Casco Viejo, Panama City's historic city center, is being redeveloped as part of a tourism strategy to diversify from the canal as the country's major attraction. Tourism revenues have now reached $2.5billion annually, with an estimated 2.2million visitors during 2013.
Panama – Been There

Burnt by pirates, but rising from the ashes

Photo by Rob Crandall

Panama – Been There Burnt by pirates, but rising from the ashes

Panama's Casco Viejo – its Old City – was a crumbling, deserted pile of ruined colonial houses at the end of the 20th century, but developers have now moved in with art galleries, restaurants, bars and boutique hotels lurking discreetly behind brightly painted shutters.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

I take a stroll, enjoying a slice of fresh green mango sprinkled with salt sold by a smiling old lady sitting under a shady tree on Plaza Bolivar. In the evening, the plaza comes alive with al fresco music and a lively bar. The city walls, built by the Spanish in 1673, to defend it from pirates such as the notorious Henry Morgan seem more likely to keep visitors inside what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The previous city, Panama Viejo, was built in 1519 and burnt by Morgan in 1671. All that remains is a pile of atmospheric ruins with a scenic outlook over the skyscrapers of Punta Pacifico. “Panama Viejo was the first city built on the Pacific Coast of the Americas,” says local historian Carlos Herrera. “Morgan targeted it because it was the port to which the Spanish shipped all the riches stolen from the Incan Empire. The gold was then taken by mule across the Isthmus to the Atlantic coast for shipment back to Spain.”

One legacy of all that gold is the altar of St Joseph’s church, Inglesia de San Jose, in Casco Viejo. Made of wood covered in gold plundered during the Spanish conquest, this magnificent altar was whitewashed by the Jesuits to disguise it from Henry Morgan in 1671. Legend has it the priest’s protestations of poverty actually led to the notorious pirate giving him a donation.

Another legacy of old Panama is the fish market. The Mercado de Mariscos is a busy hall where fishermen sell directly to vendors, a guarantee the produce is as fresh as you can find short of catching it yourself. Upstairs, a restaurant cooks every variety of seafood to order and also specializes in ceviche, the marinated raw fish that is a popular local snack.

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Young girls dressed as angels take part in a religious procession in Panama City's Casco Viejo ("Old Quarter"). About 80 per cent of the population are Roman Catholic, with most of the remainder evangelical Christian, but the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Photo by Juan Jose Gutierrez Barrow / Alamy

Juan Jose Gutierrez Barrow

Juan Jose Gutierrez Barrow

Agency
Alamy

Young girls dressed as angels take part in a religious procession in Panama City's Casco Viejo ("Old Quarter"). About 80 per cent of the population are Roman Catholic, with most of the remainder evangelical Christian, but the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

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