Thursday, July 26, 2012

Four Beautiful Sights in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama - 7-25-2012

Teatro Nacional in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Situated in the far southwest of Panama City, Casco Viejo is the city's "old town." The district was built shortly after English privateer Henry Morgan burned and looted Panama City in 1671. Panama City's surviving residents moved their city five miles east to the more defensible, rocky outcropping that became Casco Viejo. Today, the district is an eclectic mix of colonial era buildings restored to their colorful, 17th century grandeur, standing next to dilapidated apartments waiting patiently for urban renewal to work its magic on them. Work crews are aggressively renewing Casco Viejo, so don't be surprised to see new construction equipment next to a hidden plaza or stashed away in the district's narrow alleys.

Luna's Castle in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Once in Casco Viejo, the cab dropped me off not far from the hostel Luna's Castle at the corner of Calle 9a Este and Avanue Alfaro. Luna's Castle is perennially full and owns a reputation for being that quirky place you talk about for weeks after your trip ended. The hostel is situated in a three story restored apartment building. There is ample room for hanging out, reading, and sitting all throughout the reception level. Please note that they do not accept reservations for private rooms; those rooms are first come first served. Walking south along Avenida Alfaro, I followed the waterfront while admiring Panama City's impressive skyline from across the Bahaia de Panama.

Iglesia de San Francisco in Casco Viejo, Panama City
Moving southeast at Calle 3a Este I passed the small Parque Bolivar. The 19th century revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, held meetings in a schoolroom across the street from this park in 1826. Today, the park contains a bronze statue of the man, and provides a quiet shady respite from Panama's steamy afternoons. Walking further along Calle 3a Este, I pass the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Teatro National, right across Avenida B from each other. Iglesia de San Francisco holds the Golden Altar, one of the few valuables recovered from Henry Morgan's sack of Panama. The Teatro National is a beautiful, ornate operating theater. Its red and yellow archway echos those of Italian opera houses.

Paseo las Bovedas in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
From the Teatro National, I hang a left and follow Avenida Central south east and around a bend to the Paseo las Bovedas. Flowering vines climb trellises alongside and over the paseo, providing welcome shade from the afternoon sun. Today, the paseo is peaceful with only a few tourists and some indigenous artisans set up with tables upon which their quilts, bracelets, and other trinkets are displayed. The Paseo las Bovedas opens and ends at the Plaza de Francia. In the middle of the plaza is a huge column surmounted by a rooster. The plaza also displays stone tables commemorating the the memory of 22,000 French colonial workers who died while building the Panama Canal. Following the plaza around, I follow Calle Oeste north past the small Plaza Carlos V. This flowery square holds a small bust of Emperor Carlos V.

Statue in Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus
I move on to Avenida A, which leads northwest. Several blocks later, I pass the Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus. The church is a colonaial era building that still operates and holds a convent. Walking inside, I snap a few pictures of its gold and wood altar, as well as some exquisitely carved, painted and dressed statues of Jesus.

Cutting across Casco Viejo using Calle 5a Este, reach the Plaza de la Indepencia. Several restaurants line the square and offer outdoor seating. Casablanca, an upscale eatery decorated as a sophisticated wine bar, offers large salads and other entrees for an average price of around $12. Try their Andre's Salad, which offered two meals worth of food for $10. After a late lunch, I follow the waterfront for several miles towards Panama City's skyline before catching a cab back to my hostel.

Getting Here:
I recommend taking a taxi or walking along the Cinta Costera, but a bus would work too. I paid only $4.00 for a cab ride from my hostel in the far eastern neighborhood of Channis to Casco Viejo. I did have to ask three taxi drivers to take me across the length of Panama City, though, because Channis is on Panama City's eastern fringes and traffic in this city is so terrible that many cab drivers actively avoid traveling between certain districts. If you take a bus, I recommend you make your way to the Via Espana, Panama City's major east-west street, catch a Metro Bus that lists Casco Viejo or Casco Antigu (Casco Viejo's other name). If the bus does not enter the old city, just get off at the waterfront and walk east until your each the old city. Pay careful to avoid the high density slums north of Casco Viejo. Always take a taxi at night instead of a bus.

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