Slice of Panama: All change in the colonial quarter

Casco Viejo gives you a glimpse of the capital's past – and its future too, says Mick Webb

Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City, is being rapidly transformed, like much of Panama's dynamic capital. A walk through its Unesco-listed colonial streets, where new restaurants, cafés, and hotels are germinating, gives you a glimpse into the unique history of a country at the crossroads of the world.

Start where modern-day Panama began, in the Plaza de la Independencia (also called Plaza Catedral), at the centre of the old colonial quarter. Dotted among the trees are bronze busts of the men who founded the nation, following its independence from Colombia in 1903. The most eye-catching building is the cathedral, which was built in the 18th century when the treasure-hungry Spaniards were still in control; its white-washed bell towers are strikingly inlaid with mother of pearl from Panama's Pearl Islands. Across the square is a restored colonial mansion, once the headquarters of the Panama Canal Company, and now a museum devoted to the 100-year history of the country's best-known feature (00 507 211 1649; museodelcanal.com; $2/£1.25).

Leave the square on Avenida Central, resisting or succumbing to the temptation of the Granclément's ice cream parlour (00 507 223 6277), before a right turn down Calle 3 brings you to the church and convent of Santo Domingo, which sheds a surprising light on the origins of the canal. The original buildings were destroyed by fire in the 18th century, with the exception of a striking brick-built, flat arch. The arch's staying power helped to convince US engineers that Panama was geologically stable enough for them to undertake construction of the canal.

The US was not the first country to take on the Herculean challenge of digging the huge ditch. The earlier, failed attempt by France's Ferdinand de Lesseps (of Suez Canal fame) is commemorated in the Plaza de Francia, which you reach by turning right down Calle 2. In the middle of the square is an obelisk crowned by a cockerel, which was donated by the French. The square is encased by the old city walls, whose vaults once held notorious dungeons but now house a French seafood restaurant called Las Bóvedas (00 507 228 8058; closed Sundays).

A few steps up out of the square bring you face to face with the Pacific Ocean. A path, Las Bóvedas, follows the shoreline. It is shaded by bougainvillea and lined with stalls selling handicrafts. Spot pelicans and cormorants and, out to sea, ships queuing to enter the canal. Closer in, a row of concrete piles marks the route of an offshore ring road intended to alleviate Panama's dire traffic. Critics of the scheme claim it will ruin the sweeping bay view to the skyscrapers of New Panama, 2km away.

Panama has been a nation for only 111 years and a functioning democracy since 1989, when the military strongman, General Manuel Noriega, was removed from power by a US invasion. The Americans employed very loud rock music as a psychological weapon to flush him out from the Vatican embassy, where he had sought refuge.

At the junction of Las Bóvedas and Calle 2, is the Antiguo Club Unión, where Noriega hosted lavish parties for his troops and supporters. Now an atmospheric ruin of crumbling stone and rusting metal amid straggly bushes, it featured in the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. It is slated for renovation and relaunch as a luxury hotel.

Casco Viejo's architecture covers a wide spread of styles and periods, and a left turn into Avenida B brings you to the imposing National Theatre. Its pink and yellow exterior is Neoclassical but the interior is truly operatic, with gold-painted balconies and lavish murals, which are well worth looking at even if you can't find an event to attend (00 507 501 4107; teatrodepanama.com; $1/60p).

The neighbouring square – Plaza Bolívar – is the most elegant and lively of Casco Viejo's plazas, with cafés and restaurants under its arcades. In the centre is a suitably imposing statue of the South American hero, Simón Bolívar, who in the early 19th century, led the successful revolt against the Spanish colonisers.

On the south side is the most attractive building in the square and arguably the whole Casco Viejo, el Palacio Bolívar. The carefully renovated building was originally a convent and is now occupied by the Panamanian Foreign Ministry. It also houses a small museum, El Salón Bolívar, whose highlight is the bejewelled sword of The Liberator – as Bolívar was known. It is a replica of the Venezuelan original and was presented to Panama in recognition of Bolívar's declaration in 1824 that if the world were to have a capital it should be on the isthmus of Panama (00 507 228 9594; panama-museums.com; closed Sun-Mon; $1/60p).

Carry on northwards down Avenue B to feel the real vibe of the Casco Viejo, where tumbledown colonial buildings stand side by side with mansions that have been restored to their former glories. Many of these are foreign-owned and have become coffee shops, Italian restaurants, and boutique hotels.

Characteristic of this new wave, and a good place to end the walk, is Tántalo Hotel, Kitchen and Roofbar, where Avenida B is crossed by Calle 8. The spacious downstairs bar with communal trestle tables is resplendent with a vertical garden, while the roof terrace is the place to be at night, when there's music, margaritas, and a wonderful view across the bay to the mushrooming skyscrapers of New Panama.

Fresh cuts

Panama Carnival takes place from 1-4 March this year. Casco Viejo's newest address is the American Trade Hotel, a partnership with US-based Ace Hotels. It fuses the building's 1917 Neoclassical and Art Nouveau heritage with modern luxuries such as Frette linen and Aesop toiletries (00 507 211 2000; acehotel.com/panama). Doubles from $249 (£166), room only.

The city's first Metro line will start service between the Los Andes shopping centre and Allbrook domestic airport from the middle of next month; the most convenient station for the Old Town is 5 de Mayo (elmetrodepanama.com).

Another big launch will be Frank Gehry's Biodiversity Museum, which hopes to rival the canal as a visitor attraction when it opens this summer. Its startling jumble of colourful, inclined planes will house eight exhibition halls, which showcase the extraordinary diversity of Panama's flora and fauna (00 507 314 0097; biomuseopanama.org).

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mick Webb travelled to Panama as a guest of the Panamanian Tourist Board (00 507 526 7000; visitpanama.com).

There are no direct flights from the UK to Panama. Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance.co.uk) and its partner KLM (0871 231 000; klm.com fly from many UK airports via Paris and Amsterdam respectively. Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) flies from Heathrow via Madrid.

Staying there

Tántalo Hotel (00 507 262 4030; tantalohotel.com) offers doubles from $164 (£103), including breakfast.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Chelsea are interested in loaning out Romelu Lukaku to Everton again next season
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series