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Contrasts Flourish in Casco Antiguo, Panama

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Written by Ari Vanook   
Sunday, 04 November 2007 01:00
It's a neighborhood where deluxe lifestyles of pink champagne and sleek plasma TVs clash with some of the poorer living conditions in the country. A district recognized around the world as a World Heritage Site for its awe-inspiring architecture and rare European-inspired plazas, illness yet one which simultaneously plays host to children too poor to even buy shoes for sports, and beggars unembarrassed to plead even for a nickel.
Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City, Panama is full of contrasts.

The intricate colonial arches and balconies in many places sharply contrast the jerry-rigged electricity wires fashioned by area squatters so they can watch the local news. Much like colonial days, many second-story locals dump water or food over the balcony and into the street for a bevy of stray dogs (and sometimes the unfortunate tourist) to enjoy. Corner trash receptacles often overflow onto the street where dogs and the occasional person sift through their contents.

Peer into the doorways of many of Casco Antiguo's lower-class residences and see poorly-constructed staircases made, in some cases, of frail and weakening wooden planks. Other barren living quarters sport sheets as blinds, floors covered with mattresses much like a refugee camp, and kitchens that'd fail every sanitation requirement known to man. Entertainment centers in these homes are popular, as are collectible posters and religious paraphernalia.

Years and years ago, when much of Panama's elite left the old quarter of Casco Antiguo, supposedly too left much of the place's dignity. Once-glorified buildings were left to deteriorate for years upon end and safety (or the negligence thereabout) became a serious issue. While quite a few wealthy developers are currently in the process of rehabilitating the area, there still predominantly exists a small squatter population (one which does not pay rent or utilities).

This is all quite a stiff contrast to the linen suits and classy high-heels that frequent the neighborhood's opulent dining and nightlife establishments which are sprinkled throughout said poverty-laden streets.

Some locals work to wash and park cars, others hold steady jobs. A small percentage (mostly the younger 15-25 population) joins gangs which contribute healthily to the occasional shooting, car jacking, and drug deal gone awry yes, in "the heart of the old quarter". But it is rare that tourists hear of such incidents as most authorities (and businesspeople with money invested in the area) prefer to keep them on the down low.

Many examples of real estate renovation in Casco Antiguo are mind boggling: in both the façade and interior of certain buildings such as Casa Testa (which houses several foreigner-driven tourism businesses as well as a gourmet deli) and the former Hotel Columbia, a ruby-red gem set on the historic Plaza Bolivar, which is composed of a number of luxury condominiums (mostly inhabited by wealthy Europeans and North Americans).

The establishment of a local tourism police station has curbed crime significantly, as have multiple community projects designed to dissuade street kids from turning to illegal activity. Current or soon-to-be renovations of local landmarks such as Hotel Central and the former Club Union will be welcomed into a zone that otherwise has only two real luxury hotel options.

The overwhelming and overall feeling to a visitor is of old Havana; a time in which real estate hype nor ugly commercialism has yet reared their ugly heads, and some say that's the charm that's hard to find elsewhere.

Views of Panama City's sparkling city skyline are afforded through the corridors of Casco Antiguo's narrow side streets (yes the entire neighborhood is situated on water). The waters of the Pacific Ocean splash up against the walls and sands at high tide, making the perfect background soundtrack to a romantic dinner. At other times, the retreating water leaves a muddy, unattractive, and foul-smelling ocean floor which can span as far as three or four football fields out to sea.

The inevitable seems to be starting and many of Casco's long-time Panamanian residents are being evicted or displaced by owners looking to sell or develop; experts believe this will squander the neighborhood some of its bohemian appeal.

But for the time being, locals still sit out on their stoops and gossip the day's events over a cold bottle of domestic beer. Upper class residents, with a fondness of the artistic and the eclectic, appear to fit in seamlessly and join the routine.

Real estate prices, because of the neighborhood's relatively-limited supply, have gone up but for good reason. Construction costs are also considerably atypical as much of the renovation in the area is closely watched-over by historical/governmental groups and requires close adherence to preservation laws.

It's one thing to take pictures of the beautiful cathedrals and another to invest your time or money in a neighborhood, though it appears Casco Antiguo's residents, both local and foreign, don't want to leave any time soon.

This is part of a series we'll be publishing by Ari who does a good job of disrobing Panama to it's barest, most essential elements. If you enjoyed the piece, or have issues with it, please feel free to use the comment form below...

Comments (3)Add Comment
Dead on
written by Evelyn , November 05, 2007
We visited (and loved) Cosco Viejo several times and your words are spot on. We enjoyed all these little flaws and found them to be refreshing from the glitzy world of tower-real-estate in the City. Cheers!
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written by Casco , November 05, 2007
your piece is quite accurate. and while you might be a little off on a few technical points, it is mostly quite on point. look forward to more...
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So far...
written by Very good , November 05, 2007
Still, so far, locals still a more common sight at Casco Viejo. Still, so far, the changes we notice are positive for the place where the actual Panama was born far.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:37