The conceptual core of Casco Viejo is established when folks enter the neighborhood traditionally on Avenida A. You turn the corner at a run-down plaza Herrera and begin heading towards the tip of the peninsula where the next stretch of street is supposed to be an obvious paradox: a ridiculously dilapidated squatter house next to an immaculate modern triplex next to a 17th century church of Captain Morgan lore.
But three things are true about the way non-residents of Casco Viejo generally see this block. First, most people agree that the block is a paradox. Second, most people think the block is collectively photogenic and they take photographs. Third, most people, after doing both those things, are more or less ready to go get ice cream.
But herein lies the trick: Casco Viejo is not intended for most people. Blocks like these are overlooked by most people yet obsessed over by travelers who can understand and appreciate them in a very tangible way. These are cutting-edge citizens of the world who love to differentiate between a) interesting destinations for obvious reasons and b) destinations that are interesting because they don’t make any sense.
African wilderness lodges are interesting because they are wholly exotic and natural. But aside from the “surprise” of seeing a lion or a tiger, you pretty much know what you’re gonna get. These lodges make sense. The same goes for the ski slopes of Zagreb or the resident monkey population in Lopburi. Most people visit these places because they are interesting and coherent destinations with an identity. Most people like these places because they can relate to them. Most people like these places because they can explain them.
Obviously, the idea of historic neighborhoods is old. However, the idea of having a historic district that’s kinda fucked up is new – and it’s a different kind of new. It’s more gritty than trendy, and it requires that the neighborhood recognize itself as a sort of non-destination.
How can people with $3/day live on the same block as people spending $9 on a martini? How can prime oceanfront real estate be so decrepit? How can a tiny historic grid exist side by side the region’s fastest growing modern juggernaut? The answer is…usually they can’t.
But these questions, in a nutshell, are the framework for most of the way Casco Viejo revolves. The inability to explain them is the goal. The questions also show why Casco has become accidentally famous: it has taken the anti-modern, counterintuitive, non-direct road during a certain point in history when the remainder of Panama City (aka the core of the Panamanian universe) strives to be bigger and better and faster and stronger. It’s Terrell Dwayne Batson versus Kanye West.
Most of the marketing you’ll see about Panama is a string of stock images of the most impressive buildings and beaches and wildlife all intermingled with pictures of roulette tables (look! we have casinos!), shopping bags (look! we have malls!), and Atlapa (look! we have an old ass convention center!). It’s staggering how these ads make Panama look identical to every other country. It’s staggering how many different people respond to these ads. And it’s staggering how most of these ads make sense to most people in a lot of very obvious ways.