Finally, on day three, we find Panama. We head to Casco Viejo, which all our friends say is the cool part of town. But when the cabbie drops us off, we’re sure this is not what our friends were talking about. It looks like a disaster zone: torn-up streets, construction vehicles blocking every direction, buildings torn down except for their facades. It has, for no discernible reason, the smell of danger. I was told Casco Viejo looked like New Orleans — and the colorful colonial architecture and wrought-iron balconies do. But it also, to some degree, resembles New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.
As we push Laszlo’s stroller around craters in the brick streets and the shock of all this construction passes, Casco Viejo slowly gets charming. It reminds Cassandra of Prague in 1995: Expats from the U.S. are opening cool bars, restaurants, galleries and hotels. There’s a feeling that something is happening here. Across from the remnants of the Santo Domingo church, which burned down in 1756, we duck into an alley that contains a cool cafe and yoga studio. Right near a street that is patrolled because it, improbably, contains the presidential palace, we come across a square where attractive, well-dressed European couples sit at tables drinking wine from DiVino, a wine bar some Italian guys have opened. There’s a bar called La Vecindad that’s owned by a former member of a now-defunct Panamanian street gang, a performance space with a bathroom made from recycled computers and a huge Japanese-style fish market where you can get ceviche. On the raised walkways around the beautiful Plaza de La Independencia, which houses the gorgeous old National Theatre, indigenous women sell pouches with colorful patterns. Old and new are shoved together in a way that reminds me of Rome.
Casco Viejo has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means those building facades can’t be torn down. It’s the old part of Panama City — or at least the oldest part after Capt. Morgan (who in real life was even scarier than his current likeness on rum bottles) sacked and burned what was then Panama City in 1671 and is now called Panama Viejo and exists only as a quick tourist stop of the ruins.
We walk into Tantalo Hotel and go to the rooftop bar, where we look across at spindly church steeples, restored colonial buildings and battered remnants of roofs. Just across the water we can see the shiny new Panama City. It feels like we’re reporting live on CNN, only we’re holding London-quality cocktails and great-looking young Central Americans walk by as if they just arrived from South Beach. Downstairs in the restaurant, vintage light bulbs hang from a tangle of cool-looking wires over striking, colorful floor tiles. For dinner we consider eating here, as well as at Manolo Caracol, which offers a multicourse prix fixe meal and is the foodie spot. But we’ve got a 3-year-old who doesn’t read Bon Appétit. So we go to Las Clementinas, an old Spanish-looking restaurant and hotel co-owned by American K.C. Hardin, who also owns the nearby, more modern Canal House. The waiter gives us an iPad to appease our son as we wait for an appetizer of plantains and brie that is far, far better than it sounds. The gaucho — a kind of a Caribbean risotto — is great too. We look out the windows onto the night and see a truck come by, blasting mosquito-killing chemicals from a hose straight into the air as couples walk by. Police next door have large guns strapped to them. Poor families, packing a night market just blocks away, live alongside American hipsters. Right next to abandoned buildings are signs for free Wi-Fi. The place feels like chaos and excitement and nothing like our hotel.