Panama City’s glittering high rises are no longer the city’s main attraction—for that, you’ll have to head to the city’s old town, Casco Viejo. Though once burned to the ground by Captain Morgan (the real Captain Morgan) and then overrun by gang warfare in the early 1990s, the neighborhood has lately turned over a new leaf and emerged as one of the hippest spots in the city. With recent renovations on the nearby Panama Canal set to be completed by the end of this month, here are six reasons why the time to go to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is now—before the secret is out.
The epicenter of Casco Viejo’s revitalization is the 50-room American Trade Hotel, a collaboration between Ace Hotels and Conservatorio. The Spanish colonial-style building, which was built in 1917, originally served as the American Trade department store, but became a favorite hangout of the infamous street gang, Los Hijos Pródigos in the late 1990s. Their occupation ended in 2007 when New York corporate lawyer K.C. Hardin bought the property as part of his plan to revitalize the neighborhood. Step into the hotel today and you are transported into an environment of equatorial elegance with midcentury modern touches. With Spanish tiles, Aesop amenities, and hardwood floors crafted with wood salvaged from the Panama Canal, every detail in this hotel has been curated to create an impeccably Panamanian feel.
2. Everybody loves a good redemption story
Dig deeper into the storied history of the gentrifying neighborhood with The Forteleza Tour. Led by former gang members, the tour takes a look back into the darker history of Casco Viejo as well as provides insight into how the neighborhood rapidly transformed from a “red zone” to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tour profiles the key actors who led the revitalization, including K.C. Hardin, who provided much of the financial backing, and the Esperanza Social Venture Club, which runs a 10-week intervention program that teaches former gang members valuable job skills and helps them to reintegrate into society. In fact, many of the bartenders and shopkeepers in the area are graduates of the program. Finally, when the tour passes by Panama’s Presidential Palace, you’ll learn about how the presidential security detail has helped transform Casco Viejo into one of the safest neighborhoods in Panama City.
Located at the edge of Casco Viejo is the Mercado de Mariscos seafood market, built by the Japanese government as a gift to Panama. Now, the iconic market not only provides the local community with fresh seafood, but also facilitates the area’s economically vital seafood exports to the United States and Japan. Stop by for lunch and watch the fishermen unload their daily catch at the docks, explore the fish stalls, and sample the freshest ceviche you’ve ever tasted. Octopus ceviche with a cold Panama lager is the perfect remedy for the tropical midday heat.
4. The cuisine is Michelin-worthy
In 2013, Michelin-starred chef Andres Madrigal moved from Spain to Panama and opened his eponymous restaurant, Madrigal. The restaurant, housed in a renovated two-story Spanish Colonial building, radiates a classic and sophisticated ambience. The menu, which blends Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine in locally sourced dishes, changes daily but the sea bass ceviche in sweet citrus juice is a regular favorite that keeps both locals and travelers coming back for more. For dessert, try the “Valley de Anton,” a dessert that pays homage to the Anton Valley volcano with a crater made of crushed chocolate, edible flowers, and beet ice cream representing lava.
5. The local jazz is HOT!
Stroll by Plaza Herrera in the heart of Casco Viejo on any weekend night and you will be serenaded by the strains of a saxophone wafting through the doors of Danilo’s Jazz Club. The club has played host to internationally acclaimed local artists, such as Panamanian jazz icon Reubén Blades and the country’s First Lady of Jazz, Idania Dowman. Housed in the same building as the American Trade Hotel, this intimate 50-seat club, along with the city’s yearly jazz festival, is putting Panama on the world’s music map. Part of the proceeds from Danilo’s goes to the Danilo Perez Foundation, which supports emerging local musicians. The mix of sultry jazz and Panamanian rum drinks makes a great nightcap to a day of exploring. Try the Canal Jumper, a rum and citrus combination.
Don’t leave Panama without tasting Geisha coffee, one of the most exotic and expensive coffees in the world. The coffee, which features intense floral and jasmine aromas, originated in Ethiopia but now is only farmed at two coffee plantations, both in Panama. Unido, off of Plaza Herrera, is a chic and intimate café that sources beans from Panama’s best coffee plantations. Stop by in the morning for a cup of Geisha and grab a carne empanada for a truly Panamanian breakfast.
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