June 15th, 2014

There is new Panama City and Historic Panama City, more commonly referred to as Casco Viejo, that was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.  It is located on the furthest tip of Panama City overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a glimpse of the  Panama Canal in the distance. The main neighborhood is four blocks wide and eleven blocks long.  It is surreal to be standing in Casco Viejo, on Plaza 2 Enero, in the ”Ancient City”, surrounded by crumbling old ruins and the  view across the Bay to  new Panama City has modern skyscrapers reaching into the sky.   One can stroll the streets of the Casco Viejo endlessly, never being bored. It is a mix if architecture including Spanish Colonial, because the Spaniards  were the first settlers in the 1500’s, also French  Colonial from the 1880’s when there was an influx of workers that came with de Lesseps in an aborted effort to  build the Panama Canal, plus Neoclassical and Art Nouveau Buildings.  The last influence was American,. Homes were built to house the Americans who arrived in 1904, and  were finally able to complete the Panama Canal.  Overall, it is Colonial in feel.  The streets are narrow and brick paved having recently been restored..  There are facades of buildings that are only one wall, and others that perhaps have  four walls, no windows and no roofs with flowers growing  out of the crevices. Doors and openings of deserted buildings are  bricked up to prevent squatters moving in – this is not always successful. They  find a way and  salvage enough building materials to create very basic living conditions, cooking off a primus stove and hanging their washing on the decaying rafters.  My fascination is with the facades that have trees growing out of the walls from the top of the third floor with the roots extending through the walls all the way down to the ground and others where ferns and saplings have managed to find life by planting their roots into a crack in the eroding bricks and mortar. Much of Casco Viejo is being restored with scaffolding, securely in place, to support the exterior walls, because when inside walls are removed, they have to be very careful the entire building does not collapse. There is restoration going on in every block and the area is alive with construction.  Throughout  the neighborhood  you can see and feel that Casco Viejo is being restored to its former glory.

About twenty years ago, a kernel of a renaissance  began when someone saw potential and beauty in this neighborhood among the ruins, where squatters and gangs had taken over.  It took a while to gain momentum and only in the last six or seven years, has the Old City shown a genuine re-birth when a few courageous developers began the process of restoration.  Key among these is Arco properties, who have completed several refurbishments, working with an architect who understands and appreciates  the importance of restoring this valuable slice of history.  Conservatoria S.A. the construction side of Arco Properties worked together with Ace hotels from the United Sates in restoring four  dilapidated old houses that are now the fashionable AmericanTrade Hotel. They had formerly been  occupied by squatters and gangs selling drugs  – this is now Ace’s  flagship hotel, attracting the same demographic that is does in the US., trendy fashionable and young.   Arco is a family business, the founders being K.C. Hardin, formerly a Corporate lawyer from NYC, his wife Patrizia, a Panamanian and MBA and Clara Keyes  Hardin. who is K.C.’s dynamic Mom and a former Realtor from Sante Fe, New Mexico. There is one more important partner and he is Panamanian. This group have dedicated themselves to the Casco, as much as possible making sure  it does not become over commercialized – no food franchises or “chain” stores and also doing their best to prevent the get rich overnight flippers from spoiling the ambiance.  At the same time, for every  property that Arco refurbishes, they are putting profits back into the community by building Affordable Housing   for people  who are being displaced by the newcomers and giving  job training to former gang members who have shown an interest in turning their lives around (More about this in another blog).  So far, they are succeeding.  There are some  wonderful Boutique hotels, interesting restaurants, good coffee shops, wine bars, open air cafes, artisan ice cream stores,  unique galleries and gift shops amid the restoration and the ruins

How lucky am I to be living in a charming bachelor apartment, known by the name of  Casa Testa, in  the heart of the Casco, 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 location rather than the number of the street, hence, I live “above the Deli Gourmet.”   The reason I am so lucky is because of Clara Hardin from Arco Properties.  How do 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  This year when I knew I was to be visiting Panama I emailed  Clara requesting a rental   and was offered Casa Testa, owned by her friend Laura who is very seldom in Panama.   This has been a unique experience and I am grateful to Andi, Cristina and Lisa  for being the instigators of this plan.

One of the  facts about Casco Viejo is that it is a living breathing community and still has squatters and people  who have lived here “forever” interspersed   with the newly restored properties.     The Building I am in has been totally refurbished  retaining the original style.  Immediately across the street, is a building with low income families, who play loud music,  fight, or scream at one another and live life for all to see on their balconies, sometimes appearing in their under garments. Up and down the street, are fine restaurants, local Panamanian cafes, a high end wine bar, restored mansions and condos – a typical slice of  Casco Viejo.  Being above the Deli Gourmet,  owned by Blaine from New Orleans and his beautiful Panamanian wife Jasmina, an engineer,  is very convenient because they serve good salads, light meals and excellent cappuccino as well as selling incredible home made gourmet chocolate that is made in the Deli at night.  The recipe was “inherited” from a Panamanian Family, who asked Blaine from New Orleans and his beautiful Panamanian wife Jasmina if they would continue the tradition of the chocolate recipe that had been in their family for generations.  This is real chocolate made from locally grown cocoa beans,  lovingly prepared by  by hand in large, heavy pots on a hot stove.   hand wrapped – and is totally delicious !!

Casco Viejo is a photographers dream.  You can see tourists walking through the paved brick streets,  crossing over the picturesque Plazas always looking up at these incredible buildings, whether they are old or “ new”.  I am passionate about  old cities and spent time in Cuenca and Quito in Ecuador, Cartegena and Prado (Medellin) in Colombia and now Casco Viejo in Panama.  Cartegena is a case in point:  it is also a Unesco Heritage Site,  and has been fully restored.  Prices  have gone crazy high because it is  a small. unique neighborhood and there are enough people in the world who want the unique home and can afford to buy what they want irrespective of price.  Casco Viejo has not reached that point yet.  It is in the middle of its transition, and now that the “before” and “after” can clearly be seen in this little corner of Panama, prices will continue to move up with increased demand.  At this time my guess is that it is about thirty five percent restored – another few years until it is complete and at that time prices will soar. Quality real estate appreciates, especially in unique neighborhoods where demand exceeds supply – Unesco World Heritage Sites are limited as are restored historical neighborhoods.

Enjoy the photos:  you can see where I live, the three windows on the second level  and one interior picture, the neighborhood, Clara, Deli Gourmet underneath Casa Testa (my temrporary home) and the view up and down the street.  Also included are a few of the ‘raw’ buidings and the restorations.