While visiting Panama, I attended two weeks of Spanish classes at Casco Antiguo Spanish School. The school is located in Casco Viejo, a revitalized historic quarter of the city. The popular UNESCO World Heritage Site features beautiful churches, nice plazas, a variety of museums, countless stores, and hip restaurants. Every day after class, I took in a few sites. Below is a list of things to do:
Admire the Art in a Church
Casco Viejo has five churches which are all free to visit while wearing respectable clothing. Most open around 7:30am and close around 8pm. I visited all of them, a few more than once, and found popping in just before my 8am class or after my early dinner were the best.
Since most suffered from fires, were abandoned, were used for other purposes, and underwent renovations, they each offer a different feel. The quaint Iglesia San Felipe Neri is far different from the Catedral Metropolitana, one of the largest in Central America.
For detailed information on each church, visit my post, The Churches of Casco Viejo.
Relax on a Park Bench
Casco Viejo is full of plazas with small green spaces and a few shade trees. Take a break from the hot sun on one of the park benches. Pick a busier plaza like the Plaza Mayor to watch the daily life of Casco Viejo or find a quieter spot with a light breeze at La Plaza Francia. Each of the six plazas has something special to offer. For more detailed information on the plazas, visit my post, The Plazas of Casco Viejo.
Understand the History of Panama
While in Panama, everyone should visit the Panama Canal, a modern wonder of the world. To truly appreciate the canal and its locks, stop in the Museo del Canal Interoceanico to learn some of its extensive history. An entire floor is dedicated to the history of the canal, while additional rooms address other history related to canal events. Though most of the story boards are in Spanish, there are several blurbs in English. The $10 entry fee is worth the air-conditioning alone!
Another excellent and free museum is the Mola Museum. It is new in the last year and exhibits several molas made by the indigenous Guna women. The traditional textile is very decorative and colorful, and seeing how it is made is very interesting.
Explore the Ruins
Casco Viejo is littered with ruins, so much so that with limited time, I’d explore all of these rather than going to Panama Viejo, the old site of Panama City. Two of my favorite ruins are of the Church and Convent of Saint Dominic and Compañía de Jesús.
The Church and Convent of Saint Dominic, located next to the Colonial Religious Art Museum, was destroyed by fire in the 18th century. It is known for its flat arch which is pretty cool. There is a quiet courtyard to the side and the museum only costs $1 to enter which include a personal guide who explains the history of the pieces.
The Compañía de Jesús was a Jesuit convent which later became the first university of the Isthmus of Panama. It also burned down and also suffered from an earthquake.
Try the Shaved Ice
Eating shaved ice is a Panamanian pastime. Stop by one of the carts and order one to cool down. They only cost $1.50. Julio is usually conveniently located on the corner of Plaza de Francia.
Sip a Drink on a Rooftop Bar
The nightlife is hopping in Casco Viejo. In fact, the popular clubs attract the locals. In addition, there are many rooftop bars. One favorite among many is at the Tantalo Hotel. The bar serves $2 beers and affords nice views of the city.
Check Out the Culinary Scene
There are too many restaurants to count in Casco Viejo. They range from casual to high end. For a special experience try Donde José for dinner. The eight-course meal is pricey, but it features dishes from different ethnicities that influenced the history of Panama.
For a less expensive alternative, try its sister restaurant, Fonda Lo Que Hay, a short walk from Casco Viejo. I recommend visiting for lunch as the venue is small and the line is long at dinner. The chalkboard menu changes frequently. The plates with fresh ingredients won’t disappoint.
Another favorite is Mahalo. There are two locations that serve similar food, but the menus are not the same. I ate at the one next door the Spanish school and had the best salad of my entire two week stay. The greens were topped with avocado, feta, sweet potatoes, pepitas and more. If there had been air-conditioning, I might have eaten there every day for lunch. Instead I ate dinner with some students there when it was cooler.
Visit the Mercado de Mariscos
It is worth visiting the fish market on the edge of Casco Viejo whether eating ceviche or not. Take a few minutes to check out the colorful fishing boats beached in the mud during the low tide before entering the restaurant area. Waiters bombard tourists at the entrance, but just keep walking to the back side where it feels more authentic.
Get Some Exercise
Ok, so while none of these places are in the old quarter of Casco Viejo, they are all in Panama City and worth visiting for a little exercise. Need a little nature? Hike at Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panama. Want a nice view? Tackle the steep Cerro Ancon. Like to bike? Pedal the Cinta Costera. Just want to stretch your legs? Stroll the causeway for a nice view of the canal and stop at the Biomuseo, famous for its architecture.
Take a Side Trip
There are many places to visit outside Panama City from Vera Cruz Beach to Taboga Island to Gatun Lake, but for a nice weekend away, visit El Valle de Anton. Just a few hours away by car, not counting rush hour, the small town of 7,500 is located in the crater of an extinct volcano!
The cooler, cloud forest climate offers a nice break from the heat of the city and the surrounding crater rim features several hikes and waterfalls. I took two hikes while there. A very short one just up the road from Golden Frog Inn, and a very popular one to La India Dormida which costs a few dollars to enter the park.
Accommodations around town range from hostels to boutique hotels. The aforementioned Golden Frog Inn is a nice option. Though about a mile outside of town, it is bikeable and bikes are available for rent in various locations.
While the culinary options are limited, the Saturday market is great, and the overall slow place in town is a welcome retreat from the bustling city.
Overall, there are many things to do in and around Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Viejo. The vibrant, historic district has much to do and see and it a great place for Central America visit.
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