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Casco Viejo: Panama’s Gentrified, Super Expensive, (But Kinda Nice) Tourist Trap

Way different than the last time I was here.

Cosco Viejo
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PANAMÁ CITY, Panama- I had to go back and look at my photos of Casco Viejo from 2008 because I was having difficulty trusting my memory.

16 years ago I remember Casco Viejo as a glorious expanse of falling apart 17th-century buildings. Many were abandoned, some had families in them making the most of living quarters that could better be described as ruins. The facades were often mere skeletons, the insides having crumbled long ago. This was a poor area, a place of rival street gangs — the kind of place that you’d be warned to take precautions before going. While there were a few buildings around the Plaza Herrera that had fresh paint jobs and restorated exteriors, there was very little in the way of tourism. I remember the for sale signs that were posted all over just about everything.

In those days Cosco Viejo was real, it was raw, and I couldn’t believe that it was being left the way that it was. It was a full-on colonial district that wasn’t yet Disney-fied into a tourist epicenter … like everything else was becoming at that point in the early 2000s. In an odd way, the place seemed like a gift — one of those little unexpected surprises that come to the traveler ever so often on long journeys.

But didn’t they know they could be banking off this?

Apparently, they did.

UNESCO claimed the place in 1997 …

… and would soon starting doing their UNESCO thing.

(Their UNESCO thing = kick out the local people, fix the buildings, bring in restaurants, bars, and hotels owned by rich people, sell overpriced goods and services to foreign tourists.)

Casco Viejo is now posh, polished, absolutely gorgeous … and way too expensive for most Panamanians — let alone backpackers — to go to. The place is now ground zero for tourists in Panama. If you don’t count the people working there, there’s not a local to be found anywhere — literally, the place is 100% foreign tourists. While the academics try to say that the gentrification here was “inclusive,” the view on the ground tells a very different story.

Cosco Viejo in 2008

Cosco Viejo in 2008.

Cosco Viejo in 2024

The same buildings today.

I went over to Cosco Viejo one evening and made the critical error of being hungry in a tourist zone. What started as an attempt to land a meal turned into an investigation into the ebbs and flows of gentrification. I went from restaurant to restaurant and oogled over the numbers on the menus: $35, $52, $48. There was no shame here, no shame at all — they seemed to just be charging whatever they wanted because they knew their clientele wouldn’t dare jump ship and head into the real city for a normal priced meal. It was a tourist trap of the finest sort …

I eventually called a truce and paid $15 for a hamburger … a legitimately good hamburger.

And that’s the thing here, when I wrote the “finest sort” descriptor above I didn’t choose my words carelessly — you seem to get something for what you pay for in Cosco Viejo … unlike in a tourist trap such as Tulum. I peaked through windows into truly well designed and ambiance-spewing restaurants and watched wealthy foreign people eating gorgeous looking steaks, artfully arranged platters of seafood, and Asian fusion that could hold its own in Manhattan.

Cosco Viejo in 2008

Cosco Viejo in 2008.

Cosco Viejo

The same building today.

While Cosco Viejo really isn’t the place for me, this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate it. Sure, they had to give a bunch of people the boot to recreate it … but the only real alternative was probably to let the place fall to ruins …

The cashing in on Cosco Viejo probably saved it. Maybe in 100 years from now it will again be full of local families squatting the ruins of both the the 17th century and the globalized empire of the 21st … but the place will probably still be there …

I don’t know why this is important. There’s really no reason why old buildings should be preserved … other than the fact that we just like them.

There was something else about Casco Viejo that wasn’t there during my first visit. It was something rather askance that shook me with a jolt of surprise when I first saw it as I walked down one of the old colonial streets to the edge of the sea. It was a highway. A major highway that completely encircles the old town.

You see, Casco Viejo is built on a little nipple shaped peninsula that shoots out into the Pacific, which seemed to have presented a bit of an engineering problem for Martinelli’s Cinta Costera project, which saw the coastline of Panama City from Paitilla to El Chorrillo extended out into the sea via land reclamation and new highway built to relieve congestion, along with parks, etc … but then it hit the old town.

Cinta Costera 3

The Cinta Costera 3 viaduct encircling Casco Viejo.

What do you do when you’re building a highway and you come to a UNESCO-protected site? Do you cut to the west through a densely populated working class / poor area? Do you plow right through the colonial district? Or do you take a detour and construct a massive viaduct out into the sea which awkwardly flanks the contour of the old town? They chose the third option.

The effect was almost surreal. One minute you’re walking along narrow streets with elevated sidewalks beneath beautiful colonial buildings lost in thoughts of times long gone, gawking at Panama hats and expensive Greek restaurants, and then you make a turn, walk down an alley to the sea … and you’re suddenly assaulted by a super highway.

Cinta Costera 3

Cinta Costera 3 from Casco Viejo.

I can remember this place and its unimpeded views of the ocean. Casco Viejo seemed like a real port city then — one of the earliest places where ships would come in to the Americas. Now it’s cut off from the sea … and the world beyond, and the result is that this redeveloped old town conspicuously looks inward. There’s a little walk out by France Square and the Panama Canal monument that goes along the coastline, but other than that there’s very few hotels, restaurants, or bars that face out to the sea. Nearly the entire — potentially developable — waterfront area is now just ignored. Who wants to be sipping their wine and nibbling their cheese while watching cars roaring by in the distance?

While the Cinta Costera 3 project received international acclaim and engineering awards, the local supporters of Casco Viejo apparently weren’t too pleased about it — and the district’s UNESCO status was actually reviewed for potential revocation. But there was another side to the story. From a contributor to Rolf’s Vagablogging site:

To the locals, the Cinta Costera III had ‘ruined’ the historical heritage of Panama City’s most popular and important sites. To me, a visitor, Casco Antigua’s streets had become more inviting to the pedestrian. I enjoyed a safe passage, a vibrant connection to the public, the views, and a lovely evening stroll along the boulevard.

This is true. The traffic in Cosco Viejo is manageable and the walk through it’s streets is pleasant, but …

If you walk east from Plaza Herrera on Avenue A for a couple of blocks you will come to the boundary between the gentrified Casco Viejo and the old Casco Viejo. The dividing line is stark, as if it was drawn out via a truce between waring armies. On one side are luxurious amenities for rich foreigners, on the other side is the way things used to be here.

Casco Viejo stop gentrification sign

Walking into this area is like going back to a time pre-UNESCO, and it looked exactly the same as the entire district did during my visit 16 years ago. There were young, shirtless dudes drinking in the streets, old women hanging out on balconies, and kids running around everywhere. The buildings were in the active process of falling apart and many were literally being squatted. When you walk around here the locals look at you like who the fuck is this guy? and probably figure you just got lost on your way to drop a Benjamin on a meal from some restaurant that’s themed from somewhere on the other side of the world.

It was raw, it was real, it was what I remembered … it was the last stand of a people and community. UNESCO’s gonna get them too. Someday … probably soon.

I imagine the next time I return to Panama City I will be writing this same post for a second time.

What Casco Viejo looked like in 2008

What Casco Viejo looked like in 2008

Casco Viejo outside of the tourist area

Casco Viejo outside of the tourist area.

Chinese gate of Casco Viejo in 2008.

Chinese gate of Casco Viejo in 2008.

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Filed under: Panama, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Trevor May 17, 2024, 9:54 am

    I backpacked Casco Viejo too. 2 years ago now. was kind of deserted. Nice but a bit fake and of course I have no idea on how it used to look. Valencia, on the other hand. WOW. Historic, nice and full of locals too.

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    • VBJ May 17, 2024, 10:41 am

      Cool. Will have to check out Valencia next time.

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