Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo, both terms can be used interchangeably, is the old quarter of Panama City. Locals simply call it “Casco”. It used to be the nicest neighborhood of Panama. Completed and settled in 1673, it was built following the near-total destruction of the original Panama City, “Panama Viejo” in 1671, when it was attacked by pirates and burned by its Mayor.
My grandpa was born in this neighborhood (1929) when it was still a great place. He used to tell me stories about bathing in the beach, which is now not suitable for swimming. He moved to Colon, but most people moved to the new neighborhoods of Bella Vista and La Exposición. Casco Viejo was abandoned and became a slum filled with gangs.
A neighborhood in transition
In 1997 when I was in high school the congress of Panama passed a bill to offer tax incentives to those interested in restoring Casco Viejo. Slowly the restoration began from the 1rst street down. The process of getting squatters and gang members out was very complicated. A few bars, clubs and restaurants opened and overnight Casco Viejo became the hot spot of Panama City.
In 2008 I moved to Casco Viejo and my family thought I went crazy since the neighborhood was still in transition. I rented a cute 2 story loft in Plaza Catedral with a balcony that offered great views of the cathedral and the not yet resorted, Hotel Central Panama. The owners of the loft were French and had tastefully decorated the place. I felt like I lived in a hotel room in Europe, since the place was tiny but I was happy.
Gangs used to control Casco Viejo
I opened Panama Travel Group on Avenida A, close to the Golden Altar Church, and had as neighbors a gang. The problems quickly started with them first breaking in through the bathroom to steal the microwave and coffee maker. Then one day I got to the office and there was a bullet hole in my sign.
It wasn’t personal, they used to cross fires between gangs and random bullets just happened to end up in buildings. The Canal House, where Daniel Craig stayed while filming the James Bond movie, had a bullet in a painting that crossed the glass window. They left in where it ended as a souvenir.
Times have definitely changed, as Casco Viejo Panama has become more touristy. Gang members have realized that tourism is profitable to them. The gang formally known as “Ciudad de Dios” now give the Fortaleza Tour. They explain to tourist how the neighborhood used to be and how they lived.
And of course the location of my new office Air Panama Viajes is right in front of the Fortaleza Gang Tour. Now tourist can walk safely in the neighborhood and listen to the stories of the old days.