Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Exploring the Plazas in Casco Viejo, Panama

After the destruction of Panama Viejo by Henry Morgan and his band of pirates in 1671, the survivors (under the orders of the King of Spain) relocated to a rocky peninsula on the western edge of the Bahía de Panama to start over. By 1673, the new city was built complete with a massive wall that made it much easier to defend and from that period on, the city began to prosper. Its population eventually overflowed the walls that once protected them and spread rapidly toward the northeast into what has become modern-day Panama City and its suburbs.

But as the larger and more modern Panama City continued to expand in the latter half of the 20th century, Casco Viejo had become just a small district with a once glorious past. With no more power and prestige, it slowly fell into disrepair and began to fade into history. Fortunately, Casco Viejo was officially declared a World Heritage Site in 1997 and since then, a massive urban development project has painstakingly restored many of the approximately 800 buildings back into their former glory. At the time of this post, the restoration project is still underway by both the government and private sectors and you will see many ruins in between the gleaming new restorations.

Today, the district is known by several names: San Felipe, Casco Antiguo, and of course, Casco Viejo. It remains the most picturesque and historically interesting part of Panama City due to its structures that display a complete mix of architectural styles including French, Spanish Colonial, Republican, Art Deco and even Caribbean. With so much to see, it comes as no surprise why this former walled city is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in the region, second only to the Panama Canal.

Plazas 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, flowering 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 great photo opportunities. Dominating its entire western side is the plaza's original namesake, the Catedral Metropolitana, one of the largest catedrals 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 time, 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.

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 French workers who died from disease in a disastrous first attempt to build the Panama Canal. An obelisk stands watch over the plaza and it includes a dozen marble plaques that offer vivid details about the tragedy. In addition to the obelisk, 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. The vaults, beautifully restored in 1983, 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.

Plaza Bolivar - Located at Avenida B and Calle 4, this small but charming plaza was dedicated in 1883 to Simón Bolívar, whose statue stands in its center crowned with a condor. The plaza is lined with small cafes and restaurants complete with large umbrellas to sit and enjoy the view of the surroundings. On the northeast corner of the plaza is an old monastery where Bolívar and Pan-American Congress first convened in the building's chapter room in 1826. The building was beautifully restored but unfortunately, it now houses government offices that are off limits to the general public. But you can still admire it from the outside as you enjoy your espresso on the square. Next door is the Iglesia San Francisco de Asis, one of the smallest but most decorative churches in Casco Viejo. Built in the 17th century, it was devastated by a major fire in 1737, and again in 1756. Fortunately, it was restored in 1998 and although the interior is fairly uninteresting, its facade and bell tower is truly magnificent.

Photo by Lou Feltz
Plaza Herrera - Located at Avenida A and Calle 9, this pleasant little plaza is lined with large 19th-century houses with some that have fallen into disrepair while others have been beautifully restored. Either way, the buildings provide a glimpse into this historic location's once prosperous past. Originally the site of the Plaza de Triunfo, where many bullfights were held, it was renamed in honor of General Tomás Herrera in 1922, who was the military leader of the an unsuccessful attempt for independence in 1840. He eventually served as the President of Columbia and was assassinated in 1854. The plaza's centerpiece is the statue of Herrera heroically poised on horseback.

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