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.
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.