Panama: Casco Viejo
On the southwestern tip of Panama City, adjacent to the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, sits the city’s picturesque old quarter, Casco Viejo, a historic district that is getting its groove back. And for good reason: significant injections of restoration money and UNESCO World Heritage status have made it the coolest part of town.
Dating from 1673—a couple of years after pirates destroyed the original city—Casco Viejo exudes a relaxed vibe yet can be sexy and thrilling. It has a Havana feel: Ramshackle 200-year-old properties with trees growing out of the rooftops sit beside restored architectural treasures. Scaffolding is everywhere, eventually thrown off to reveal a beautifully reconditioned Spanish Colonial-style apartment, a vacation retreat or a retail complex, complete with pastel colours, wrought-iron balconies that encircle entire floors and an absolute ton of windows.
And unlike the downtown concrete jungle where you could walk for blocks before finding a cold drink, Casco Viejo has an actual café society and is totally walkable: Everyone from all over town comes here to play. It truly is the perfect historical complement to what has become a very busy city.
Go luxe. While the brand-name lodging in Panama is plentiful, your best bet for real luxury is in one of Casco Viejo’s stylish smaller hotels. The American Trade Hotel & Hall, built in 1917 and restored in 2007, fits this bill. Serene and stunning, the 50-room hotel stays true to its roots, with vaulted ceilings, white walls, dark reclaimed wood, colonial-style furnishings and an original limestone staircase.
Syncopate. The American is also home to Danilo’s Jazz Club, its roster of international and local talent presided over by Grammy-winning Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Perez.
Sip at sunset. An elegant scene awaits at Casa Casco, a five-storey restored colonial building complex, featuring a rooftop lounge, a nightclub, and three concept restaurants that offer eclectic African-Caribbean, Asian fusion, and Panamanian cuisines. The roof bar is perfect for sunset cocktails.
Feel the fusion. At 16-seat Donde José, chef José O. Carles infuses Panamanian traditions and cooking techniques into his tasting menu. A mirror over the prep table allows guests to watch the proceedings. It’s like dinner theatre, with each dish telling a different story of Panama.
Dress it up. Tantalo Hotel & Kitchen has a mere 10 rooms, each with its own arty design concept. But the star of the property is the rooftop, where the local in-crowd, the ex-pats and the tourists meet to prop up the long bar.
Shake it. The rooftop Lazotea restaurant and bar at Hotel Casa Panama draws the nighttime revelers, who clamour for the frothy cocktails poolside—often with a live band lending the soundtrack.
Head up hill. Tie on your walking shoes and take a morning hike up Ancon Hill, a nature reserve in the middle of Panama. The walk takes about 90 minutes round trip, delivering Instagram-worthy, 360-degree views of the city once you reach the top, including that of the canal and Casco Viejo. If you want to see any of the park’s wildlife—39 species of birds and 15 different mammals, including sloths and monkeys—go either very early in the morning or later in the day.
Call on the Causeway. Ecotourists can head to the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo on the Amador Causeway, which features eight galleries that focus on Panama’s unique biodiversity and geological history. After your visit, rent a tandem four-wheeled bike nearby and carry on out to the end of the Causeway for a look around the three islands, and pop into the Punta Culebra Nature Center, an arm of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, to learn more about tropical biodiversity.