Even though Panama is most famous for hosting the Panama Canal, one particular landmark shines out among the rest.
Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo is the second most visited site in the country with scatters of new and old throughout the district. Shortly after Panama Viejo was burned down by Pirate Henry Morgan in 1671, residents needed a new place to live and so Casco Viejo was established.
However, after decades of neglect and the neighborhood became a slum, it was announced as a World Heritage Site and therefore more investors and visitors started to come, increasing the popularity and improving the conditions.
Casco Viejo (Casco Antiguo)
Getting to Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is not too far from Panama City and we decided to walk there along the Cinta Costera. It only took us about 45 minutes as we took pictures, explored the park and talked to locals.
I highly recommend walking there because the Costera is absolutely lovely and it’s a good way to experience and see Panama City. There is a mercado del mariscos along the way to Casco Viejo where the local fishermen bring in their haul, clean it and sell to other locals and restaurants.
When you reach the entrance of Casco Viejo, you can see plenty of Panamanian police and army standing around. Casco Viejo has been considered a more dangerous part of Panama, especially at night but it has improved over the past few years.
We ended up asking the police officers when we needed information and they were really helpful. They even joked with and the officers themselves told us not to mess with the army guys in the red hats.
What to do and see
Plenty of this historical district has been preserved and construction and remodeling has gone underway to improve the conditions. There are 5 cathedrals, a church with a gold altar (Iglesia de San Jose), a canal museum, history museum, a national theater, the French plaza, a famous arch and the presidential quarters.
One tip: Don’t go on a Monday. Everything is closed including the museum and even the churches. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that and went on a Monday so we just ended up wandering around.
You can’t go into the presidential quarters (obviously) but you can see it from the outside. Well you can see the side of the house from the outside at least.
Yeison said that the town looks exactly like Havana, Cuba: the colors, style and way the buildings are built. They were doing some major construction on the roads and you can tell that some of the buildings have a more modern look.
There is a fairly famous arch in the ruins of the church of Santo Domingo. After the friars built this church while establishing Casco Viejo, the whole church burned down except for this arch.
It is called the flat arch, El Arco Chato and even more impressive is that it survived various earthquakes and was one of the determining factors to build the canal in Panama.
This arch has confounded many architects and engineers as to how this one piece has survived after all this time. (It did collapse in 2003 but was reconstructed). This area is also undergoing construction to make a cultural space in the future.
There are a lot of colorful pieces, as you walk around the neighborhoods you see shops, colorful doors, and interesting art pieces.
La Plaza de Francia has a wonderful mirador where you get a beautiful view of the city and of the bridge (there are good views of the city everywhere). They have dedicated this space to the 22,000 workers who died while building the canal under the French government.
Yellow fever and malaria killed most of the workers, and one of the busts below is Carlos J Finlay, a Cuban doctor whose work eventually got rid of yellow fever in Panama.
If you don’t feel like walking to Casco Viejo, you can take a taxi from Panama City for less than $5 (it’s so close). There is so much to see and do in Casco Viejo in terms of cultural aspects but there are plenty of restaurants, hostels, hotels, a few bars and little shops as well.
Entering Casco Viejo is free, the museums have an entrance fee of $1 or $2 and if they were open when we were there, we would have visited them. As a melting pot and significant cultural and historical site in Panama, Casco Viejo is a destination not to miss.
Helpful map when visiting Casco Viejo
Video of our visit to Casco Viejo
Want to know what else is there to do in Panama City? Check our things to do post in Panama City, Panama.