Casco Viejo is located at the mouth of the Panama Canal and it is the oldest city on the Pacific Coast of the America: it was there long before the Canal was built. In fairness to history, the original Panama City (now known as Old Panama or Panama La Vieja) was founded in 1519, about two miles from the center of Panama City as we know it today. From here, expeditions were mounted to conquer the Inca Empire of South America and all of the wealth pillaged from Peru, Chile and California flowed to Spain through Old Panama.
It is no surprise that this booty attracted pirates like Henry Morgan, who looted the city in 1671.During Morgan's attack, this original Panama City was burned to the ground. Two years later, in 1673, the capital was moved two miles to the west and present-day Panama City was founded. This is the area now known as Casco Viejo.
As the city was being rebuilt by the Spanish settlers, they decided to build a massive surrounding wall and a stronger fortress for its protection and to ensure that the enormous wealth in gold and silver that passed through it would never again be susceptible to the likes of Henry Morgan.The new city boasted a cross-sectioned design of 38 blocks, with three main streets running from east to west and seven streets running from north to south. Unfortunately, this urban development was interrupted by various fires that devastated its streets. In 1737, the "big fire" destroyed two thirds of the city and the "small fire" of 1756 destroyed more than 90 houses.
These and other catastrophic fires help explain why so few true examples of Spanish colonial architecture exist today.The fortress still survives, though and today houses several important, cultural and historic buildings and monuments. But it is the architecture of Casco Viejo that makes it so special. The old Spanish colonial style is overlaid with French balconies and architecture, remnants of the French inhabitants who made the initial attempt to build the Panama Canal in 1881.
Over the years, a Caribbean influence also took hold and, today, Casco Viejo is a melting pot of architectural inspiration and style, with some buildings dating as far back as 300 years.Up until the early parts of this century, Casco Viejo remained a thriving cultural center. But as Panama City modernized and as the automotive age made transportation easier, it spread outward, leaving Casco Viejo behind. The old city's narrow labyrinth streets were difficult for cars to maneuver and its buildings were obsolete in comparison to modern skyscrapers being built.
By the mid 1900s, Casco Viejo had gone the way of most city centers of that century. No longer the center of Panama City, it was too oppressed for the upper class and quickly became a poor area of tenement-style housing.In 1997, UNESCO declared Casco Viejo a Patrimony of Humanity, a World Heritage site. Today, it is revered as the historic center of Panama City. Two- and three-story houses with flower-adorned balconies overlook narrow streets.
At its tip is French Park, where you will find the French Embassy and a monument to the hardy French builders who began the Panama Canal. On one side is an historical Spanish building called Las Bovedas, now housing an art gallery and French restaurant.Close by is the Museum of National History and across the way is the National Cathedral. Nearby is a small museum dedicated to religious art, found in the old Santo Domingo monastery. This is where you will find the famous Flat Arch, which reportedly helped convince engineers that Panama was earthquake-proof and a geologically stable area for building the Canal. A few blocks away is the old San Jose Cathedral, with gleaming spires inlaid with mother-of-pearl and its beautiful gold altar, intricately carved of wood and gilded with gold.
This is a must-see when you visit Casco Viejo.To finish off your day in Panama in style, make your way to The Bristol Hotel, just a short taxi journey from Casco Viejo. Dining at the Barandas Restaurant at The Bristol Hotel is an event to savor.
The Panamanian-inspired gourmet cuisine, restful ambiance, stunning presentation, elegant settings and attentive service combine to create an unforgettable dining experience. Make sure to finish off the day with a drink in the elegant dark wood bar.
.Michael Russell.Your Independent guide to Travel.
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By: Michael Russell