Friday, September 9, 2011

Exploring the Historical Attractions in Casco Viejo, Panama

Photo by Mel O.R.
After the original city of Panama Viejo was pillaged in 1671 by Henry Morgan and his notorious band of pirates, the survivors (under the orders of the King of Spain) moved to a rocky peninsula on the Bahía de Panama to begin again. Just two years later, the new city was completed with a massive seawall that made it much easier to defend against future invaders. As the city gained prestige and power, its population began to overflow the same walls that once protected them and spread toward the northeast into what is now modern-day Panama City.

But by the latter half of the 20th century, this older portion of Panama City (known as Casco Viejo) had become reduced to just a small historic quarter with a once glorious past. With a loss of influence and power, it gradually fell into disrepair and began to fade into history. But in 1997, Casco Viejo was declared a World Heritage Site and from that time, a massive urban development project has painstakingly restored a portion of the approximately 800 buildings back into their originial appearance. The restoration project is still underway supported by both the government and private sectors.

Currently, the district is known by several names: San Felipe, Casco Antiguo, and of course, Casco Viejo. It is the most picturesque and historically interesting area of Panama City. Everywhere you look, the historic buildings display a wide range of architectural styles that include French, Spanish Colonial , Art Deco, and even Caribbean. With its charming plazas, excellent museums, and historic churches, this former walled city has easily become one of the top destinations in the region, second only to the Panama Canal.

Historical Attractions in Casco Viejo

Photo by O. Polar
Plaza de la Independencia – This cobblestoned main plaza, also known as the Parque Catedral, is located in the heart of Casco Viejo at Calle 5 and Avenida Central. It is known for being the site where Panamanian independence was officially declared from Spain on November 3, 1903. This plaza includes a charming gazebo and plenty of shaded benches that makes it a great place to sit and watch people mingle, gossip, or just relax under the large Tabebuia trees. But most importantly for visitors, many of the area’s main attractions border the plaza and the mixture of the surrounding Spanish and French architecture offers many photo opportunities. Dominating its entire western side is the plaza’s original namesake, the Catedral Metropolitana, one of the largest cathedrals in Central America. In addition, the plaza is the site of the monthly Flea Market and Food Fair, which occurs one Sunday a month. With the right timing, you can sample food provided by the local restaurants, watch live musical entertainment, and bargain with the vendors selling everything from souvenirs and t-shirts to arts and crafts.

Photo by Mel Panama
Palacio Presidencial – Located two blocks north of the Plaza de la Independencia between Calles 5 and 6, is the official residence of the President of Panama. This palace was originally built in 1673 and served as the home to several colonial and Columbian governors. In 1922, it was rebuilt into its grand neo-Moorish style during the administration of President Belisario Porras who also introduced the white Darién herons to the property. Today, the herons continue to freely roam the grounds and the palace’s nickname has become the Palacio de Las Garzas because of them. For obvious security reasons, the building is closed to the general public, but the structure is worth visiting at least to snap a few photos.

Photo by Flora Torrance
Hotel Central – Located on the eastern side of the Plaza de la Independencia is the concrete shell of the Grand Hotel, which was (during its time) one of the most luxurious hotels in Central America. It was frequented by many dignitaries over the years and it is also known as the site where jubilant crowds gathered to celebrate the Independence from Spain in 1903 by pouring champagne over the head of General Esteban Huertas, who took part in the revolution. In 2004, the hotel was closed for a major restoration with plans to become a 140-room luxury hotel, one of the largest in the area. But at the time of this post, the hotel is still being completed despite the almost seven-year time span. It is one of many historic structures in Casco Viejo that are slowly being returned to their former glory.

Photo by Mel Panama
Plaza de Francia – Located south on Calle 1 at the southernmost tip of Casco Viejo, is a large square that was once the main plaza of the walled city. Enclosed on three sides by defensive seawalls, it was designed by Leonardo de Villanueva in honor of the approximately 22,000 thousand French workers who died from disease in a disastrous first attempt to build the Panama Canal. A French-style obelisk stands watch over the plaza and it includes a dozen marble plaques that offer vivid details about the tragedy. In addition to the monument, the French Embassy and the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, the plaza’s primary historic structure is Las Bovedas (The Vaults). During the colonial period, the plaza was a busy military center and the vaults under the walls once served as the city’s jail. Because the jail was built below sea level, high tides would sometimes flood the cells, drowning the unfortunate prisoners. Beautifully restored in 1983, the vaults are now home to an excellent French restaurant of the same name and a small art gallery. You can also walk on top of the seawall for excellent views of Panama City’s skyline and the line of large ships awaiting their turn through the Panama Canal.

Photo by Mel Panama
Teatro Nacional – Located just south of the Plaza Bolivar on Avenida B, this national theater opened its doors in 1908. Since it was designed by Genaro Ruggieri, who also designed the world famous La Scala Theater in Milan, it includes near-perfect acoustics and a highly decorated, red-and-gold interior complete with crystal chandeliers and dramatic busts of famous actors. Its highlight is the vaulted ceiling that depicts the birth of the nation created by Roberto Lewis, a well-known Panamanian artist. The entire building was beautifully restored in the early 1970s and 2000s, and visitors can take a docent-lead tour during opening hours.

Photo by Casco Viejo Tourism
Antiguo Club Union – Also known as the Club de Clases y Tropas, this bombed ruin overlooking the sea to the east was once a club for Manuel Noriega and other Panamanian elite. Destroyed by Noriega’s National Guard during the U.S. invasion, its position on the waterfront is still an interesting site mostly for its view of modern Panama City’s skyline. The site was also used for a formal ball scene in the 2008 James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” It is located on the seafront northeast of the corner of Avenida A and Calle 1. At the time of the post, the area is completely closed due to renovations, but you can still view it from the outside.

For those interested in exploring the number of historic churches in Casco Viejo, check out my post: Exploring the Churches of Casco Viejo, Panama.

No comments:

Post a Comment