Panama City: Casco Viejo rising

Casco Viejo is on the edge, but of what?

Depending on who you talk to, Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, has either already peaked or only recently managed to identify how it might achieve its prime.

The neighborhood is inarguably gorgeous. Beautifully renovated structures share space with completely decrepit buildings. There are plazas, churches, convent ruins, and, at one extreme, a fortress wall. The National Theatre lies within its borders, as does the Presidential Palace.

There is a well-manned Tourist Police office as well, and a smattering of cute cafes, restaurants, bars, galleries, and shops. And yet, even with all these facilities, there is an appealingly abandoned feel to many blocks. These ignored buildings, some with internal foliage peeking through open windows and many with wrought-iron balconies and gates, continue to be a primary feature of the neighborhood.

In fact, there has been a buzz in Casco Viejo for some time, and paradoxically it is this very buzz that has encouraged the abandonment of many buildings. Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Casco Viejo fell by almost a third, to under 7000, after the passage of a law designed to encourage the rehabilitation of buildings. This law prompted property owners, operating under the assumption that gentrification was imminent, to kick their poor tenants out. (Many of the neighborhood’s tenants generate no money whatsoever for landlords. They are destitute, and were originally relocated to unoccupied Casco Viejo buildings by Panama’s Housing Ministry.) Interestingly enough, many buildings remain unoccupied today. For greater real estate history, check out this article in the Panama News a few years back.

It looks as if many empty buildings may remain abandoned, at least in the near future. In August 2010, the government suspended plans to invest in previously scheduled renovation projects in the neighborhood.

So what’s in the cards?

One possibility is that Casco Viejo will become more of an artist colony. In the Panama Report, a publication devoted to travel and investment in Panama, Jesse Levin suggested in a 2009 article that Casco Viejo’s stop-and-start pace of gentrification has happened in part because the ‘hood simply heated up too quickly, leaving a massive gap between those who could make a purchase at the top of the market and Casco Viejo’s “natural” new inhabitants: people of moderate means in the domestic creative class.

Another possible future of the neighborhood can be glimpsed in the emergence of Las Clementinas, a very nicely detailed guesthouse and restaurant-bar in the heart of the neighborhood, which opened in November. It’s hard not to be impressed by Las Clementinas. It’s got beautiful rooms (pricey for Panama City, at $240 per night) and a popular restaurant-bar. I ate dinner there alone, surrounded by rich Panamanians celebrating a birthday and a few fellow tourists. The meal’s highlight was fufu, a somewhat spicy Caribbean soup. The food was fine, and the atmosphere was outstanding down to the last detail.

Las Clementinas is posh, and it is posh in a particularly Panamanian way. It feels like it belongs in Casco Viejo. But if another dozen businesses like Las Clementinas open up in the neighborhood, what will happen? Will Casco Viejo slowly but unavoidably morph into a cliched overdone tourist destination, terribly pretty but lifeless?

Whatever the pace and whatever the outcome, Casco Viejo’s current state prompts consideration from locals and visitors alike about what makes a tourist neighborhood special and wonderful to visit.

Looking for more Panama? Check out Darren Murph’s much-visited recent post on Panama for Gadling here.