Panama’s Revival

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Get a taste of New World cuisine at Las Clementinas.

Authentic Panama City

Casco Viejo is a cornerstone of creativity.

Papiro y Yo owner, Zaira Lombardo.
This once-gritty neighborhood has been infused with new energy.

By Jeanine Barone
Photography by Aaron Sosa

Colonial-era Casco Viejo, a once gritty neighborhood, is in the midst of an energetic revival. Facing the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, this compact UNESCO-designated quarter is populated by low-slung, balconied buildings and restored manses—an informal ambience that couldn’t feel more distant from the city center’s high-wattage clutter of glassy spires. Wend your way through Plaza Bolívar and other inviting squares, stopping at Iglesia de San José’s baroque altar and other monuments, which meld with a mélange of stylish rooftop bars, edgy art, and inspired cuisine. Want to experience the city like a local? Casco Antiguo Spanish School offers crash language courses combined with volunteer opportunities.
Take a seat in the garden (encircled by the old city walls) at Las Clementinas (Calle 11 and Avenida B; 507/228-7613) for New World cuisine, such as sweet plantains with Brie. Across the neighborhood, Veggie Moon (Calle 1; 507/228-5028) offers a menu to delight committed vegans and pescatarians alike. Its purple-onion ravioli with jumbo shrimp will convert even the most skeptical carnivores. Stroll behind Plaza Herrera to find The Fish Market (beside Barlovento), a gourmet food truck serving fragrant Thai green-curry fish fresh from the nearby mercado. 

Owned by a former gang leader, La Vecindad (Avenida A between Calle 4 and 5) perfectly reflects Casco’s eclectic vibe. Mix with a wide swath of locals over rum-and-Cokes and Balboa beers in the open graffiti-covered space that throbs with reggae beats. A few blocks away, join the crush at Tantalo Roofbar (Calle 8 and Avenida B; 507/262-4030) for captivating urban views and well-crafted cocktails. Bohemian pub La Rana Dorada (Avenida Eloy Alfaro and Calle 11 E.; 507/212-2680) pours artisanal beers produced on-site. 

Clutches, postcards, rings, and more are delightfully unusual at Diablo Rosso (Calle 6ta and Avenida A; 507/262-1957), a whimsical concept shop, café, and gallery with treasures from emerging local and international artists. Pick up a woven bellota-fiber handbag inspired by traditional Panama hats at Papiro y Yo (Calle 4ta between Avenida B and Central; 507/391-3800), then walk next door to Digno y Benita (Calle 4ta; 507/391-1199) for cotton tops embellished with mola details. Three blocks farther, Galeria Latina (Calle 5ta and Avenida A; 507/228-9828) stocks Emberá and Wounaan baskets, with proceeds supporting these indigenous rain-forest people.

Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life magazine, November 2012.

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A Wounaan mask and basket at Galeria Latina.