Our first day in Casco Viejo started off rough. Because in addition to being jet-lagged, the Hotel Casa Nuratti (where we were staying) happened to be hosting a rooftop rager the night before that didn’t end until 4am. The staff was kind enough to let us know there was a bar on the roof, and that there would be a DJ mixing music into the wee hours of the morning, but the party may as well have been dry-humping me in bed, because it wasn’t until I shoved ear plugs in that I could even attempt to get some shuteye.
The staff was nice enough to give us vouchers for a free round of drinks as a consolation for the noise and suggested we head up there at some point and enjoy the party….but wow, when they say “all night party” in Panama City, they mean it! We were four floors away from the roof, but it doesn’t matter when the music is blasting at capacity, and the entire length of the property is connected by one large atrium.
But aside from the noise at night on the weekends, the hotel was great. Not only is it located on the edge of Casco Viejo where all the traffic in and out of the old town travels through, but it’s very hipster and cool. Throughout the inside and across the facade are Banksy-esque stencils.
The rooms aren’t huge, but perfect for sleeping, showering, etc. The A/C is strong, and the wireless works well. From the rooftop bar there are amazing views of Panama City’s downtown skyline and the church spires of Casco Viejo. The reception desk is on the first floor and occupies the back of a wine bar and restaurant that’s trendy, chic and serves great food. We were also happy to learn the hotel is pro-sustainability, because the architecturally stylish furniture is made from recycled woods and materials. Better than if that weren’t the case I guess.
So we rolled out of bed, and sloughed off to breakfast, which was included in the room rate. The café down the block served some variation of cheese, jam, toast, ham, and eggs every morning.
They also made a delicious café con leché, which gave me the jump-start I needed.
Since it was our first day in Panama and we were all still adjusting to the time change, and humidity (I mean really!), we thought we’d just familiarize ourselves with the old city by strolling around.
Casco Viejo, also known as is the “old city of Panama City” is a five block by five block peninsula on the south side of Panama Bay, and depending on the traffic, it’s anywhere from a 15 minutes to an hour drive from the Tocumen International Airport. Walking the narrow alleys of Casco Viejo, the sun shines through hollowed-out abandoned 17th Century Spanish Colonial homes on to brick-lined roads revealing layers and layers of centuries past.
And then you turn a corner onto a street that’s been completely renovated to the nines with some really modern street art on the walls of homes and retail shops.
The city’s resurgence is in full swing since it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO back in 1997. But now some of the best restaurants in Panama City are opening up there. The shopping, although a little touristy, is good. You can find amazing deals on Panama Hats (which, little known fact….are actually made in Ecuador….yep, real Panama Hats are made in Ecuador) and Mola embroidered fabrics.
Casco Viejo is safe and clean, compared to some of the ghetto neighborhoods just blocks away. The views of downtown Panama City are fantastic, and it’s really easy to walk the entire area and soak it all up in just a few hours.
If you’re lucky, a random tour guide will find you and show you around. We were approached by this guy, Miguel, wearing a yellow polo shirt with “Casco Viejo” embroidered on the chest. His English wasn’t so good, but after asking him to speak Spanish a little slower “mas dispacio por favor” we were able to understand him.
As we walked down Avenida A, our self-appointed tour guide pointed out the striking ruins of the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo (Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo). What looked like some partially crumbled ruins in the middle of Casco Viejo, is actually one of the most important structures in the country’s history.
The reason being is its gravity-defying archway stretched across the main entrance. You see, the church was originally built in 1678, and although the archway has no keystone (triangular piece at the summit of an arch) it has stayed erect (yep, I said erect) for several hundred years. It’s this fact that ended up being the proof some skeptical US Senators needed when questioning whether or not Panama was the ideal location for the canal. Because the archway was evidence that there are little to no earthquakes in Panama!
Today, the roof-less structure is used for choir events, weddings, parties, etc. And in the evening, the restaurant across the street (Mostaza), sets up their outside dining tables in front of the church. We had dinner there one night, which I’ll post about later.
Miguel walked us around, rambling off facts and figures about Casco Viejo and it’s history. Eventually we learned that he was actually self-employed and not an employee of some tourism office like he’d appeared to be. More power to him if he can make a few bucks giving tours to tourists, but we had our Panama guidebook, which was in English, so we parted ways.
Then we walked along the ancient city wall, which is now a waterfront promenade covered in purple and pink Bougainvillea. On the map this area is known as La Bovedas and the Paseo Esteban Huertas. Local artisans setup their folding tables in the afternoon sun and sell crafts, like colorful Mola (the iconic Kuna tribes’ sewn applique fabrics), hand woven Panama Hats, carved Tagua nuts (a Wounaan tribal craft) and of course chachkes like cheap magnets, key chains, sun glasses, and t-shirts. Taking in the views of downtown Panama City off in the distance in one direction and the Amador Causeway (where the ships line up to go through the canal locks) in the other, we strolled along and soaked it all in.
The promenade ends at the very tip of the peninsula and wraps around an obelisk situated in the center of Plaza de Francia. A few steps down from the city wall, and we found ourselves surrounded by 12 slabs of marble outlining the history of the Panama Canal, which, thanks to our guidebook, we learned to take with a grain of salt, because a lot of the historic plaques in Panama tell a very pro-Panama version of how things actually happened. The bronze busts of men in the Plaza resemble the French and Panamanian engineers integral in the construction of the canal. If you didn’t figure it out already, Panama city is pretty proud of the canal. There’s supposed to be a monument to the 20,000+ workers who died while constructing the canal here too, but we couldn’t find it.
As we walked away from the busty Plaza de Francia, we entered another Plaza; Plaza Herrera where a vendor served up some flavored shaved ice to cool of lobster-red tourists and local merchants with chocolate brown skin. In the old style, the vendor kept a giant solid block of ice under a metal box to prevent it from melting in the heat. And when someone ordered a cone, he shaved the ice by hand with a rickety looking metal scraper.
The line for shaved ice was too long so we headed to Granclement for the best ice cream in Casco Viejo.
Heladeria Granclement for Ice Cream in Casco Viejo
When you walk into Heladeria Granclement you’re first greeted by a wave of crisp cool air, which is refreshing in its own right. The shop has been renovated in the last few years, but some of its old world charm (like the exposed brick walls) is still intact.
Granclement is known for making gelato ice cream in the traditional French way. This has something to do with the amount of heavy cream used, the way the gelato is churned, and the fact that all the flavors are natural. I also found all of the ice cream to be sweet but not too sweet, which is nice when you don’t want to feel sick after you’ve shoveled three scoops of gelato into your pie-hole. They have tons of flavors, some of which are traditional like pistachio, rum raisin, chocolate, vanilla, and a ton of fruit sorbets. And some of the flavors are a little more unique, like sweet basil, banana, salted caramel, passion fruit sorbet, etc.
The toughest choice is whether or not to get one bola (scoop) or two, and whether you want them in a taza (cup) or cono (cone). They definitely welcome probando (trying or tasting) the various flavors until you’ve made up your mind. If it weren’t for the sad impatient look on the face of the six-year old boy waiting for his turn, I probably would have tried them all. But contrary to what Jonathan may say, I do have a soul.
We went with some classic combos like chocolate and banana, which was amazing.
Pistachio and rum raisin, which are two of my favorites. Their rum raisin is fantastic too! You can taste the rum, and the raisins are plump, sweet, and filled with liquor.
And we had some less traditional combos that were equally refreshing like strawberry and sweet basil sorbets.
We pretty much found an excuse to go back to Heladeria Granclement every day, and by the end of our few days in Casco Viejo, the clerks knew us by name. If you want to buy a pint or two to walk around the town with, they sell them pre-packed too.
With our ice cream in hand, we headed back to Hotel Casa Nuratti, but first stopped by the Presidential Palace along the way. It’s also known as the Palacio de las Garzas, which means “Herron’s Palace” in English.
It’s the official residence for the President of Panama, but we learned from several locals on our trip, that he has several homes and rarely stays here. But there are a lot of staffers and offices on the campus that seem to be operating in full swing most of the time. The entire complex, which takes up several blocks of the northern side of Casco Viejo is surrounded by security guards and gates at every entrance. The guidebook said we could politely ask to enter and see the front of the palace, which is the most breathtaking, and they would most likely let us in. So we did, and true to form, they checked our bags and purses and waved us through. I think they figured we looked as harmless as could be with the “American tourist” signs practically tattooed across our foreheads. The front of the palace is gated and with a courtyard setback from the street. In the center of the courtyard is a beautiful marble fountain, and all around it are these beautiful white Herrons; hence the nickname Herron’s Palace.
I got up close and photographed this one. I asked the security guards standing within the gates if the birds had names, and they laughed and said this one was named Pedro. I’m not sure if they were just playing along or not, but I’m pretty sure those birds live better than most of the locals in the outskirts of Panama City.
Fish Market (El Mercado del Mariscos) Casco Viejo
By this time we were ready for lunch. For some reason scoops of ice cream makes me hungry. So we walked along the Cinta Costera waterfront to the famous fish market (El Mercado del Mariscos) of Casco Viejo.
The fish market is a completely different scene than what you’ll experience in Casco Viejo. It’s actually where the locals come to buy their fish for the day, and to sit down and enjoy a few whole fried fish, ceviche cocktails, and cervezas.
At the water’s edge is where all the fishermen park their boats. We learned most of the fishermen head out to sea around 3am and fish for a few hours just to make it back around 7am where all the commercial buyers pickup their seafood for the day. They have to spend at least an hour heading out to sea, because the Panama Bay is actually filled with all the runoff and sewage from the city.
Yep, you can’t swim in the water along Panama City. It’s filled with…well, let’s not imagine what it’s filled with. Just know that the seafood is coming from way off shore….hopefully! We were told they’re trying to fix this with the construction of a new waste water treatment facility, but I think they’re a few years away from it being the beach destination they hope it will be some day.
The fish market has both interior and exterior spaces. The stalls on the inside close earlier in the day, and specialize in selling whole fish in bulk.
The stalls on the outside are open all day long, and that’s where you can find any kind of ceviche you can image; usually stored and marinating in jars like this.
You can also order whole fried, or grilled, fish, shrimp, langostinos, tostones, etc. If you’re going to the Fish Market for lunch, then you’re going to the outside stalls. They all seem to serve the same stuff.
We walked along the entire length of the market, looking for the perfect stall to purchase food from, but they all seemed popular and they were all the same price. So we grabbed a table where we could sit and eventually a woman in a red polo came to take our order. Whichever food stall she was serving from was fine with us.
We ordered an octopus (pulpo) ceviche, which was simple and delicious. The octopus wasn’t chewy, and the entire cup was like $2 USD.
We also ordered a pint of the mixed seafood ceviche, which was equally delicious and cheap. They served them with some individually wrapped saltine packets, which was the perfect vessel for scooping up the ceviche without competing with the flavors of the lime juice, spices, and fresh seafood.
We also ordered a plate of langostinos (large shrimps) that were served in a red tomato-based sauce. These were amazing! My only complaint is that they didn’t serve us more per serving, so everyone in our group only got one. Yes, we had to peel the shells off, but it was well worth the effort.
And we had to get one of the fried corvinas. They clean out the inside of the corvina fish (a type of Drum Fish or Croaker, belonging to the Scaienidae family of fish) lightly dredge it in flour, and deep-fry it! They served it with some tostones or pacatones that we ate with some scotch bonnet pepper hot sauce and ketchup while we picked at the crispy skin and moist filet meat inside.
While we enjoyed the shade, and seafood, we watched the locals around us having a great time drinking, eating and laughing. The mojito cart beckoned for one of us to order a handmade mojito. So Jonathan ordered a pomegranate mojito, which was refreshing and sweet, and with each sip, I felt like I was getting closer and closer to paradise.