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 turned over a new leaf and emerged as one of the hippest spots in the city. Here are six reasons why the time to go to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is now.
1. Sleep in the American Trade Hotel, a former gangster hideout
The epicenter of Casco Viejo’s revitalization is the 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 mid-century 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. Learn about the neighborhood on a Fortaleza Tour
Dig deeper into the storied history of the neighborhood with The Fortaleza Tour. Led by former gang members, the tour takes a look back into the darker history of Casco Viejo and provides insight into how the neighborhood rapidly transformed from a “red zone” to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The unique service is run by some of the key actors who led the area’s revitalization, including K.C. Hardin, who provided much of the financial backing, and the Esperanza Social Venture Club, the organization responsible for 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.
3. The local ceviche is some of the freshest—and tastiest—in the world
Located at the edge of Casco Viejo is the Mercado de Mariscos seafood market, which was 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 local fishermen unload their daily catch at the docks, then 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 “Valle de Antón,” a delicacy that pays homage to the nearby Anton Valley volcano with a crater-shaped tart topped in 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 sound 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.
6. ou can taste one of the most sought-after coffees in the world
Don’t leave Panama without tasting Geisha coffee, one of the world’s most exotic and expensive coffees. The award-winning java, which features intense floral and jasmine aromas, originated in Ethiopia but is now only farmed at coffee plantations in Panama. Unido, off of Plaza Herrera, is a chic and intimate café that sources beans from more of 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.