Panama is rich in culture and 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 the notorious pirate Morgan Henry who terrorized the surrounding waters. The newly formed city of Casco Viejo sits on a peninsula that reaches out into Bahia De Panama (Panama Bay). The coastal waters that border three sides of the city acted as a defense against invading armies. The iconic landmark became a World Heritage Site in 1997.
We took a taxi from the financial district – downtown Panama City to one block away from Plaza de La Independencia. Here is where we started our day’s tour. We were dropped off right across the street from Iglesia Santo Domingo (Arco Chato). This 17th century church and convent were destroyed by a horrendous fire in 1756. The ruins hold a significant purpose within its brick and mortar skeleton. It is home to the flat arch (Arco Chato), which is a flat stone arch just inside the church’s gutted entrance. It can be seen from the protective iron gates that replaced the once large wooden doors that welcomed its congregation. The site is a testament to Panama’s stable geography and minimal seismic activity throughout the centuries.
We wanted to see as much of Casco Viejo as possible before the late afternoon showers approach the seaside community. We made the short walk to Plaza de La Independencia where a parade of soldiers, dignitaries and a school’s marching band came towards the plaza’s center gazebo. 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 a few brief speeches from some of the local political figures.
The park like square is bordered by various historical sites. One of them is another cathedral by the name of Cathedral de Metropolitana. Upon its completion in 1796 made it the largest cathedral in Central America. The iconic structure was almost abandoned until its renovation in 2003. My wife and I are amazed with the craftsmanship that goes into the scripted murals that cover the walls.
Other sites around Plaza de La Independencia are the Palacio Municipal (pictured, left), which houses the Canal Museum and small township like shops and cafes. The late morning crowds started convening onto the centuries old narrow streets. We wanted to explore one more church before breaking for lunch. The paper map I acquired from one of the quaint gift shops directed us towards Calle 8 and Avenida A. This is where the church Iglesia de San Jose (The church of San Jose) is located. There are approximately 6 church/cathedrals scattered throughout the city.
Behind the solid brown doors, this particular church holds the Altar de Oro” (Golden Altar). The wood carved altar is covered in gold flake. When the notorious pirate Henry Morgan ravished the area, the Jesuit priests painted the altar black which made it appear worthless. When the city of “Old Panama” was burnt to the ground, the same priest moved the altar to its current place of rest. I can’t even begin to describe the detail of workmanship. Not only does it symbolize the utmost holiness and devotion to god, but standing before this magnificent altar brings the realm of spiritual being that comes from within. It is a sight to see and an experience to feel.
We made our way back towards the town’s main entrance and a small street side café. On our way we passed a mixture of buildings that have and have not been repaired and/or renovated. In a way, it keeps the rustic feel to this historic community alive. You can try to imagine what it was like to stroll the streets over two and a half centuries ago.
After a light lunch and a cold beverage, we were ready to cover more ground before the afternoon rains dominate the partly cloudy skies. The current president of Panama has a beautiful home (pictured, right) here in Casco Viejo. The ultra white, red ceramic roof – Spanish style palace overlooks the Bahia de Panama. We had to alter our route around the president’s home because of security reasons. We proceed down Calle 5 Este and connected with Avenida B till we came upon Plaza Bolivar. Across the street is the church Iglesia San Francisco de Asis (pictured, left). This brightly colored church has been through 2 fires in the 1700s. After being renovated in 1998, it is one of the most striking churchs in Panama.
Finding the Iglesia San Francisco is going to satisfy our ceremonious tour of Casco Viejo’s historical churches. We found a pedestrian friendly, slightly elevated walkway that follows the water – through an open air market, and to the farthest eastern tip of the town. Here is where we took the stairs that led us to Las Bovedas (translated: vaults or dungeons – pictured, right). The aged wall with its wooden 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. The square honors France for their help in building the Panama Canal. Opposite the square’s memorial is the French Embassy. Here is where we hit a road block. There are a few ways we can 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 to walk along the narrow street.
As the one lane road opens up to shops and restaurants, we eyed an unique bar & grill establishment that offers swing chairs. The temperature is hot and the humidity is high and our thirst needed a quenching, so we decided to stop for a cold beverage. My Caribbean rum and coke is just what I needed. Casco Viejo has a wide variety of restaurants and grog stops. After spending time reviewing the day and all its excitement and explorations, we decided to head uptown to catch a taxi back to our hotel.
On our way we back to our pickup location, we took a final stroll by a waterside park at the entrance of San Felipe (The township in which Casco Viejo is located). We stopped to admire Panama City’s skyline and how it majestically dominates the horizon. Casco Viejo, at one time was labeled “The New Panama City” after the destruction of the original city. I shivered with excitement as I looked to my left at the rebuilt city who proudly bows to its much smaller sibling that held on to Panama’s tradition and culture for so many centuries.
My advice to anyone who visits the region is to take a day trip to this enchanting town. Its charm will overwhelm all of your senses. From its centuries old street lights to its historic ruins and sites – add in the cafes, shops and not to forget the people who live and work in this iconic landmark will enhance your overall experience.