Old Town Evolution
I like old buildings the way some women like hats. Casco Viejo, Panama City’s old town on a peninsula that juts out into the Bay of Panama, boasts one of the world’s most impressive collections of old colonial-style buildings. The Spanish, the French, and the Americans all have left their architectural marks in this part of this city over the past 400+ years.
As well, Casco Viejo boasts central squares of the kind you find in European cities, with wooden benches and trees for shade, plus narrow streets paved with narrow bricks, restaurants and cafes with sidewalk seating, eight historic churches, the Panama Canal Museum, and the Teatro National (where we recently saw a production of “Tosca”). In this compact section of the city surrounded by water on three sides, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you find more of interest per square meter than anywhere else in the entire country. Really, you could make an argument for the position that there’s more to discover and enjoy in Casco Viejo (more history, more architecture of note, more nightlife) than anywhere else in all Central America.
I was introduced to Casco Viejo about 12 years ago by a friend, an American living in Panama who understood my interest in centuries-old tumbledown structures of brick and stone. One morning, my friend told me he had something special to show me. Turning the corner off Avenida Balboa and passing by the garishly painted Oriental-style arch that stands, still, today, at one entrance to Casco, as residents refer to it, I was instantly delighted by the row after row of two-, three-, and four-story colonial structures with shuttered windows and iron-railed balconies.
So taken was I by the collection of historic structures before me that I didn’t see what was all around them. Trash on the sidewalks and in the gutters…barefooted, barely clothed children…skinny, mangy mutts…people hanging out in open doorways at ground level and from open windows above, nothing better to do that fine sunny morning…
Twelve years ago, Casco Viejo was a barrio. Speculators had just begun buying up the old colonial buildings, and, here and there, one or two had been renovated. But the picture overall was of a ghetto. Those early-in investors had their work cut out for them. Before they could renovate or rehab, they had to evacuate. The big old houses were occupied, most times, by maybe a dozen or more people representing multiple families, often all squatters.
Lief and I were among those early buyers. A couple of years after my first visit to the district, we bought a French colonial-style building on the corner of the main plaza and renovated the 400-year-old building into three apartments and a ground-floor office. We were living in Ireland at the time but housed our Panama City-based staff in the little Casa Remon office and stayed in one of the apartments above it when we were in town. When we weren’t, the three apartments were rented. About five years ago, the building sold for about two times what had been invested in it.
That gives you an idea of the rate of appreciation in this sector over the half-dozen years or so leading up to 2008-2009. Prices have stabilized and perhaps fallen slightly since, but, out here on this little peninsula, there’s been no crash. Still many buildings remain unrenovated, but investors aren’t desperate to sell. These are properties with intrinsic value, and global interest in this small section of Panama City continues to expand.
Since my first visit a dozen years ago, Casco Viejo has been spruced up and cleaned up in many ways. The entrance from Balboa has been reconfigured. The old Oriental arch remains but now is overshadowed by a broad new passageway. While the former narrow, not-quite-double-lane road in was a gauntlet through street vendors, beggars, and boarded-up wooden shacks, today’s entrance, which I saw for the first time a few weeks ago when we made the trip to Casco for our evening of opera, compared with the old one, qualifies almost as grand and genteel.
Today’s Casco Viejo is home to dozens of restaurants, bars, cafes, and nightclubs, as well as nicely renovated and outfitted condos. If your budget isn’t small, this is a great Panama City lifestyle option.
Even if your budget is modest, Casco Viejo could be a great choice if you’re flexible and open-minded. Apartment-shares aren’t hard to come by.
Cost of living here aside, again, nowhere else in Panama is as charming or romantic.
This month’s issue of my Panama Letter features a full report on expat life in Panama City’s most historic zone. If you’re a Panama Letter subscriber, you should have received this special issue in your e-mailbox last week. If you’re not yet a Panama Letter subscriber, you can get on board here now.