In the heart of Panama City, Panama, a thriving, modern metropolis, lies a somewhat hidden gem: the ancient Casco Viejo, Spanish for Old Centre of a Town. Officially declared a World Heritage Site in 1997, those who have had the pleasure of wandering these colonial streets understand why it holds that distinction.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with history. I grew up with a dad who could describe past events from around the world down to the exact date. In high school, I was the kid who always had her hand up in history class and couldn’t wait to do the homework. (I actually enjoyed making study notes for tests.) It’s this passion for the past that makes me deeply appreciate the oldest parts of a city when I travel.
In 2007, I spent six weeks of my summer in Panama City. A year later, I moved there for 11 months to work as a missionary. I travelled with five other Canadians. We started off as teammates, but quickly became like family.
Early in our stay, we decided to spend a day in Casco Viejo. It was a bright, sunny day and our moods reflected the weather. We leisurely strolled streets lined with colourful, colonial-era architecture and posed in front of ancient, ornate doors. We captured every moment in photos and cooled off with a raspado (known as minuta in El Salvador), a refreshing dessert of scraped ice and fruit syrup (I had blueberry that day), topped with condensed milk. It was delicious.
It was easy to feel as though we had been transported back to the 17th century when this part of the city was first built. The original Panama City was attacked by pirates and almost entirely destroyed in 1671. With a strength and defiance common to that era, it was reconstructed in 1673. Suddenly, I felt I had travelled back in time. I could almost feel the dust that filled the air as bricks were laid, one on top of the other. A time when young men’s dreams were as grand as the city they were building. A time when prosperity was at it’s peak making Panama City comparable to other grand cities of Latin America like Mexico City & Lima.
It was the sweet scent of flowers around me that snapped me out of my time travel daydream and shifted my focus once again to the present. That day in Casco Viejo was one of those perfect days, and I still cherish the memory.
During my time in Panama, I played the part of a tourist in Casco Viejo three times—once at a concert in a historic building, and once as a tour guide to another group of Canadian students. But the recollection of that particular sunny day with my team still lingers pleasantly in my mind, like the perfume of the flowers that so delicately adorned the walls.
At a glance, Panama City appears to be a concrete jungle of skyscrapers and new architecture in a modern age. But if you ever have the pleasure of visiting, make your way to the area where the city was reborn. Whether you are passionate about history or simply enjoy the visual beauty of ancient architecture, this old centre of a very modern city is flush with both, and will not disappoint. Take your time as you meander through Casco Viejo. Take photos, in your mind or with a camera. Make sure you buy yourself a rasapdo. And if you’re with someone, get them one, too.