Panama’s hottest secret
If you’re looking to get ahead of the game, Panama City’s Casco Viejo is as up-and-coming as it gets, says Vicky Baker. Go now before the word is well and truly out
About this article
Close This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Friday March 21 2008. It was last updated at 11:00 on March 25 2008.
Open to the skies: Casco Viejo, Panama City. Photograph: Vicky Baker
By the time travellers hear about the hip new part of town in a foreign city, it’s usually too late.
We might think we’re cutting edge as we sip a cocktail in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, Buenos Aires’ Palermo or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, but the locals will have long been bemoaning the inflated prices and reminiscing about the good old days.If you’re looking to get ahead of the game, Panama City’s Casco Viejo is as up-and-coming as it gets. Situated in the city’s far west, with a waterside location looking across to the imposing downtown skyscrapers, it’s a ramshackle maze of dimly lit residential streets and tumbledown colonial buildings. Sometimes compared with the French Quarter of New Orleans, there’s a faded romance to its townhouses, with their wrought-iron balconies and long, wood shutters. Although intimidating at first glance (and locals will advise you to avoid the so-called zona rojas – red light districts – such as neighboring Chorrillo), the area becomes endlessly beguiling on closer inspection. An occasional art deco edifice catches you by surprise. As does seeing the sky in places you shouldn’t; the hollow insides of many buildings enabling you to look right through them.A slum during the 1980s Noriega dictatorship, the area has been touted as ripe for regeneration for years. Although work began in the 90s, a wavering national economy meant it got off the ground in fits and starts. Now, as the country experiences its biggest-ever boom, project Casco Viejo – or Casco Antiguo, as the area is officially, though less commonly known – is accelerating an astounding pace. “Under construction” signs can be found at every turn and the streets echo to the sound of hammering, day and night.
It’s the regeneration’s faltering beginnings that make such an unusual picture today. Casco Viejo has become a strange hybrid where suddenly, out of the ruins, you find a perfectly renovated plaza, or an ice-cream shop that with a vintage scoop collection and pretentious flavours (basil, rosemary, Earl Grey tea) that wouldn’t look out of place in Islington (neither, at £3.80 for two scoops, would its prices). Inevitably, real-estate opportunists spotted the potential here long ago. Buildings that could have been snapped up for $70,000 (£35,265) a few years ago are now going for $700,000 (£352,656). But, as the predominantly foreign investors move in, what about the current residents? “Where else can the poor have sea views like here?” says Eugenio, a former cargo-boat chef, looking towards the Panamanian Gulf. “This building where I live is worth $600,000 (£302,274) to a developer now,” he adds, tapping the peeling paint. Unfortunately for him, he’s not the owner. Every person that passes by may wave or shout his name, but, like many residents, he is likely to be forced out soon. “I’m expecting to move,” he says. “I just don’t know when or where.”Eugenio’s future may be unsure, but Casco Viejo’s is sealed. Next year the five-star Hotel Casco Antiguo will open its doors, and a new breed of tourist will soon be walking its brick-lined streets. Those looking to understand where it’s coming from and where it’s going to should catch it now. For better or worse, Casco Viejo is certainly one to watch.
STA travel has return flights to Panama from London Gatwick with Delta Airlines from £645 including taxes. Tel: 0871 230 8512