university or city organization putting on some sort of talent show or street fair. Since Panama City isn’t really a walking town, you don’t see that here. At least not downtown. The closest thing I’ve found to that is Casco Viejo, where it’s common to see the police putting on a street parade or some other fun activity going on. You never know what you’re going to find in Casco Viejo, and that, I think, is awesome!
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Casco Viejo video report here.
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