Casco Viejo and Plaza de Francia in Panama City

Recently I visited a historic area of Panama City called Casco Viejo. It’s a beautiful area that can easily be explored on foot. Walking through Casco Veijo I was reminded of the times I’ve spent meandering through the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Casco Veijo is the second site that Panama City was founded upon. In 1997 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Viejo is made up of over 900 buildings and is in the process of a major renovation. Construction is at its peak but the progress being made is incredible. Original facades that were crumbling are now being restored to their former and historically accurate glory. The architecture throughout Veijo is mostly Spanish and French with a smattering of Neo-Classical and Art Deco thrown in.

There are several museums in the area but they may leave a little something wanted for experienced museum goers. Most of them are not well cared for and the displays are rarely translated in languages other then Spanish. This didn’t bother me as there are so many other things to see that need no translation.

Truly impressive is the Church of the Golden Altar. The name speaks for itself. Walk in and you are overwhelmed by the beautiful, floor to ceiling golden altar at the front of the church. History says that a wise and quick thinking priest painted the altar black to keep it from being ransacked by Welsh Pirate Henry Morgan. Truly a breathtaking site for anyone to see.

Another lovely place to spend some time is Plaza de Francia. Built as a way to commemorate the French’s valiant but failed attempt to build a sea level canal in Panama. Until the start of the 20th century there was a fort here and the vaults found in the sea wall were used for many things. The most popular story is about them being used to house criminals who would be locked up at low tide and found later to have drowned when high tide came through.

Plaza de Francia is beautiful. A walk along the old sea wall offers amazing views of the city, cool breezes, shopping for traditional handicrafts and great photo opportunities. Casca Viejo is filled with outdoor cafes, wine bars, shops, galleries and restaurants at all price points. I would recommend touring this area in the morning and staying for lunch.

Wander through the bougainvillea covered trellis just that runs atop the seawall in Plaza de Francia and take a walk down Avienda Central.

Avienda Central is made up of shops and handicraft stalls. It may not be appealing to all as it is more like a market for locals instead of a tourist destination. Personally I feel this is a great way to experience day to day life in any town and an excellent place to practice your Spanish and interact with local children. It reminded me of markets in visited in Ghana; high energy, fast paced and tons of people. I recommend keeping a Spanish language children’s book with you for moments just like this. Everyone loves story time. I’m not sure what the kiddos found more entertaining, the story I was reading or my southern pronunciation of their language. Either way fun was had and friends were made and smiles were abundant.

I had been told Casco Veijo and Avienda Central were dangerous but I felt safe while there. Stay on the main drags and don’t wander off sketchy looking side streets and you’ll be fine. There is some intense ghetto around the area but if you use good judgement and don’t set yourself up to be a target you’ll be fine. If you’re having doubts stay in the Casca Veijo area and pass Avienda Central.