Travel Spotlight

Things to Do in Casco Viejo, Panama City

In the 1990s, Panama City’s Casco Viejo was one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, overrun by gangs, full of violence and turf wars. Today, one of the staircases in the boutique American Trade Hotel has wallpaper with some of the original graffiti that was found in the abandoned buildings.

The fact that gritty gang slogans are today used as decoration in a designer hotel goes to show just how far Casco Viejo has come. The neighborhood buzzes with restoration and new openings, as the developers (mostly from the U.S.) tackle building after Colonial building. Here are the places to know now. 

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a customized trip to Panama.

Where to Stay: Casco Viejo, Panama City

When the American Trade Hotel opened in Casco Viejo in 2013, it raised the bar on Panama City’s hotel scene, which direly lacked personality. Housed in a four-story, beautifully restored neoclassical building, the 50-room boutique property has charm to spare. The light-filled lobby, with blue-tile floors, tropical potted plants and a double-height ceiling, immediately sets a calm vibe, which continues in the minimalist but stylish guest rooms. The polished floors are made of recycled wood, the bathrooms are stocked with Aesop amenities, and many rooms have small balconies. There’s a library, a gym and a pool, the latter a rarity in the Casco. The in-house restaurant on the ground floor is gorgeous but meals are surprisingly fussy. Better to take a short walk to one of the many restaurants nearby for dinner. 

Related: Travel to Panama: 10 Key Tips to Know When Planning Your Trip

Where to Eat: Casco Viejo, Panama City

For a big night out, a popular choice for dinner is Maito (Calle 50; 507-391-4657), a 20-minute taxi ride from Casco Viejo. The brain child of star chef Mario Castrellón (whose other ventures include Fonda La Sexta and Café Unido), Maito has a romantic setting and creative menu focused heavily on Panamanian ingredients.

For lunch, head to Fonda La Sexta (Calle 6ta, San Felipe; (507) 385-6860), a no-frills restaurant for authentic Panamanian home-cooking. Partnering with a local foundation that works with underprivileged women and teenagers, star chef Mario Castrellón conceived of La Sexta as a culinary training program. The result is a congenial ambience and incredibly authentic local dishes.  Great for a late lunch (it opens at 3 p.m.) is Tacos La Neta (San Felipe Calle 3era; (507) 387-5279), a rustic spot with low tables and a long list of tacos that are served with delicious homemade sauces of varying degrees of heat.

Related: Just Back From: Panama

Where to Drink: Casco Viejo, Panama City

There is no shortage of bars in Casco Viejo, but many turn into rowdy party spots, so for a more relaxed scene, head to the rooftop of La Concordia (Avenida Central & Calle A & Calle B, Santa Ana; (507) 300-1125), a boutique hotel down the street from the American Trade. There’s nightly live music, innovative cocktails and a nice small menu for nibbles. Another lofty pick is rooftop Casa Casco (Calle 10 and Avenida A #8-15; (507) 6288-9024), which has views of the ocean and draws a young crowd. More low-key is Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar (Avenida A between Plaza Herrera and Calle 8A, Portal de Caldas; (507) 391-5596), with rattan ceiling fans, a salsa soundtrack and lengthy, rum-based cocktail menu.

Where to Caffeinate: Casco Viejo, Panama City

Panama’s coffee is renowned as one of Central America’s best, and there’s no better place to sample it than at the beloved hot spot Unido Café, which has an outpost in the American Trade Hotel. Plaza Herrera, Casco Viejo; (507) 211-2000.

Where to Shop: Casco Viejo, Panama City

Shoppers will be disappointed in Casco Viejo, which doesn’t have a ton besides touristy shops. A notable exception is the fair-trade Karavan (Calle 3 between Avenida A and Central; (507) 228 7177), which carries handmade crafts and artisanal wares from all across Panama. Don’t miss the bright molas, sewn by the Kuna Yala, which have been repurposed into beautiful little pouches and pillow cases. Young and fun is UnderCover (Avenida A in between Calle 4ta and 5ta; (507) 209 6606), also focused on fashion, accessories and beauty products made in Panama. Those with a sweet tooth should not miss the Tropical Chocolate Café (Calle 6a Este; (507) 388-6843), where Indagare can also organize cacao tastings. Finally, the Casco’s Promenade, built atop the old city’s outer wall, has market stalls set up beneath a canopy of bougainvillea. Here, women from the Kuna tribe sell molas, colorful embroidery that has been fashioned into market bags, purses and pillow cases (it’s fine to bargain, but it helps if you speak Spanish).

Related: Home Sweet Bocas: An Overwater Villa in Panama

What to See and Do: Panama City

A feat of human innovation, the Panama Canal is a must-visit for anyone in Panama City. The 51-mile waterway, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, opened in 1914 (thousands of workers died in the process of constructing this most difficult engineering project. Today, the canal can easily be visited at the giant Miraflores lock (about a 20-minute drive from the city center). Indagare can arrange a tour that gets you as close to the action as possible with a private guide who can explain the mechanics. A half-day excursion that includes passing through two lock gates aboard a catamaran can also be arranged.

Related: First Look at Islas Secas, Panama

The Panama Canal can be combined with a visit to the Parque Nacional Soberanía, a tropical rainforest that exists in large part because the nearby canal depends on good rainfall. There is more development inside the park than one would wish (including a massive resort), but it’s still a gorgeous spot for bird-watching, some light hiking and to climb an observation tower that gets you high above the green canopy. And to learn more about the country’s incredible flora and fauna, head to the Biomuseo, designed by Frank Gehry in his signature style (though not everyone is a fan of the crumpled multi-colored extravaganza). The exhibits are focused around Panama’s incredible biodiversity: it has more plant species per square mile than Brazil and is home to 125 animal species found nowhere else in the world. The exhibitions are very well done and the audio guide comes in five languages.

Back in Casco Viejo, where visitors can spend at least a half-day happily exploring, Indagare can organize a number of special-access tours, including a cacao tasting and a rooftop cocktail-making class.

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a customized trip to Panama.

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