Casco Viejo was at the top of my itinerary after I landed in Panama City, Panama. I first visited Casco Viejo back in April of 2000 when the only accommodations were run down hostels/love motels renting rooms for $5 per night.
In those years, Casco maintained a reputation of being “dangerous” for locals and tourists alike due to the high levels of poverty, crime, drugs and gang activity. Many Panamanians would not even go to Casco Viejo and warned me not to stray off of the beaten path – day or night.
From my balcony in Casco back in those years, I could see burly men emerge from the darkness to make a deal, and young ladies leaving the place in the early morning. Despite the warnings and questionable behavior of the other guests, Casco was an enchanting place to visit and the differences between then and now are like night and day.
Sacked And Burned
Casco Viejo was founded in 1673 after the original Panama City – Panama Viejo – was sacked and burned by Henry Morgan. Casco Viejo remained at the center of Panama’s life and business for over 250 years but began to decay in the 1930s when Panama’s wealthy class moved to the suburbs.
Casco is an eclectic neighborhood full of colonial French and Spanish architecture, punctuated by wide open plazas, ancient cathedrals, and narrow cobblestone side streets. The President’s Palace is situated in Casco Viejo, as are a handful of other important government institutions.
Panama City’s Most Inviting Night Spots
Casco Viejo is geographically contained by the tip of a peninsula, and is located between the Panama Canal and Panama City’s bustling central business districts. Visitors will appreciate impressive ocean views in several directions. The lack of busy commercial traffic makes the area pedestrian friendly, unlike the majority of Panama City where evading taxis and buses on foot is a crap shoot at best. Casco Viejo has also emerged as one of the city’s most inviting night spots, with a range of elegant restaurant patios, enchanting lounges, and bohemian nightclubs.
Restorations Projects Are In Full Swing
I made appointments with two of the primary property developers in the area, Arco Properties and San Felipe Inmobiliaria, to get the low down on the latest restoration projects underway. As we strolled around the neighborhood, I noticed that nearly every block in Casco Viejo has a building under restoration. Many are mixed use residential buildings with commercial spaces on the ground floor along with a handful of hotels. One of the most prominent projects underway is the restoration of the Hotel Central, a 140 room hotel located on the Plaza Cathedral, which upon completion will become the largest luxury hotel in the area.
From a lifestyle perspective, Casco Viejo has attracted an artsy, bohemian crowd – photographers, designers, architects, internet entrepreneurs, and musicians are flocking to (or at least working in) Casco to be part of the revitalization effort.
New shops, restaurants, and night spots have opened up and appear to be thriving. One of the more well known restaurants is Manolo Caracol offering fine Spanish fusion cuisine in an airy room with an open kitchen and some of Panama’s most intriguing forms of art gracing the walls. One of the most compelling settings has to be Las Bovedas, formerly used as an armory and prison by the Spanish colonialists, is now a restaurant bar appealing to the youth of Panama’s wealthy elite and (apparently) curious and thirsty international travelers like me.
Real Estate Prices
I was directed to a number of buildings with restored luxury apartments for sale – most of which were priced in the $200 – $300 per square foot range, with a one bedroom on sale for $275,000 and a two bedroom exceeding $550,000. These prices are more than double what they were in 2003 before the taste for real estate investing with borrowed money first developed its vigor.
If you feel like biting into your own restoration project, you can purchase a small two level building with three bedrooms and two bathrooms in a state of utter disrepair for $230,000. Despite the global recession, developers and sellers of real estate in Casco are not overly motivated to lower their asking prices.
A number of rentals were available with one bedrooms available for $1500/month and two bedrooms exceeding $2000/month. Meanwhile, up the road a few blocks where the buildings have not been restored and are still in various stages of dilapidated condition, rents drop to as low as $100/month. At this price, there is no guarantee the balcony will not collapse under your weight.
Character and Inspiration
Whether or not Casco Viejo offers any lifestyle options in between the destitute and the elegant, I could not be sure. While the struggling artists may struggle with affordability issues, Casco Viejo offers a lifestyle full of character and inspiration for those capable of complying with the price tag.
About the Author: On the January 17, 2010, world traveler, and published author Michael Manville embarked on an eye-popping 180 day ”amazing race” covering 6 countries and over 15,000 miles to reveal the best places in the world for lifestyle, investment, and retirement.
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Michael will use a combination of captivating photos, vivid descriptions, lively interviews, and engaging video clips to document his voyage. Registered members will be able to post comments and questions online as Michael progresses through each destination.
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