Panama is a country that is rich in culture and deep with centuries old history. Just southwest of Panama City is the community of Casco Viejo. This historical town was built in 1673 after the original Panama City was set ablaze by Governor Juan Guzman. In order to save the citizens of Panama, he burned the original city to the ground in an effort to detour the notorious pirate Morgan Henry who terrorized the surrounding waters.
The newly formed city of Casco Viejo sits on a small peninsula on the shore of Bahia De Panama (Panama Bay). The small peninsula provided early detection of enemy ships coming into the bay. The Governor also built seawalls that would require extensive efforts when trying to access the city. Casco Viejo became an iconic landmark and a World Heritage Site in 1997.
My name is Anthony and I will be the narrator for this exciting tour. We started with a taxi ride from downtown Panama City to Plaza de La Independencia. Here is where our day begins. Just across the street from the plaza is Iglesia Santo Domingo (Arco Chato). This 17th century church was destroyed by a horrendous fire in 1756. The ruins hold a significant symbol within it’s brick and mortar skeleton. The Arco Chato is a flat stone arch located just inside and above the church’s gutted entrance.
The iconic arch can be seen from the protective iron gates that replaced the once large wooden doors that welcomed its congregation. With the region’s seismic activity throughout the centuries, it was said that such a flat arch with no structural support would never last. I guess it out lasted its critics!
From the church, we made the short walk to Plaza de La Independencia. There was a ceremonial parade of soldiers, dignitaries, and a marching band from a local school entering the plaza itself. Come to find out, the commencement marked the celebration of Panama’s independence from Columbian rule. This was a very proud day for the Panamanian people. The ceremony included several local politicians giving brief speeches from the white pillared gazebo .
The cathedral itself was consecrated by Pope Adrian VII in 1796. However, construction begin in 1688 and took 108 years to fully complete. My wife and I were amazed with the craftsmanship that went into the scripted murals that cover the interior walls. However, it is obvious that the exterior has been neglected throughout the centuries. It looks to have had some recent renovation, but obviously needs much more.
Another point of interest around Plaza de La Independencia are the Palacio Municipal (pictured right). This 1900 century building is the seat for the Municipal Council. It also houses the Canal Museum. The museum was established in 1997 and provides records on how the canal came to be. It illustrates the development and construction of one of America’s most phenomenal accomplishments. We decided to stop at a local cafes for a cup of coffee before continuing on.
The late morning crowds were starting to convene onto Casco Viejo’s narrow streets. We wanted to see as much of the city as possible before the late afternoon showers approached. There were a few more churches we would like to explore before taking lunch. Lets keep moving on!
The paper map I acquired from the gift shop directed us towards Calle 8 and Avenida A. This is where the church Iglesia de San Jose (The church of San Jose) is located.
Behind it’s solid brown doors, the Altar de Oro” (Golden Altar) lies in a magnificent state. The wood carved altar is covered in 24-karat gold flake. You have to register before you can enter the nave. The pulpit is roped off and guarded as well.
As I said before, when the notorious pirate Henry Morgan ravished the area, the Jesuit Priests painted the altar black which made it appear worthless. When the Governor burnt “The Old Panama City” to the ground, the same priest moved the altar to its current location. I can’t even begin to describe the workmanship. Not only does it symbolize the utmost devotion to God, but standing before this magnificent altar brings the spirituality that comes from within. It is a sight to see and experience.
We passed a mixture of buildings that have and have not been renovated. In a way, the unrenovated keeps the rustic feel to this historic community alive. You can somewhat imagine what it was like over two and a half centuries ago.
After a light but very satisfying lunch and a refreshing beverage, we were ready to cover more ground before the afternoon rains took over our day’s agenda. The president of Panama has a beautiful home (pictured left) here in Casco Viejo. His Spanish palace styled home with it’s all white exterior, tinted windows, and terracotta roof overlooks the beautiful Bahia de Panama. I wonder if he is excepting guests? As you can imagine, we had to alter our route around the home because of security reasons.
We followed Calle 5 Este to Avenida B until we came upon Plaza Bolivar. Across the street is the church Iglesia San Francisco de Asis (pictured right). This brightly colored church has been through two fires in the 1700s. After being renovated in 1998, it is one of the most striking churches in Panama. Finding the Iglesia San Francisco is going to satisfy our ceremonious tour of Casco Viejo’s historical churches.
On the eastern tip of town, we found a pedestrian friendly – open air market – slightly elevated walkway that runs along the water. Here is where we took the stairs that led us to Las Bovedas (translated: vaults or dungeons).
The aged wall with its wood slatted doors that once led to cells that held slaves and prisoners, gave way to a decorative patio draped with a sheer white covering (pictured left). Here is were the Las Bovedas Restaurant serves authentic Panamanian cuisine.
We furthered our adventure to Plaza de Francia. This popular square honors France for their assistance in building the Panama Canal. Opposite the square’s memorial is the French Embassy. Who knew Casco Viejo had so many diplomatic buildings!
Here is where we hit a road block. There are a few ways we could proceed from here. We either go back the way we came or take the narrow street that runs along the side of the embassy. We chose the narrow street.
When the one lane road opened up to shops and restaurants, we eyed an unique bar & grill that offered swing chairs. The temperature was hot and the humidity was high and our thirst needed a quenching. We decided to stop for a cold beverage. My Caribbean rum and coke was just what I needed. Casco Viejo has a wide variety of restaurants and grog stops. After spending time reviewing the day’s furthering agenda, we decided to head uptown to catch a taxi back to our hotel.
On the way back to our pickup location, we took a final stroll along a bayside park at the entrance of San Felipe – the township in which Casco Viejo is located. We stopped to admire Panama City’s majestic skyline. It is quite the site! Casco Viejo at one time was labeled “The New Panama City” after the destruction of the original city. I admired the towering structures that bow to its smaller sibling. Casco Viejo has held onto Panama’s heritage for many centuries.
This is the end to a great day. We saw a lot but again, there was so much more to see. My advice when visiting Panama City? You should consider taking a day trip to Casco Viejo. Its charm will tickle all your senses. From centuries old coble stone streets and authentic lighting – to its historic ruins – quaint cafes and boutique shops – its like traveling back in time. In addition, the people who live and work in this city will also enhance your experience.
After exploring Casco Viejo, take time to tour downtown Panama City as well. Our previous article, Downtown Panama City highlights it’s sophistication in accordance with other worldly cities. Catching a taxi to and from Casco Viejo is very easy. We prearranged our pickup. However, there are plenty of taxis to accommodate everyone’s time schedule. It was day to remember forever!
“Love, Laugh and Travel Lots!”