“Would you like a mini tour of Casco Antiguo?”
It was almost midnight in Panama, and it was my first night in this foreign land that I never imagined visiting.
He poured the remaining half of his drink into a tumbler and hooked it onto his camera backpack. We stepped out of the bar, into the cool night and onto the uneven cobblestone pavement.
I knew little about Panama before I flew there for work following another project in Bali on a 54-hour journey. All I could think of when I thought of Panama were: Panama Canal, Panama Papers, and Panama hat. Is it part of Central America or North America? I had no idea.
Upon settling into my room at Hotel La Compañia, I sent a flurry of emails to clear my bludgeoning mailbox. Time flew by as my resolute gaze stayed on my tiny laptop screen. Before I knew it, the blue sky that greeted me on arrival was turning pink. Ah, the sun was setting!
I dashed out of the hotel with the singular aim to see a bit of the city before the sun set. It mattered – and still matters – to me that I didn’t get sucked into work and that I cut myself some slack. I didn’t want to travel all the way to Panama from Asia only to spend most of my time working in the hotel.
I figured I would wander around Casco Antiguo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and stay near to the hotel. After all, I was alone in an unfamiliar territory and it was getting dark.
I soon came upon a lively square, Plaza Herrera, where touts tried to get me into their restaurants. On the far end of the square was what looked like remnants of a fortress wall where some boys were playing soccer.
As I walked on, the streets became much darker and it felt ominous. Many of the buildings around me were in disrepair and there was little activity on the ground level. Feeling uneasy, I turned around and retraced my path. I kept my gaze straight ahead as I hurried past small groups of people gathered on the dim sidewalk.
As soon as I arrived back on Plaza Herrera with its bright, open vibe, I let out a big breath of relief. How odd that there was such a contrast between these neighbouring areas.
Eschewing the bars playing cheesy music with touts inviting me inside, I entered La Rana Dorada. I liked the low-key vibe of the craft beer brewery. That it is in a restored heritage building made it more charming.
I picked a pilsner after sampling the different beers on the tap to go with the ceviche de corvnia I had ordered. Served with plantain chips, the spicy soup of marinated sea bass, pineapple, coriander, jalapeno and onion was delicious.
Midway, I struck a conversation with the neighbouring customer at the bar counter. Which led to a mini crash course on the history of Casco Viejo and an impromptu walking tour at midnight.
A photojournalist, A.F. moved to Casco Viejo more than a decade ago when it was more dangerous and grittier. He shared how the historic district had changed in recent years.
Dating back to 1673, Panama City’s old town sits on a peninsula. It is also known as Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo, and San Felipe. The architecture here is a mix of Spanish, French and early American styles.
Over time, its wealthy residents moved to newer neighbourhoods in other parts of the city. Low-income families and gangs moved into the abandoned town. The buildings became dilapidated, some occupied by squatters.
These all changed when UNESCO recognised Casco Antiguo as a World Heritage Site in 1997.
Its absent landowners returned. Not to live but to make money. Neglected buildings were restored. Some were converted into hotels or restaurants. Poor tenants were forced out of their abodes that were being rented to affluent people. I was told that three families control most of the real estate in Casco Viejo now.
The rapid gentrification of the Casco Viejo has been striking. Today, tourists stroll along the cobblestone streets, photographing the colonial-era buildings. Third-wave coffeeshops serving Panama’s famous Geisha coffee can be found every few blocks.
Yet, there was something that I found disconcerting during my brief walk at sunset. Soldiers and policemen armed with assault rifles were everywhere. What lies danger beneath this candy-coloured veneer?
A.F. shared that Casco Viejo is next to El Chorrillo and Santa Ana – two areas that he warned me to not venture into. The armed personnel are there to deter the gangs from these areas from entering Casco Viejo. As he continued to explain why they are dangerous, it dawned upon me that I must have been in one of them earlier.
I mentioned to him the jarring observation I had earlier in the evening. My suspicion was right.
We passed the American Trade Hotel where A.F. had covered the Panama Fashion Week earlier in the day. Nearby was the same spot where some boys were playing soccer. Turns out that this – Baluarte Mano De Tigre – was part of a fortification to protect the city from pirates.
As we stood at the corner of Plaza Herrera, A.F. gestured to a building across the road. “This used to be a school and it is now a squat for homeless people,” he said.
Pointing further down the road, he added: “Do not go past that lamp post. Beyond that is El Chorrillo. This used to be the HQ of Panama’s last dictator, Manuel Noriega, and there are now many gangs after the US invasion.”
Over the next hour, we walked the gridded streets of Casco Antiguo as A.F. told me about things that I would not have otherwise known of.
At Paseo Esteban Huertas, an elevated promenade built atop the old city’s outer walls, A.F. pointed to the skyscrapers in the distance. “Do you know why most of them are dark?” he asked before answering his own question, “It’s because they are empty.” I realised that he was referring to money laundering. In Hong Kong, it is common for the Chinese to buy properties in the city to move money out of the mainland. In Panama City, many believe that drug cartels use real estate to launder money.
Addicts used to shoot up drugs on the tiny beach that I found earlier when I wandered down an alley. They stopped after the owner of the building by the waterfront installed a bright light. Nonetheless, I began gingerly stepping around the debris-covered sand in my sandals.
He went on to point out details about certain restored heritage buildings and the stories behind them before dropping me off at the entrance of my hotel. Waving goodbye as his tumbler holding the half-finished drink swayed from his backpack, he disappeared into the night.
Months later, I sat down to record my experiences in Panama City. It still feels a tad surreal that I had set foot in that distant land not so long ago.
As I researched online to piece together some information, I learned about Operation Just Cause – that’s the US invasion of Panama that A.F. had mentioned.
El Chorrillo was the stronghold of Manuel Noriega. Civilians asleep in the many wooden tenements were killed or woken up to run for their lives when the US military attacked El Chorrillo at 1 A.M. on 20 December 1989.
Why did the US invade Panama?
The answer will vary depending who answers it. Wars and conflicts happen for different reasons but it is always the layperson who suffers the consequences. This report by Martha Gellhorn for Granta about its impact on the people of El Chorrillo and Panama City probably says it all.
While the aftermath of this invasion – including the brutal gang violence – can still be felt today, recent news show that El Chorrillo and its residents are emerging from this dark period.