The neighborhood we call home has experienced a century of extremes. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, Casco Viejo was the home to some of Panama’s most powerful and elite: it was a cultural, political, and social hub which, thanks to it’s convenient location, also played host to the majority of trade in the Republic.
Casco Viejo’s heyday can be seen in old photographs and drawings, depicting (now-decrepit) buildings busy with customers and the same cobblestone streets packed with carriages, polished trolleys, and businessmen in suits.
Around the middle of the century, came an urban-sprawl not unlike those seen in the USA around the same time period. The majority of Casco’s wealthy residents, left the neighborhood for suburb areas which now make up for the majority of development in Panama City. With this exodus, came the entrance of Panama’s less glamorous demographics: the poor to populate then-abandoned buildings, the thieves to prey on the unsuspecting, and the gangs to mark territories as their own.
Roughly the remaining 40 years of Casco Viejo’s 20th century became characterized by feats less guidebook-worthy than it’s original glory. It evolved into more-or-less a red zone of travel for the outsider, specifically portions situated in (what’s now) the tip of the peninsula.
But with the onset of a new century, came a new light and a new sense of pride in Casco Viejo by both Panama’s people and its foreigners. While restoring a ramshackle neighborhood wouldn’t be easy, the development that has taken place over the recent past is nothing short of tremendous: to the point that Casco Viejo real estate prices and Casco Viejo tourism have increased tenfold over the past five years.
If it was a perfect neighborhood with no cause for concern, the entire would want to live in Casco Antiguo. But to its residents and business owners, dealing with real-world issues and social responsibility is part of the challenge. It is a collection of challenges that perhaps keeps out the hoards, at least for the time being.
Panama’s people still seem to be semi-hesitant about the neighborhood its country once called the core: whether it’s nervous about entering at night, or walking the dark alley streets by themselves. Taxi drivers often warn visitors that such a neighborhood is not safe and patrons of Casco Viejo’s top restaurants rarely stray from the well-lit fronts of plazas and store fronts. Restaurants like Rene Cafe, Manolo Caracol, Ego, and Mostaza play host to some of the City’s elite, now returning to Casco Viejo, if only for a few hours of nightlife entertainment.
But it’s a trend that’s only natural in the evolution of a historic (or at least young) travel and investment destination. It’s a trend any of New York’s Soho residents would recognize from the 1970′s, a trend anyone would recall who visited Baltimore, Maryland’s harbor around the same time, and it’s a trend many travelers who hit hotspots such as Antigua (Guatemala), Cartagena (Columbia), or San Juan (Puerto Rico) would identify with in a pinch. Investors visiting agencies like Arco Properties find the same allure that similar historic real estate spots offered.
If you don’t feel comfortable in Casco Viejo like we do, simply hold off. Come in five or ten years though the identity of the neighborhood may become diluted, the diversity may homogenize, and what makes the place truly special may disappear before your very eyes.