Many of its advocates including us here at Los Cuatro Tulipanes like to point out Casco Viejo’s niche in the Panama scene. It’s not overrun by sky scrapers, its not hyped as being ultra-modern, it wasn’t the center of the nation’s real estate boom. However, in differentiating Casco Viejo from the rest of Panama, we often overlook some of the similarities that inherently bind the two together. Perhaps the best example I can think of is the general theme of rapid development and an accompanying forgetting of what really makes an investment/tourism destination tick.
This gap in Panama is only starting to emerge now that Panama’s real estate market is slowing and its tourism industry is in low season. When the money was flowing, no one cared to speculate whether things were sustainable: rather money was the name of the game, as in make as much money on a new project as you possibly can. But with the economic crisis starting to affect all corners of the isthmus, it can be useful to observe similarities between Panama and Casco Viejo: an entity and a sub-entity that seem to be missing a step in the big picture.
1. The mid-level accommodation: Panama City’s been made famous for its high occupancy levels in hotels which, in turn, led to hotels like the Marriot to charge upwards of $300/room and outside the city, the few high-end hotels that exist stay booked and keep rates high. On the other side of the spectrum, there are a handful of really shitty motels built to Panamanian standards, and an even smaller collection of foreigner-run hostels for backpackers. Casco Viejo, in this matter, is microcosmic. There is a major polarity, albeit a small-scale one, which offers visitors cheap and expensive nightly rates yet nothing in between. Considering this gap represents the largest demographic of travelers, there’s no wonder more people aren’t staying in the neighborhood overnight.
2. Touristifying the cheap meal: Most travelers love finding a good, cheap, traditionally cooked meal in a foreign country. Particularly those who visit Casco Viejo. However, other than the few, ramshackle chinito options (where your mother wouldn’t be comfortable) there exists next to nothing that’s cool, with free internet, and a good excited vibe. Casco Viejo and Panama’s restaurant boom is terrific, but a spified-up collection of cheap meal haunts would capture a large market and build the link between the ultra cheap and the uber expensive.
3. Economizing rental rates: Just like elsewhere in Panama City, Casco Viejo’s rental rates shot up alarmingly fast. While most of these options (albeit) are new construction, there’s been a bypass of mid-range housing which would afford students, young people, and artists a place to stay. Currently, a large percentage of Casco Viejo’s completed units (not unlike those in downtown Panama City) sit empty. Owners aren’t willing to compromise price, young and enthusiastic people who actually want to live there simply cannot afford it, and the result is one big lull: a vacancy that weighs down Casco Viejo’s progress as a whole.
4. Permitting the unsustainable: There’s recently been an uproar about several projects in Casco Viejo disobeying regulation and historical preservation laws. The bad news is that this was exactly what we saw in downtown Panama City (irresponsible authorities either a) being negligent or b) downright ignoring the law). The good news is that Casco Viejo is small enough that the intolerance of these violations can be voiced more quickly and effectively. But in true Panama spirit, the preference juega vivo seems to have seeded itself in Casco Viejo whether residents wanted it to or not.
Among other things like increase in crime, problems with infrastructure (garbage collect, parking…etc), and the immense year-long rise in real estate prices, Casco Viejo’s missing link is beginning to stand out in a time that business is slow. Because everything is so expensive, there is no profit margin for businesses targeting mid-range clientele or young and passionate entrepreneurs. It is a market that drives an investment or travel destination: rich people don’t go somewhere until the young people have established it as cool. Without the link connecting Casco Viejo’s downtrodden spaces with it’s luxurious lofts, a link bridging its down-home experiences with its foreign-inspired flare, the neighborhood may experience the kind of bust imminent to Panama City-proper: a bust that resulted from ignoring the realistic, the sustainable, and that which has been proven historically elsewhere in the world.