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By day or by night Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Antiguo, is an attraction to rival the Canal itself.
The walled city was founded in 1673 on a promontory which the city fathers deemed more defensible than the original city on the other side of the bay which was sacked and plundered by the English pirate, Henry Morgan.
The city remained the administrative and social hub of what was then the Colombian province of Panama until well after the country gained independence in 1903 but in the early years of the 20th century it began to sink into decrepitude.
Over the past decade, having been declared a World Heritage site, Casco Antiguo has experienced a dramatic re-birth and today is emerging as a rival to Old Town, San Juan, Cartagena or the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Many buildings have been restored to their colonial glory. Foreign and Panamanian residents have moved in to high-priced houses and apartments. Shops and restaurants are prospering and tourists are enjoying the lovely city squares, churches and architecture.
The re-development of Casco Antiguo is far from complete, with some structures still occupied by squatters and in places whole blocks are in a dilapidated state. However, there is a growing number of stately homes and stylish condos, small hotels and hostels, bakeries and coffee shops, art galleries and specialty shops, wine bars, pubs, lounges and restaurants both traditional and trendy. And more are appearing regularly.
For visitors today, Casco Antiguo offers a unique feeling of tradition as well as transition. Old, stone, three and four story buildings, with red tile roofs and wrought-iron railings around balconies decorated with potted plants, surround historic squares and impressive ruins.
The quarter hosts part of a spectacular annual jazz festival each January and throughout the year not only jazz but music of many genres is offered in the bars and restaurants. Concerts of classical music, opera and ballet are held regularly at the beautiful National Theatre.
The Presidential Palace
The presidential palace, the Palacio de las Garzas (Palace of the Herons) stands along the waterfront overlooking Panama Bay and is the executive office building and official residence though the president doesn’t actually live there anymore. Visitors are not allowed inside unless part of an organized tour, but the foyer is visible from the front courtyard where the herons can be seen strutting around the fountain. The herons were made a fixture in 1922 by President Bellisario Porras at the suggestion of the famed Panamanian poet, Ricardo Miro.
The Church of the Golden Altar
Legend has it that when the Welsh pirate Morgan was burning and looting the original settlement, a resourceful priest had the huge altar painted in black tar, so its value was concealed. Today many tourists visit the spectacular altar in the Iglesia of San Jose in Avenue A.
Plaza de la Independencia
The Plaza de la Independencia is where the founding fathers, whose busts surround the square, declared their intention to separate from Columbia in 1903. Overlooking the Plaza is the impressive Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Construction was begun in 1688, but it took over 100 years to complete. The towers are inlaid with mother of pearl from the Perlas Islands. Off to one side is the Museo del Canal Interoceanico, which is a good source of information about the history of the Panama Canal and was once the headquarters of the French Canal Company.
The failed effort by French engineers and investors to build a sea level canal is commemorated by the Plaza de Francia on the farthest point of the peninsula. Not far from the French Embassy, a tall obelisk, with the French rooster at the tip is surrounded by busts, statues and marble plaques that stand in memory of the heroic but often tragic attempt. This monument is surrounded by a seawall that housed the city’s defense garrison until the beginning of the 20th century. The vaults or bovedas of the massive wall which give the area its nickname, Las Bovedas, were used as barracks and even prison cells at one point. There are stories that prisoners were chained outside these dungeons during low tide and left there to face high tide. Tides can vary as much as 17 feet.
A popular tourist attraction is the Plaza Bolívar, named after the South American leader Simón Bolívar, El Libertador (The Liberator), most responsible for independence from Spain. In 1826 Bolívar attempted to form a union of Latin American states, including Panama, and the elegant square and statue commemorate the attempt. At one corner is the Teatro Nacional which hosts many theatrical events. Built in 1908, this national treasure was restored in 1974 and features a ceiling covered in colorful frescos painted by the famous Panamanian artist, Roberto Lewis. Across from the National Theater lies the Bolívar Palace which make an interesting tour.
The lively Plaza Herrera is dedicated to General Tomás Herrera, in honor of his battle for independence when Panama was still part of Colombia. The area for this park was originally cleared in 1781 when part of the old city was destroyed by a fire. The plaza was then used for bull fights until it was dedicated in 1887. The park benches are popular with the locals.
The Conservatorio S.A., a music school with residences for artists and scientists supported by various foundations, is located on Plaza Herrera. It occupies a building that housed an ancient music Conservatory.
An interesting feature of the quarter is the Flat Arch which stands among the ruins of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo on Avenida A. Since it is nearly horizontal, with no keystone, it is said to have been used to support the argument that Panama was freer from earthquakes and therefore safer for construction of the canal than other countries in Central America.