Feeling the warm breeze while sipping on an oh-so-cold-and-delicious pint of Balboa beer outside in Plaza Bolivar inspires a singular thought: Life Is Good.
Plaster casings, honey-coloured wooden doors, ornate wrought-iron balconies and painted stucco facades comprise the majority of the buildings in Panama City’s historical district of Casco Viejo. The majority of residential and hospitality-based buildings feature a charming outdoor courtyard outfitted with a calicanto wall (a historical stone wall specific to Casco Viejo) hiding behind lush greenery and creeping vines.
Travelers come from all over the world to spend time in what is undoubtedly one of the most romantic districts in the entire city. The colonial architecture is a welcomed change from the tattered apartment buildings and modern skyscrapers that line the Panama skyline, and help remind visitors what Panama City used to be about. Casco Viejo, now referred to as “Casco Antiguo”, is known amongst locals as the “Old Part” since it was once the heart of the city during the first decades of the 20th century.
Luckily for architecture aficionados, Casco Viejo is carefully cared for by the government, especially after UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997. There are 940 colonial buildings (747 of which are houses) in this “city within the city” that are built up along the Pacific shore. Casco Viejo is home to 439,642 residents, some of whom are “squatters” (locals who have illegally taken residence in uninhabited buildings), many of which are wealthy expats who have purchased and renovated antiquated structures. A couple of art-deco and neoclassical architectural styles are noticeable amongst the predominantly Spanish- and French-colonial buildings.
I love walking down the numerous narrow brick streets and cobblestone alleys. I nearly always bump into a friendly kid skipping by with a bag of ice cubes and a sack of sugar – a creative attempt at a frozen sweet treat. The small side streets also provide curious passersby with a glimpse into a busy local alleyway. Wooden board doors with chipping paint are left ajar to reveal antique hand-painted Spanish flooring tiles that are forgotten beneath a mish-mash of unmatched furniture. The buildings that remain untouched by wealthy Panamanian rental pools are usually in poor condition.
The squatters are unable to care for the houses’ exteriors (a squatter house is easily identified by the bundle of electrical wires that are illegally tied to the legitimate electrical lines) but it is the variety of restored and crumbling buildings that exist in tandem that make Casco Viejo so special.
Personally, I feel that Casco Viejo represents a beautiful time in architectural history that was once commonplace but has now become novel. As is the case with every historical district, it is important to preserve these buildings, but there are some antiquated aspects of Casco Viejo that should not be restored to a modern state – or else, the district’s inherent charm and character is at risk of being lost. It is the contrast between the old and new, the stone and the steel, the forgotten and the cherished that should be appreciated in this wonderful district in Central America.
Spanish Colonial Architecture Highlights:
- Strong, straight lines and little ornamentation
- Smooth stucco walls (often painted)
- Red clay roof shingles
- Hipped or gabled roof & windows
- Plaster framing/casing around doors & windows
- Rectangular extended balconies
- Wrought-iron balcony railings
- Small outdoor courtyard within the dwelling
- Timber roof support beams (traditionally extending to exterior beneath roof)
- Small windows with wood shutters