Casco Viejo, the old section of Panama City, overlooks the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal with a view of cargo ships lined up in the Bay, waiting their turn to pass through the Panama Canal. Founded in 1673, it has endured centuries of neglect until now, its moment in time, when it is undergoing a total restoration. A small area —just four avenues wide and twelve blocks long — it is presently a mash up of differing elements and styles. Partly restored, you’ll find that there are grand mansions converted to boutique hotels, elegant homes reclaimed from drug dealers and squatters, all restored and now occupied by new owners … side by side with squatters who have taken over entire buildings even though the entrances were bricked up in an effort to try and keep them out!
The original town planning is still in place, however, and the neighborhood is beautifully laid out in a grid system. The streets have mostly been restored with pavers reproduced in the original style with sidewalks are repaired, there are plazas planted with tropical vegetation and mature trees for shade with benches to relax, coffeeshops, ice cream stores, wine bars and restaurants that have moved in — so have museums, theaters and of course churches to serve the local Catholic inhabitants. Construction is everywhere and supports and yellow ribbon are in place to try and control the influx of visitors who come in each day to enjoy the atmosphere and observe the changes. Still rough around the edges, it is a work in progress.
Presently, I am living in the heart of the Casco in a small apartment in a totally restored building. It has thick stone walls that are excellent insulation against the tropical heat, high ceilings and perfectly proportioned arches with French doors that lead out to the balcony. The layout has a combined living dining room, a state of the art kitchen and bathroom and even an Apple TV and music. Facing my apartment, right across the street, the building is occupied by several low income families who smoke weed, drink until they are inebriated and live life for all to see in the open on their balconies in their undergarments… occasionally the police are called when it gets out of control, but they never arrest anyone and seem to restore order with calm words and negotiation.
Up and down the street are fine restaurants, local Panamanian cafes, “Chino” grocery shops, a high-end wine bar, restored mansions and condos, and several buildings in the process of being restored — a typical slice of Casco Viejo. The narrow street, built for horse carriages, is now clogged with endless traffic, far too many taxis and lots of honking. An endless cacophony of sound from early morning to late at night.
The building is called Casa Testa. It is located on Calle 6 where it intercepts with Carrera A. In Casco Viejo, it is more important when looking for an address to give a description of the neighborhood rather than the number on the street: hence, I live “above the Deli Gourmet” and everyone knows where that is, whereas they do not know the name of the street.
When I knew I would be returning to Panama City , I contacted Clara Hardin of Arco Properties and requested a rental. How did I know Clara? Those of you who traveled with me last year may remember: it was six degrees of separation. Lisa, my daughter is friendly with Andi, and Andi mentioned to Lisa that her friend Cristina has a very good friend in Casco Viejo whose name is Clara Hardin. Clara and I met briefly last year. Clara, who is a founding partner of Arco Properties offered me Casa Testa. This has been a unique experience and I am grateful to Andi, Cristina, and Lisa for being the conduit of this plan.
Being above the Deli Gourmet is very convenient as I can stop for a quick coffee or snack, or pick up groceries one minute from “home.” It is owned by Blaine from New Orleans and his beautiful Panamanian wife Jasmine, a qualified engineer. In addition to selling imported American packaged food, they serve delicious salads, light meals and cappuccino using Panamanian grown and roasted coffee beans. They also produce a unique and very delicious homemade gourmet chocolate that is made into bars in the Deli at night after they have closed for the day. The recipe was “inherited’ from a Panamanian Family, who asked Blaine and Jasmine if they would continue the tradition of the chocolate recipe that had been in their family for generations. This is real chocolate made with locally grown cocoa beans from Blaine and Jasmine’s farm — lovingly prepared by hand in large, heavy pots on a hot stove. It is hand wrapped and totally delicious!! The same chocolate is used in their homemade brownies and ensures that are the best brownies ever!!