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My first trip to Casco Viejo, Panama City wasn’t exactly what you’d call successful. After spending no more than half an hour in the sweltering heat looking at useless souvenirs that the eleven year olds were begging for (for background info on that, be sure to check out my post on my first few days in Panama City) we took a taxi back to the hotel. It was everything you would never dream of and more.
So, after a lesson in how NOT to visit Panama City, by the time my boyfriend and I looped back to Panama’s capital at the end of our trip, I was ready to give Panama City a second chance. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go first: Casco Viejo.
Even in the short and miserable half hour that I spent in Casco Viejo with my family, I could tell that it was the sort of place that was perfect for getting lost in. So Daniel and I called an Uber and had our driver drop us off at one of the central squares. Then we walked off with every intention of getting lost.
Exploring Casco Viejo, Panama City
We arrived in the centre of it all at the Plaza de la Independencia (jsyk: I did not know the names of these places at the time. I’ve since gone back, looked at a map, and tried to piece together our route to figure out what everything is called). The main centerpiece of the plaza, the cathedral, was unfortunately under construction. So we were greeted with the super aesthetically pleasing sight of scaffolding. The beautifully white washed gazebo did still set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, though (read: we were about to see a LOT of white buildings).
From the Plaza de la Independencia, we turned off onto a random street. Then, we followed wherever our intuition told us we should go next. Was this a good idea? It’s always a gamble with the two of us and our less-than-stellar senses of direction (and inability to read maps). But this time it seemed to turn out pretty well.
The Squares of Casco Viejo
As it turns out, Casco Viejo has a lot of squares. In fact, less than a block after we turned away from the Plaza de la Independencia in an attempt to get lost, we stumbled on yet another square. So yes, one of the best things to do in Casco Viejo, Panama is to go square-hopping, as I have so lovingly dubbed it.
Plaza de Francia
The next stop on or square-hopping tour of Casco Viejo was the Plaza de Francia. I recognized it from my first, more disastrous trip there. Probably because of the unforgettable rooster monument (sidenote: I’ve since learned that the rooster monument and the rest of the square are dedicated to the French involvement in building the Panama Canal. You know, because the rooster is the unofficial national symbol of France. How could I not know that???).
An interlude about Panamanian snow cones
The Plaza de Francia also seems to be home to a snow cone vendor with the BIGGEST block of ice that I have ever seen. He was there both times I stumbled upon the plaza. So I’m just going to assume that that’s where he is literally at every moment of every day.
Because it is ridiculously hot and humid at all times in Panama, it’s important to take relief in whatever form it comes in. In this case, it came in the form of that snow cone vendor. The second we saw him, Daniel and I made a beeline straight towards the cart like it was a beacon of hope. Partially because we were sweating. But also partially because we had made it our mission to eat as many Panamanian snow cones as possible.
Why, you ask? Because you should not sleep on Panamanian snow cones. They are nothing like snow cones in America. Sure, they still have the basic components of shaved ice and flavoured syrup. But they also involve hand-shaving the ice off of a GIANT ice block. AND they’re topped with malted milk and honey. I don’t know how, but that somehow makes them that much better.
Moral of the story? Get a Panamanian snow cone (also known as a raspao). If they ask you if you want malted milk and honey, SAY YES.
The Panama Canal Museum
After stopping to enjoy the Panamanian snow cones, we headed off in search of the Panama Canal Museum, hoping to escape the mid-afternoon heat. You know, because it’s hot in Panama. #surprise
Unfortunately, although we did manage to find the Panama Canal Museum, we found it with a ‘closed’ sign on the front door. As we learned later, a vast majority – if not all – of the museums in Panama City are closed on Mondays. Of course, this just so happened to be the one day that we had to explore the city. Just our luck.
Fortunately, there was still plenty of Casco Viejo to explore. So after a minute in the shade to try to recover from our heat exhaustion (I’m not even exaggerating here), we set off through the streets once more.
Impressions of Casco Viejo
The thing that captured me about Casco Viejo the most was all of the colors. I am a huge sucker for pastels, and there was no lack of some of my favourite shades on the windows and doors of various buildings . Set against the pure white of the walls, the hues are pretty much instagram gold. The basic bitch in me couldn’t help but snap away after rounding every. single. corner. Daniel truly is a super hero for putting up with me.
In addition to the colors I really loved the juxtaposition of the new and the old that I found in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is quite the popular romp for the rich and frivolous of Panama City (not too much of a surprise, considering it’s the colonial center of the city). Which, of course, means that development is never far away. Not to worry, though. There are also a few hidden, almost ancient gems lying just around the corner.
One of these is the Arco Chato. Squished between two stereotypically Casco Viejo white buildings, if you blink, you might miss it. And that would be a real shame, because it’s a perfect little historical gem. I couldn’t help but fall in love with this place when we slipped through a side entrance see inside it.
As the heat exhaustion began to really set in, we decided that it was probably time to head back to our hostel for the night. We did have early flights to catch the next morning, after all. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t glance back longingly at Casco Viejo as we drove away. Me and my Instagram can’t wait to get back.
How to Visit Casco Viejo, Panama City
After all my waxing poetic about Casco Viejo, I bet you just can’t wait to get there and explore it for yourself! Here’s a mini guide on how to get to Casco Viejo, Panama City and what to do in Casco Viejo once you get there.
How to Get to Casco Viejo
The easiest way to get to Casco Viejo is to take an Uber from your hotel. Although in many other parts of the world grabbing Ubers and taxis might add up fast, Uber in Panama City is surprisingly affordable. We paid just $3 for a ride from our hostel 5 kilometers away to get to Casco Viejo. Just be sure to select the non-English speaking driver option so that you don’t have to pay more! Considering Uber does all the work for you, not being able to communicate with your driver won’t be too much of a problem (though bonus points if you learned some basic Spanish phrases before going to Panama).
If you want to get really budget traveller, then the other option is to take the bus. For just $0.25, you can grab yourself a
comfy seat spot on a bus and get to Casco Viejo in no time! You can check routes on MiBus or go the old-fashioned way and just look up bus times on Google Maps. Be sure to check out this post on how to use the Metrobus in Panama City before you hop on any random buses.
What to Do in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is a prime spot for wandering. I highly suggest that that is the number one thing on your to do list when you visit. Whether you get to Casco Viejo by Uber or bus, just start yourself out in a main area. Then, pick a side street and get lost. There’s no better way to discover everything that Casco Viejo has to offer.
If you’re not the type of person who likes to get lost, consider taking a guided tour of Casco Viejo – or doing your own, self-guided Casco Viejo tour like this one on GPSMyCity! The Casco Viejo tourism office (La Oficina del Casco Antiguo) offers free guided tours of Casco Viejo. They leave Friday and Saturday mornings at 10, 10:30, and 11 from Plaza Catedral. If you’re not in town on a Friday or Saturday, Casco Viejo’s website also has information about Casco Viejo tour guides.
Free and Cheap Things to Do in Casco Viejo
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re a budget travel (or you’re just very, very lost). So you’re probably looking for a budget list of things to do in Casco Viejo, Panama City. Here are just a few of my favourites!
- Visit the Plaza de la Independencia
- Escape the heat at the History Museum of Panama (entrance $1, closed on weekends)
- Grab a raspao at the Plaza de Francia and have your entire life changed
- Go souvenir shopping at one of the many stands along the Paseo Esteban Huertas
- Go church hopping. The Iglesia de San Jose and Iglesia de Merced are absolutely beautiful!
- Try not to be crushed under the ~uncollapsable~ Arco Chato
- Take as many pictures of the pastel buildings as possible for your Instagram
Where to Stay in Casco Viejo
If I were to do my visit to Panama City all over again, I would 100% want to base myself in Casco Viejo. It is so stupidly gorgeous, and in doing research for this post the hostels and hotels in Casco Viejo seem to be calling my name.
just a little bit extensive research, I’ve pretty much fallen in love with Magnolia Inn, a combination hostel/hotel in Casco Viejo with dorm beds starting from just $12/night. If you want a bit more upscale feel, you can also check out hotels in Casco Viejo on Booking.com!