There are people who adore Panama City, and there are people who use Panama City as a tolerated pit stop before sprinting to more far-flung destinations. In our eight days there, I learned an important distinction — those who tolerated Panama City stay downtown. Those who can’t get enough of Panama City stayed in Casco Viejo.
The downtown skyscrapers make for a beautiful skyline, but they lack old world charm — an asset the Casco, as locals call it, is overflowing with. Old world indeed — Casco Viejo was Panama City back in 1904, when the US broke ground on the Panama Canal. As time went on, the city expanded, and the Casco was abandoned in favor of what is now downtown Panama City. As a local tour guide explained to me, just fifteen years ago guidebooks only mentioned Casco Viejo in order to warn tourists not to step foot there — it had deteriorated into a dangerous, dilapidated slum.
But then somewhere in the past decade, things started to shift — the area earned UNESCO World Heritage Status, and a whirlwind of artists, visionaries, and all around It People started swirling through those colonial streets. Today, Casco Viejo is the Williamsburg to downtown Panama City’s Times Square. While the rough edges, thankfully, have yet to be smoothed out entirely, the Casco is ground zero for Panama City’s boutique hotels, hip eateries and happening nightlife.
The Casco is small; just three avenues wide. Addresses are hardly necessary, though when we check into our self-described boutique arts hostel, the receptionist pulls out a map and draws a large map over the area north of Calle 11. “Don’t go there,” she cheerfully explained. The Casco still has its edge — literally.
After our disaster in basing ourselves in Quito’s Old Town, I had been wary of booking our entire eight night stay within Casco Viejo. By the time Anders dragged me out of the city, I was ready to start apartment hunting.
While visitors draw comparisons between Panama City and Havana, New Orleans and Miami, the Central American city has a flavor all its own. From the rooftop of our hostel, we watched the world go by as the sun went down — literally. Lumbering container ships from around the world hovered hear the Pacific entrance to the Canal in one direction, while the glittering skyscrapers of the downtown’s global financial center lit up in the other. Down at street level on the Casco, we passed alternating universes — renovated luxury condos squeezed in between abandoned colonial mansions, the doors swung wide open to reveal families of squatters settled comfortable into chaos.
Panama City was the first destination in Latin America that made me stop and think, I could live here — though unfortunately I’ve got luxuriously renovated apartment taste on a squatter’s budget. But boy, was it fun to pretend for a while. I skipped all over that city, daydreaming about turning our hip restaurant-hopping into a routine, and making arty boutique-browsing a regular part of my leisurely expatriate schedule.
I don’t think I could ever live anywhere that didn’t feel vibrantly alive after the sun goes down — luckily, the Casco has nightlife covered. On the weekend we arrived, the city was pulsing with energy from thee annual Jazz Festival. One night, we sipped cerveza at hidden-away expat favorite Mojito Sin Mojito. Another, we mingled at Tantalo’s rooftop bar — arguably the city’s hippest — while watching the unusual scene below. In the Casco, we learned, there’s no such thing as valet parking. Instead, locals known as buen cuidados come tapping on the windows of the Range Rover SUV’s cruising through their neighborhood and guide the cars into parking spots, and watch over them while them owners play.
At the climax of our nightlife research, we spent a whole night dancing under the stars until the sun threatened to show itself over the horizon. Where one person might see a gutted old convent with nothing left but four crumbling walls, another sees a pop-up nightclub. So beats the heart of the Casco’s bohemian nightlife scene.
Of course not everything was perfect. Prices were high compared to the countries we’d spent the last few months traipsing through — often, I looked at my receipts and realize they revealed similar figures to what I might pay at home, though the value of what I was getting was undeniably higher.
Luckily, our favorite Panama City activity, getting lost with a camera in hand, was completely free (unless you wandered by Granclement ice cream by accident, and then it was $2.75 for a scoop.) My favorite photography subject? The street art hangover left by Casco’s vibrant arts scene.
I found another free activity to combat the ice cream addiction: jogging at sunset. The Cinta Costera boasts prime people watching, perfect for distraction from a body begging for the exercise torture to just stop already — the waterfront was bustling with families enjoying a pre-dinner stroll, fitness buffs getting in a final workout of the day, friends gossiping on their way home from work, and a rare few tourists snapping away at the skyline. Running from the Casco towards downtown and then back again was like making a literal jogging route out of Panama City’s historical timeline.
Casco Viejo stole my heart. This is where my own love affair with Panama began, where I first felt the inklings that this country was going to be special. Within days of arriving in Panama City Anders told me how nice it was to hear me laughing again, and I really did feel my step was lighter. Whether it was the sunshine, the salty sea air or something indescribably Panama, it was nice to find myself once again smiling, and in the throes of a wild love affair with an exotic new destination.
Have you ever had a city steal your heart?
I had such a great time in Panama overall, I hope you did too.
Splurged on Nitro City but other than that everything was a good price. Only spent the day in Casco Viejo but next time I get a $320 fare to Panama City I will be spending more time there.
Hm, maybe my idea of the prices was influenced by having arrived straight from Ecuador! And, um, ya know — eating and drinking at all the trendiest (also known as the least budget friendly!) places in Panama City.
I’m very excited to read about your experiences in Panama if only because you gush about it as you have about Southeast Asia.
That’s really true Breanna 🙂 As I said, Panama City was the first stop on this Latin America trip where I really truly had those “I could live here” thoughts. Normally those are reserved for Southeast Asia!
most people I know who have been (unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to get there yet!) have disliked PC. Good to hear someone loving it!
I would bet anything that if you asked them, they stayed downtown! Before arriving Anders and I considered splitting our time to be there for half of our stay but when we passed through once or twice we were SO FREAKING GLAD we did not do that. While we did have some fun there (more details in upcoming posts!) it is fairly charmless and it just wasn’t for us. If I was a millionaire I would have left Panama City proud owner of a Casco apartment!
I lived here as a teenager during the height of the Noriega Regime cerca 1980’s. I fell in love with all things Panama… the country, culture, people, language, etc. I have been here for almost one year, returning to give my child an equally amazing yet educational experience. The people who did not enjoy Panama were probably on a structured tour, hitting all the Tourist Traps, robbing them of the magnificence of the true Panama. So, ignore the negative comments and come here with an open mind and open heart. Only then can you appreciate all this country has to offer.
Love this post & all the gorgeous photos! Now I want to go.
That’s what every travel blogger loves to hear 🙂 Thanks for the kudos!
After seeing these pics I don’t know how anybody can only use it as a pitstop. Looks absolutely gorgeous!
Agreed Tammy! At first I thought eight days would be too much (we were working around our dive trip departure) but when they were up I did not want to leave.
have never had a particular interest in panama & now you’ve got me hooked! colonial architecture, colorful street art & a vibrant nightlife = pretty much my recipe for a top destination. can’t wait to hear more!!
I was the same, I mean I knew Panama existed but the interest kind of ended there. Silly me! But the lack of hype was nice. It was kind of fun to be so surprised by a place.
i even have a few friends who’ve been but they didn’t sell it to me like you have. but i guess that’s why you’re the hotshot travel blogger!
Love how a club can just pop up! Outdoor dancing=amazing
Seriously! We passed by the next day and it was back to being an empty tucked-away courtyard. I was like, “did I dream that?” Thankfully I had Anders to confirm it actually happened.
We are planning a trip in August and were between Ecuador and Panama… so its great timing for us that you have recently been to both. It’s making our decision harder! 🙂
Hmmm… I’ll be interested to hear what you decide! Keep up posted!
It’s so funny, I never even THINK of Panama when I think of places to visit in CA. Definitely at the top of my list now. So beautiful.
So happy to hear that Andrea 🙂 Panama is waiting for you!
When we leave South America we have a one night layover in Panama City…if flights aren’t delayed what would you said are the MUSTs that we should do for our extremely limited time there?
Well the no-brainer is to see the Canal! We did a day tour with Barefoot Panama that was great if you have the budget for it, and packs so much into one day (Canal included). At night, I’d head straight to Casco to have dinner and drinks and admire the downtown skyline!
This was so captivating Alex and so beautifully written and photographed, I felt like I was flicking through the pages of a glossy travel mag. Can’t wait to check it out!
Thank you Sarah! And thank you for leaving this comment right now, because you reminded me that I fell asleep last night reading your blog (because I was exhausted, not because it was boring 😉 ) and I meant to return to comment today!
You’ve made this place sound positively intoxicating! Again, Alex, you’ve added another country to my to travel list!
Yay, that’s what I like to hear 🙂
I enjoyed walking along the waterfront and seeing people working out as well. Why don’t local councils at home put in more free workout areas in public spaces?
I was eating pizza outside of the brewery restaurant one night and a couple of gunshots were fired. 3 minutes later a hoard of pokice stormed the building next door and brought out 9 guys handcuffed all in front of us..surreal.
Wow, was that in Casco?! I was amazed at how safe and secure I felt there, though as some locals pointed out to me there was a vested interest in keeping a strong police presence in Panama’s new “it” destination! But of course crime happens anywhere….
I really enjoyed reading this Alex. You really make it sound like a fantastic place and the photos are beautiful. I want to live there now and I’ve never even been!
Ha, well I hope you get the chance to go check it out for yourself… it’s a captivating city!
The last sentence of this blog is EXACTLY why I love your style! 50% informative, 50% adventure novel…
I’ve always [wrongfully?] assumed Panama would be an “easier” CA destination! It looks fantastic. Looking forward to hearing more. 🙂
Certain things about it are “easier,” indeed. They use the US dollar and it’s generally super safe. But the one thing we discovered was the transportation is NOT easy if you’re veering from the Panama City-Boquete-Bocas triad!
I love the architecture and it looks so pretty Alex. I can really see how it has stolen your heart. My heart was left in Prague. It just felt so magical and I felt a kind of calm and peace I haven’t ever felt anywhere else.
That sounds lovely, Jen! I’ve yet to get to Prague… I have a lot of Europe left to explore!
Looks sensational! Can’t wait til we get there (did i tell you, we’ll be boarding our plane to the Americas on about June 20? Much more exciting with a date now!)
Correct me if I’m wrong, did I read somewhere “sipped Cerveza’s?” 😉
So technically everyone around me sipped cervezas and I had a vodka soda, but I didn’t feel the need to get into those details 🙂 And congrats on the departure date! So exciting!
Add a squeeze of Lime and that Vodka Soda sounds pretty good 😉
Thanks, can’t wait for our first Fish Tacos in Baja!
Yes, yes, yes. Although it’s more of a little village than a city. New Zealand grabbed my heart and Picton, at the top of the south island then squeezed it tightly. I fell madly in love with the place. I totally connect with where you’re coming from. 🙂
I’ve heard amazing things about New Zealand, and I think I will love it when I finally get there. I can’t wait!
Have lived in Casco Viejo for over 7 years. Your blogpost was quite engaging and reminded me why we love living here. CORRECTION (however): Many restaurants and hotels DO offer valet parking.
Ah, well, I think the buen cuidados are a far better system 🙂 You have a beautiful city, Mary!
P.S. Happy to share my walking tour with anyone interested. (You can message me from Trip Advisor). BTW: We just passed a new milestone. I used to say we have ~30 places to dine/drink (that’s tapas bars, gelato-/ice cream shops, cafes, bistros, restaurants, the micro-brewery, enotecas, fondas, coffeehouses etc.). Well, now there are over 40!! …and more on the way.
Hi Mary, I will be visiting PTY (staying in Casio Viejo)
Christmas week 2017. Do you still offer walking tours? I’d be very interested in one! Johanna
Will be visiting Panama City nov 28 -dec 3 . Interested to book a walking tour
I loved Casco Viejo when I visited years ago! My parents just went to Panama themselves and I was so jealous they didn’t bring me along.
Love your photos! You really show what makes the area special!
I still get jealous when my mom or dad goes anywhere and doesn’t invite me 😉 I guess they could say the same though!
Well, I never really considered to visit Panama but now I’m glad that I have a new point of view on the city.
I’m so happy to hear that Yanna — music to a travel blogger’s ears! 🙂
GORGEOUS photos! Absolutely love the color and style of the buidings – so romantic looking!
They have been very lovingly restored. It’s a magical place!
Oh it’s gorgeous! When we stayed in Panama City we were stuck with downtown because ALL the rooms were taken in Casco Viejo. We spent a day wandering around the neighbourhood and loved it. When we go back, I’ll make sure we book well in advance 🙂
I was so glad we booked ahead when we saw how many people were scrambling for rooms in the Casco! Most backpackers don’t think to plan so far ahead but it’s a must in this case, even for the hostels.
I’ve basically gone through your blog in one night! I’m loving all of the central and southern american posts!
I was wondering what your take on panama’s affordability compared to other countries in central america? We’ve looked into and became obsessed with costa rica [the beaches, eco tourism, and funky vibe] but I just don’t think I can swing those prices all day every day.
We are thinking of a small beach area in a funky and upcoming neighborhood. And probably in a few years. I’m totally starting to flirt with Peru and Panama after going through your blog though. Your photos made me fall in love- thank you 🙂
I’m glad you found me Caroline — and thanks for the kudos 🙂 Panama is definitely much more affordable than Costa Rica. From what I understand, Belize and Costa Rica are the most expensive countries in Central America, with Panama coming in third. However I found that Panama was a great value — we paid more than we might have in other countries but what we got for our money was fantastic! I can’t recommend it more highly.
Thanks for the post and beautiful pictures. We are leaving tonight for Panama City. I booked us one night in Casco Viejo before we head out to Bocas del Toro. I will definitely have to check out that ice-cream place!
Enjoy Panama, Jula! It’s one of my favorite countries in the world, a true hidden gem!
We arrive in Casco Viejo tomorrow 😉
Enjoy! One of my favorite spots in Latin America.
Your site is sexy and your shots are even better! The first placed I ever stayed was Lunas Castle in Cascso in 2011. I went back for the second time last year for almost 3 months and got to see some crazy ish!! Check it out here if you want
Your post really put me up on game with Casco’s history.
Thanks Jubril — I love Casco Viejo. One of my favorite spots in Central America!
I’m going on an 9 day trip to panama city next week 😀 and really want to stay at the panamericana hostel. Do you have the phone number for it? I have a sad feeling it might have closed :/ I also love your idea of splitting the trip up into two different hotels!
Hey Kelsey, check their Facebook page — looks like they are in the process of moving to a new location. Bummer!
Excellent, highly informative article on the Casco. Thank you.
Thank you so much. I still love this post <3
You will always be welcome to my beloved Panama.
You’re too kind 🙂 I’d love to return to Panama someday!