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Panama's Chance Neighborhood

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 13 July 2010 13:39

It’s 7PM on a Tuesday and the pollera show has just begun at Tinajas Panamanian folklore restaurant in downtown Panama City. After dinner, search guests will have the opportunity to take photos with the night’s performers, cheap jot down their favorite local recipes, even purchase native handicrafts to take back home. It would not be unfair to say that experiences like these are, in every sense of the word, entirely “Panamanian.”

Casco Viejo has a very simple responsibility and that is to satisfy its own tastes first.


But just across the bay, no more than a mile or so from shimmering downtown Panama City, another kind of authenticity is brewing and its not the kind you need a reservation for. In Casco Viejo, there are no staged shows or reenactments. Visitors won’t find any defined hours of entry or tryhard attempts at charm. To some, the neighborhood isn’t even really equipped for visitors just yet, even though it’s the most authentic show in town.

To consider Panama from an investment or tourism or cultural perspective is to consider the subject of authenticity. All things being equal, when it comes to true staying power in any kind of market, people are most likely to tell their friends about the authentic. Think about it. When was the last time you told someone about a place because it was cheesy or generic or fake?

In a way, there’s no need for Casco Viejo to dramatize its life for outsiders. Beyond its most obvious – century old architecture – what makes Casco Viejo unique is the neighborhood’s strong sense of community. In other words, there persists a clear sense of what matters amongst its residents both old and new: an understanding of what Casco Viejo is, and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

It’s unusual, this moral fiber, in the world today. It’s unusual both because it transcends people and because it’s not contrived: two things that Panama, much less any society, has a hard time nailing down. On its crusade to remain unique, Casco Viejo tends to go, like many authentic things, quite vividly against the grain.

“If a buyer wants a component that is not to my taste or does not fit with Casco Viejo, we politely refuse,” says Joel Jelderks, Principal at Salzburg Development, a local restoration firm with several residential projects under its belt.

He reiterated that the district’s historical integrity is paramount. “No modern facades. No irregular lighting. Nothing flashy. Nothing impractical. Casco Viejo has a very simple responsibility and that is to satisfy its own tastes first.”

It may have been the government’s oft-criticized supervision over Casco Viejo that spawned this breed of Casco Viejo mercenaries: residents and business owners who’ve decided to take the responsibility of conservation into their own hands.

According to Evan Forbes of, a social commentary site on life in Panama City, tourists in Casco Viejo love the contemporary hybrid of history and art. “Casco stays special because its people are concerned about preserving the heritage. Travelers search for destinations that are timeless and genuine. They like staying in Casco because, beyond just the 400 year-old walls, the neighborhood has spirit. That’s what Casco works to protect and promote – the character. Not just the buildings.”

Visitors to cosmopolitan Panama City in the coming years will be impressed by its tremendous recent growth. They may embrace the onset of international hotel chains, of increased spoken English, of modernity and tourism and new brand-name stores.

But for those travelers who are less interested in clinging to the comforts of home in a foreign place, there applies Casco Viejo: a historic neighborhood that’s about as unconventional as it is cult-like in following. It breathes an authenticity that’s refreshing in an era of standardization, making the experience of Panama, to those who choose it, daringly more firsthand.

Photographer: Roaming-the-planet from



Comments (1)Add Comment
Help and orientation for 1st time visit to Panama
written by kangol200k , January 28, 2013
Is there a place to advertise for a help wanted? I'm coming to panama in March and would like to hire someone to drive me around, search for potential long term beach rentals. a native that knows the mt. towns, and the right beach rentals. a guide for a few days
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Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 13:49