Let me start by saying that I have postponed writing this because being in Casco wasn’t what I thought it would be like. I have dreaded writing about it. In the end we were comfortable, but the first few days were depressing.
Casco Viejo was a big and scary change from our time on Isla Taboga. We arrived around lunch time and were shown around our apartment by the kind Adrianna. We dropped off our bags and headed to lunch at our (new) favorite restaurant “Feeling”. The waitress Julieta quickly became our favorite person in Casco. In the first few days, she was really the only highlight to our day. This was our first visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) and I was excited to explore the area and see the architecture.
Because Casco Viejo is a WHS, I naïvely assumed it would be in pristine condition. It’s not. There is a mix of squatters (living in abandoned buildings not yet bought by foreign investors), families living in a few rooms in dilapidated buildings and families living in apartments. On every block there was construction. Many of the buildings have been bought by foreign investors and are being restored. Our host on Taboga told us he wished he had bought property in Casco before it became expensive to do so. There is a mix of colonial, French and Spanish architecture. The layout of the streets hasn’t changed since the area was settled in 1673 (after the destruction of the original Panama City in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan). Casco is built on a peninsula and is completely surrounded by walls to protect it from attacks. Navigating it was difficult for the first few days and we stayed close to our Plaza.
The heavy police presence was a big change from the laid back atmosphere in Taboga. Police = Danger, right? Well, yes and no. Our apartment shared a square with government buildings and that was part of the reason. This eased my mind a bit. There were several different types of police in Casco – Army police in their red berets, the NIS (Panama’s equivalent to our Secret Service), Tourism Police and regular old city police. The Palacio de las Garzas, the official residence of the President, was on the block next to ours. It’s the white building in the picture.
The narrow roads were often cordoned off for various unknown reasons. Cars “por uso oficial” were everywhere in our little section of Casco.
On our first day, we were directed to a grocery store in the area known as Santa Ana. It’s one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Panama City. We had no clue. We took a taxi and he dropped us off a block away from the store. That one block walk was terrifying. Jim walked confidently ahead of us and I kept Lilly close. The homeless population in Seattle or Bellingham has nothing on Santa Ana. Shifty eyes glanced at us and the police presence did nothing to ease my mind. We passed six police at the door to the grocery store. Police or security were stationed at every turn in the store. We got what we needed and left – but not before dry heaving in the milk section. I couldn’t walk close enough to get what we needed. When we got back to our apartment, I googled the area and found out how dangerous it was. I really felt lost in Casco, unsafe and disappointed. How were we going to spend five nights there?
We got out of Casco on day three and headed to the Armador Causeway. It’s a super touristy group of small islands connected to the mainland by a causeway. The causeway was built with rock from the Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal and it’s the entrance to the Panama Canal. It was clear and hot when we left but raining by the time we tried to get a taxi back home. We had lunch, walked around in the shops and attempted to visit the marine science center run by the Smithsonian. There were school groups visiting and the ticket-seller suggested we visit another day because of the crowds. The Smithsonian has its Tropical Research Institute on the Amador Causeway – we walked by each of its buildings on our way to lunch. After taking some pictures of the crazy buses the kids rode in, we headed back home.
The next day, we headed to the Biodiversity Museum: Panama Bridge of Life. It was designed by Frank Gehry, which was my main reason for wanting to visit. It’s not finished yet, but when it’s done it will be quite the museum. Our $55 got us entrance into 2 exhibits – a little disappointing. The exhibits detailed the history of the people of Panama and the biological history of the Isthmus of Panama. History of Panama homeschool lesson – check. Science of the isthmus – check. I felt like we should go through twice just to get our money’s worth, but that never happened.
Our last full day in Panama was the one I’d been looking forward to – the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal! I had read to get there between 9-11 a.m. in order to see some ships going through. Bam!
I can’t tell you how exciting it was! The guys on the ship looked like toys. The train-like contraptions that guide/pull the ship zoom around like rollercoaster cars when they’re not “working”. The lock fills with water quickly – I thought it would take hours. We got to watch two ships go through and it was worth every second. We waited until the restaurant opened and got the BEST TABLE.
Are you kidding me?? That was our table! Tourists kept coming up to our table and taking pictures; it was annoying. They should have waited like we did. Smart tourists…that’s what we are (in this exact moment).
2014 is the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal. It was pretty amazing to go through the museum and learn about the construction, history and politics involved in building the canal. They are currently adding new locks to shorten the wait to get through and to allow for larger ships. The current wait during a busy time is approximately one week and the average cost for transit of a container ship carrying 4,500 containers is $450,000. Almost 70% of the ships passing through the canal every year are headed to the US. Do we need ALL that stuff?
Each afternoon we explored a little more of Casco and started to enjoy it. I think we became more comfortable and were able to explore new streets that had great architecture, restaurants and history. The stray cats and dogs looked as if they were waiting to die. Our apartment was the highlight. The Arte Deco lamps and chandelier were beautiful. There was a small rooftop pool that we enjoyed when it wasn’t raining. It was our own private oasis. The only downfall was the baby scorpion I found in the bathroom on the day of our departure. I wouldn’t visit Casco Viejo again, but I’m sure grateful we got to experience it this once.