When I read several online travel stories comparing the old section of Panama City -- Casco Viejo -- to Havana and New Orleans, I knew my experiences there would be memorable. I spent eight of the best years of my life in New Orleans as a college student and then a reporter at the New Orleans States-Item. And Havana is my number one bucket list destination.
Casco Viejo was even more magical than I had expected. The picture above is the balcony view from my hotel, the Magnolia Inn. Some streets in Casco are even more narrow than the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. But anyone who has been to that charming part of the city will instantly recognize the wrought iron balconies that are a hallmark of both places.
I landed in Panama on the night of June 29th and my first foray into Casco was on the morning of June 30th. You could cut the humidity with a butcher's knife. Not even eight years of tropical humidity in New Orleans prepared me for Panama's damp atmosphere. Within an hour of walking around the area of the Magnolia Inn, I was drenched in sweat. But I had a new Nikon Coolpix camera with me and I was eager to discover what scenes I might see through its lens.
Visitors to Casco Viejo immediately sense the ambiguity of both architectural optimism and pessimism in the same neighborhood. UNESCO is pouring millions of dollars into renovation projects all over Casco, but snuggled right next to renewed, refurbished buildings are others in utter disrepair. Casco Viejo is in a state of transition that will take years or even decades to complete but that offer hope and inspiration for the future.
It's a neighborhood of vivid, intense colors. Lush green parks and public squares filled with palm trees and flowering bushes and shrubs are interspersed throughout Casco Viejo and vie for the eye's attention with homes, store fronts and public buildings painted in a spectrum of tastefully subdued colors.
I was searching for a place to have breakfast and came upon an open air cafe with the aroma of home cooked food wafting into the street. The counter could only accommodate eight people and, as this tiny eatery was directly across the street from the local police station, all eight spots were occupied by men in blue uniforms. I figured the food was both cheap and delicious and I was right. I waited my turn and asked for a menu (in English). There was none. And I am uncertain the woman behind the counter understood what I was asking for. Instinctively, she pointed to prepared food under glass a the end of the counter. Most of the policemen were eating round, doughy things called hojadres that looked a little like a doughnut and a little like a pancake. A pan full of fried chicken breasts were right next to them. I ordered a chicken breast with a side of what I thought was potatoes called yuca. It cost me $3.50 in American dollars and it was the best (and least expensive) food I ate in six days in Panama.
When I got back to my hotel for a much needed morning shower (the first of three I would take that day, just to stay refreshed), I asked a friendly desk clerk named Emanuele where I might find a cigar for purchase. He directed me to a local corner store, where I purchased a Cohiba Robusto for $8, a very reasonable price for a fine Cuban cigar (they generally go for between $15 and $20 each here in the U.S.) but a lot more pricey than the cigars I generally smoke. When I mentioned this to Emanuele later in the afternoon, he recommended I try to find a street vendor who was locally renowned for rolling his own cigars with Nicaraguan tobacco, which was "just as good as Cuban tobacco" according to several Panamanians who overheard our conversation in the hotel lobby. Emanuele's hand drawn directions on a map of the neighborhood were perfect, although I walked past the rustic, tiny tobacco stand twice before finding it. Because of our language limitations, the friendly fellow behind the counter had trouble figuring out what I wanted and handed me a pack of cigarettes. I said no and used my hands to show I wanted something bigger. He shot me an understanding smile and reached for a cigar box on the counter behind him. Inside were dozens of the ugliest, largest cigars I had ever seen. But they looked freshly rolled. He sold them for 55 cents each. I was suspicious a cigar so large and unsightly could possibly be very good, so I only purchased one. When I fired it up several hours later, I was surprised at the mildness of the smoke and how long the cigar lasted. It took me 90 minutes and two slowly sipped shots of rum to finish it. The next day I went back and purchased ten more, to be slowly savored at home over the course of the month.
It was the start of a perfect adventure in Panama City. Viva Casco Viejo! Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself on a trip to Panama, don't dare miss its oldest, most delectable neighborhood.