Colonial Building Restored as Hotel Casco Viejo. A. F.
Laundry drying in the tropical heat hangs from the dilapidated first floor timber balcony that precariously juts out over the narrow brick-paved street. Looking to the other side through the open doorway of a bar I see rickety ceiling fans moving the sultry air, as locals sit chatting.
It's late afternoon and I feel my shirt beginning to stick to me; it’s certainly not getting any cooler, but I want to continue walking through the narrow streets, absorbing this unique atmosphere. This place feels raw, gritty and strangely seductive. Pulsating Latin rhythms escape from between peeling timber shutters; neighbours sit in doorways while their kids play on the stairs; a dog lies sleeping on the pavement.
It’s been a long time since I last felt like this, the overwhelming sensation of being in a truly foreign place, somewhere that has not yet been manipulated or sanitised for international commerce or tourism. I’m walking through San Felipe, better known as Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama City and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The architecture of this small peninsula that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean reflects Panama City’s history as a hub of the Americas and a trading crossroads for the world. Spanish, French and American colonial, neoclassical, art nouveau and even a little art deco architecture rubs shoulders with abandoned properties and ramshackle homes. Beautiful plaster detailing, elegant window frames and large balconies give clues to an eminent past. Once the heart of Panama, the arrival of the car and the popularity of suburban-style living meant Casco Viejo became almost deserted by the middle class and was left to decay. In addition the US occupation of the Canal district meant that access to old town was limited for many years.
Next year, 2014 the Panama Canal marks 100 years of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and Panama and its capital city are embracing this important milestone in their history with an impressive list of developments and infrastructure projects.
Old town too is seeing a significant influx of investment, transforming and revitalising the neighbourhood, building by building, block by block. Almost every street now has renovation work in progress; there’s a genuine sense of momentum, reversing the years of neglect of the unique architectural fabric of the community.
KC Harding, a former US corporate lawyer who came to Panama more than a decade ago, "on a surf trip and never went back", is one of the developers who is passionate about Panama City’s Casco Viejo. With his Panamanian business partner, he is helping to return it to a vibrant, sustainable community.
One of his major projects was the restoration of a 1930s colonial apartment building, considered an architectural masterpiece, constructed by local entrepreneur Clementina Herrera and her daughter Clementina Jaén. Now known as ‘Las Clementinas’ it opened fairly recently as Casco Viejo’s first upscale boutique hotel, offering over-sized, one bedroom suites with reclaimed hardwood floors, high ceilings, period detailing, colonial ceiling fans, antique furniture and even desks from the old British Embassy. Downstairs is a buzzy destination restaurant and bar serving updated classics from the Panamanian kitchen, while outside a romantic palm garden is an intimate green Zen-like space among the intensity of the surrounding streets. This has been the beginning of the process to bring visitors back to old town and, like me, allow them to be embraced by an intoxicating atmosphere reminiscent of another era.
From the roof terrace of Las Clementinas one can enjoy a striking view of the gleaming towers of Panama City’s swiftly expending urban skyline. Since regaining full control of the canal in 1999, Panama’s economy has continued to grow at a pace, and the business downtown area of this Latin metropolis is unrecognisable from a few years ago, with new luxury hotel and office skyscrapers at every turn.
But to feel the spirit of Panama City, there’s nothing like staying in old town. "It was just the most romantic, edgy place I had ever seen," explains KC. There lies the challenge, since the more visitors that come to old town, the greater the need for quality accommodation, restaurants, bars and cafes. This in turn starts to change the personality of a place, pushing up property values and costs, and pricing out local residents.
"My business partner and I probably became partners because we both felt strongly that you have to work as hard holding a neighbourhood like this back as you do pushing it forward, otherwise it will lose the essence that attracted you in the first place. One thing we do is build low-income housing at the same rate as we build high-end apartments to try to maintain a balance," explains KC. This approach of trying to retain the soul of San Felipe is being echoed by other investors. They see how many historic neighbourhoods across the world have become sanitised, artificial versions of their former selves.
Culturally the old town is at the centre of Panama’s healthy arts and social scene. Street art and creative graffiti adorn empty buildings; the historic national theatre, recently restored, offers concerts, performances and vintage movie nights for just a few dollars. Some of the hottest bars and clubs can be found in the lively streets of Casco, including the Tantalo Roofbar with a decidedly New York buzz, or the classic Latino style Habana Panama dance club where after a few mojitos you can throw caution to the wind and dance salsa with the best.
The Presidential Palace is also located off one of the narrow streets of old town, so it’s clear that this once forgotten neighbourhood is very much back on the map.
Panama is being rediscovered internationally by visitors who appreciate the country’s stability, security and convenience of its US dollar based economy as well as its evolving eco-tourism based on pristine rainforests and quintessential Caribbean beaches that are all easily accessed from Panama City. San Felipe may no longer be the commercial heart of the country’s rapidly growing capital but it is most definitely the city’s soul; a compelling cultural and historic destination.
Often with newly emerging destinations, the advice is to visit now, before it changes and is ruined, but hopefully with the new generation of conscious developers and residents who live in the city, Casco’s future should be safe. "To those of us that live here, the human heritage is as important as the architectural heritage," confirms KC. I hope so, as those sleepy, sultry bars, the Latino music filling the streets, and the rickety timber balconies covered in laundry are part of what make San Felipe so magical.