Casco Viejo, Panama City

Tags: Casco Viejo, Panama, Panama City

Date: April 13, 2022

Towards the end of our stay in Panama in the Spring of 2022, we spent a few days in Panama City, the capital of Panama. We stayed in the old part of town, called Casco Viejo.

Casco Viejo was built on a peninsula protruding into the Pacific Ocean and completely surrounded by a defensive system of walls. It was founded in 1673 and built to replace the original Panama City dating from 1519 but burnt down preventively by the Spanish governor prior to the attack and looting by the English pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.

Casco Viejo has several important squares. The largest one is the Grand Plaza, also known as the Independence Plaza or the Cathedral Plaza. On the four sides of the plaza stand the City Hall, the Canal Museum, the Gran Hotel Central and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama.

The Cathedral took more than 100 years to complete. It was built from 1688 to 1796 and is an example of Spanish colonial architechture:

The red-roofed building to the right in the photo below is the Canal museum built at the end of the 19th century:

The Gran Hotel Central was the first hotel to open in Panama in 1874:

A couple of former convents stand as ruins around town. These are the ruins of the Convent of Santo Domingo:

Casco Viejo was ravaged by three large fires in the 18th century, in which many of the original buildings were lost. The Convent of Santo Domingo, dating from 1678 fell victim to two of those fires which destroyed the tower and interiors of the buildings. The walls and entrance arch are still standing and since the independence of Panama and the subsequent closing of the convents, the ruined buildings have housed a bakery, a carpenter's workshop, public toilets and now finally, the Museum of Religious Art is housed in one of the restored chapels (the white building in the right of the photo above).

La Plaza de Francia (The Plaza of France) dates from 1922 and was built in remembrance of the unsuccessful first attempt by France to build a canal through Panama. Central in the plaza is an obelisk crowned by a rooster, symbolizing the French people. Around the obelisk are busts of the pioneering engineers and in the semicircular arcade are ten plaques describing the history of the Panama Canal:

Newer building at the edge of the Pacific Ocean with the skyline of modern Panama City in the far background and the Cinta Costera (Coastal Beltway) built on stilts as a loop all around the old town:

Not very pretty but helps connecting the different parts of Panama City without completely congesting the narrow streets of Casco Viejo.

Another large new building constructed on stilts protruding out into the bay with the Beltway in the background:

The hill seen in the background is Cerro Ancón:

From this hill, pirate Henry Morgan's scouts got a good look at the town's defenses to prepare the attack i 1671. Later, in 1904 when the Americans started the construction of the Panama Canal, the hill was used as a quarry and access was prohibited for Panamanians. When the canal zone was returned to Panama, Cerro Ancón became a protected territory to protect its wildlife and is a popular spot for tourists as well as locals to enjoy the view of the city and the canal.

Side view of the National Theatre of Panama:

Due to the three severe fires in Casco Viejo during the 18th century, the town is a mix of the original colonial-style buildings with neoclassical, afro-antillean and even some art deco-style buildings.

A street view showing some of the colonial-style residential buildings. The left-most building on the street is Casa Góngorra built in 1756 by Captain Pablo Góngorra de Cáceres. It is one of the best preserved old-style buildings in Casco Viejo and houses the Center of Arts and Culture of Panama:

More old houses, these ones in need of a little maintenance: