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Casco Antiguo, Casco Viejo
Panama, San Felipe

Last week we saw the first groups from cruise ships arriving to Casco Viejo. Although it is not my cup of tea, I have to admit they play an important roll on providing business to the local guides (see in the picture, those are guys from Casco) and help them make a living. But with the economic market crisis bouncing up and down, I said to myself, there are so many things to do that doesn´t cost you much and gives you a far better experience than just jumping on a bus and "window shop" Panama....

Of course, the more money you have, the more options. But if you are not into deep pockets right now and enjoy exploring by land, there are nice options you can get to. For example, this past weekend we went to a far and away town inside Capira bordering the Gatun Lake. The town is called La Arenosa and it is an hour and a half from Casco Viejo by car, and you get to the true rural Panama. People in this town are mainly fishermen and carpenters. The place is beautiful and peaceful, filled with cows, hens crossing the road and pineapple farms. There is a great restaurant near the Nautico, 100% local, where you can get very nice fried fish just pulled out from the lake (mostly Tilapia or Sargento fish) with patacones and freezing cold beer. We were 4 people and spent $18 on our meal. But it is not only the fact that is really budget, what we enjoyed the most was the friendly people and the sudden and complete "stop" of civilization and rush hour.

Because Casco Antiguo is so close to the Bridge of the Americas and the Centenario bridge, it is your perfect headquarter for your day trips. Take a car and run around these towns, you´ll find interesting surprises. If you want beach, take the ferry and go to Taboga at the Pearl Islands. It is only an hour trip from the port at the Causeway and the local pescao frito there is very good too. You can climb the natural bird reserve or just hang out at the beach. Take the boat in the morning, come back at 3 p.m.  Plan for your next day relaxing in one of the plazas in Casco Antiguo or have a simply stunning meal at the Fish market.

If you are into nature and hiking, you should get in touch with some of the groups that organize small groups to visit some less known places. There are a couple of organizations that are doing it just for fun and are getting to be more regular. They tend to go out Sunday mornings, really early. From river rafting in the Chagres river (this is the best time, as it is rainning a lot) to expeditions to the caves of Lake Alajuela ($55), they are all one day tours where you´ll enjoy Panama´s incredible blessing of having primary forest 20 minutes away from the modern city. So many Panamanians forget about this! what a luxury to give for granted.

Here are some phone numbers for these groups:

Underground expedition to Lake Alajuela: panama_outdoors@yahoo.com  They tend to start the trip at 7 a.m.
River Rafting at the Chagres National Park ($65 - $79): Phone (507) 261-5043 / 6668-1842
Hiking, Snorkeling at Coiba National Park ($220 ... believe me, this is a great price. Usually just the boat to get there is $800 alone... this includes transportation, food and a place to stay):  www.ecoviajerospanama.com

Now... where to stay budget in Casco Antiguo? Check out Luna´s Castle or Hospedaje San Felipe.  Want to know what else is there in town? check out my Casco Antiguo restaurant and hotel reviews here.


Panama, Casco Viejo
Casco Antiguo, San Felipe

Panama´s Fish Market rocks.  It is at the very entrance of Casco Viejo, just off Avenida Balboa. A white and light blue building with the Japanese flag and the Panamanian flag on the top of the building (the new fish market installations where a donation of the Japanese government). As you approach, the characteristic smell of fresh fish will hit you: don´t get discouraged. Block your nose, get in and run for the stairs into their restaurant. Or, for those who actually enjoy the distinctive smell, you can wander around and buy whatever you want, as the restaurant will cook it for you. The largest, best meals I´ve had in Panama has been with groups of friends and tons and tons of food from the downstairs fisheries. It is amazing all the stuff that can come out of one beautiful piece!

If you choose to go straight for the stairs, your menu options are very good as well. This particular restaurant has peruvian style food and they are proud of it, as they have already won some awards from the Peruvian Embassy.  We asked for a peruvian style lenguado ceviche (which is spicier than the normal one) and when the waiter brought it he said smiling: Who asked for the best ceviche in the world? I don´t know if it actually is, but is pretty good!

My other favorite there is the jalea. Fried dices of fish (they also do the jalea mixta which includes octopus and other seafood) surrounded with "pico de gallo" (chopped tomatoes, onions and herbs). They serve it with patacones (fried plantains) or yuca. The plate can serve for two or if you use it as entree everybody can take a bit. The picante sause (aji chombo) is really hot, use it carefully unless you are a professional.

Highly recommended: order your beer first. They have really cold beer, and you´ll love it. Order at least two rounds, as the one thing this place lacks is service speed. But if you are already into your second beer round, probably you won´t mind as much!

The fish market is one of the most authentic culinary experiences I know in Panama City. If you like fish, spice and authenticity... this is your next hangout!

Panama, Casco Antiguo
Casco Viejo, San Felipe

Calle 4ta is getting artsy! Galería Vida opened at Casa Mendez, next to Entre Pulgas. They have a lovely mix of latin american high end handcrafts, especially from Mexico and Guatemala. Laurie, the owner and Casco Viejo neighbor has years of experience in working with indigenous communities and helping them develop high quality product to help support their communities. Her good eye, style and sense of humor are all around Galeria Vida (which means Life Gallery).



Panama Paradise?

Panama, Casco Viejo
Casco Antiguo, San Felipe

Yesterday I read an article about Panama and foreigners living and doing business here. As usual, the posts below showed a wide range of comments, but there was one that got my attention: a disappointed person remarked that Panama was not paradise and it had a list of all things he didn´t like. In my job as a real estate agent there is one and only one thing I am absolutely certain: expectations play a huge roll in the level of satisfaction of the client. This can certainly be applied to all aspects of our lives, as humans are constantly out looking for "paradise" in every little corner.

Now, the trick with this "paradise" problem is multiple. Notice I say "trick" because it is a trick. We trick ourselves into believing a place or a thing are "paradise", and marketing specialists know this (as they are humans too) and use this tendency to make us fantasize and to get us to buy stuff. We, as clients know it, but we still fall for it. That´s the game, and I get the sense we like it.

But Paradise is a deceiving thing on both sides of the road. To begin with, Paradise means a lot of radically different things to a lot of people. In my closest dictionary, Paradise is a state of supreme happiness, bliss. It is also a place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness. All of it, we know, lies in the eye of the beholder, which at the same time is pumped up or not by expectations. Not even religion can get it together on what is or should be Paradise. Somehow, people got it into their minds it was white beach and a sunny sky. That means tan beach ain´t paradise? I like tan beach. I like it more than white, frankly. And I like clouds, it is less hot and I feel less dehydrated. And rain is quite romantic.

Truth is that we have allowed ourselves to get wired in a way that paradise is a package of very defined things (which anyways change from culture to culture and from people to people) and when it doesn’t look, feel or taste like the magazine cover of our preference, then there is a problem. But the trick is that we know, as we also know models in magazines aren´t that beautiful when met person to person (they do have skin marks, they are very skinny and some even have bad hair... but great bones!), that paradise simply doesn´t exist as perfection doesn´t exist. Like believing the woman (or man) we are marrying is "perfect" and then divorcing her (or him) on the grounds that you just "found out" he or she wasn´t. Hello???? It is all a fantasy to make us escape our reality for a while. But read it again: Paradise doesn´t exist.

Now, is Panama Paradise? Of course not! And you wouldn´t be able to name one country where Paradise actually is. As usual, the media creates the "hipe" by using those words to the point where they loose all meaning. In the past, words tended to be these valuable vehicles to convey important concepts that had some weight. When you gave your word it meant the world. No papers needed to be signed. With the extreme use of faaaabulous, wooonderful, paradise, fantastic, etc we have lost track of what they mean. Faabulous is the new pink or vanilla. And it is a shame, because some things are truly amazing, wonderful and fantastic or beautiful. But used without discretion just to overcome the "marketing noise" out there to get your product across it looses its own value and by the way hurts the same product you wanted to highlight.

We should start downsizing, even in our everyday conversations. Don´t mind the financial bubble, there is a language bubble crisis in modern society that is getting to affect our judgment about the world and is numbing us to the real great things that life and countries have to offer us. We should make a vow never to use the word "paradise" and use words like great, nice and enjoyable when there is really a cause for it.

Why? because this is the only way everyone wins. Think about it: if you scream "paradise" and someone buys on it, when they get there and it happens it rains too much, traffic is loud, it is too hot or any other thing, then both client and marketer end up in a bad spot. But if your speech is truthful and moderate, and it sets the right expectations, when the person buys he is satisfied and both parties end up in the right place.

For many years, we´ve had this notion that Caribbean countries (and make no mistake, Panama is a Caribbean country, I still don´t know why we are still in the Central America section) are paradise. White beaches, laid back population, a coconut and a palm. The hammock and piña colada life. But reality, as all realities, is made of different angles and the "simple life" is far from simple. Caribbean countries have wonderful beaches, most likely full of sand fleas, mosquitoes, etc. Nature is great until you get bit by something you can´t even pronounce. People are laid back, which means a heavy lazy vein is also present. They are happy people and love to party, I guess that is fine. But partying has it´s own set of negative things, as many would know very well. For every good thing there is a bad one, as every coin has two sides, and ignoring it is trying to cover the sun with the finger.

Everything is cheaper in Caribbean countries, Panama included, and I agree the country has stretched this card too far. But expecting exactly the same service at the same level as you where at home but for half the price in a completely different culture is unrealistic. If it is half the price is because there are hidden costs, and it is normal that there would be. Hidden costs are usually charged under the currency of time (things take longer to get done), effort (we are laid back, remember?) and cultural differences among other things.

Rabindranath Tagore once said: "If you cry for loosing the sun, your tears will prevent you from looking at the stars". Panama isn´t paradise, but it is a great place to travel, live and invest in. It is a place on Earth, not on Heaven (wherever that is in your specific culture and religion). If you are setting up a business, you do have far less competition. It is hard work, don´t fool yourself. But you have the opportunity to do things and be an entrepreneur in ways that maybe your country wouldn´t allow for it anymore as it is so crowded and expensive. Panama may not have super white sand beaches everywhere and at the snaps of your fingers, but it does have two interesting coasts with wild geographies worth exploring. And if white sand is what you need, go to San Blas, Bocas or Pearl Islands, you´ll find it there along with Kuna Indians, afroantillian culture or a mix of both with a third party.

Not all Panamanians speak English, but Panama´s incredible diversity for the small country it is makes for an intriguing palette to explore. Seven different indian tribes, a mix of Spanish, afroantillian, african, white, Chinese, you name it! Service isn´t probably at the top level, but the country is learning fast. It is one of the easiest countries to travel to and to do tourism, as everything is so close. You can plan for beach, mountain and ethnic in a less than a week vacation or just relax on a fishing trip at really beautiful sites.

For a scientist, diversity is paradise. If so, then Panama is paradise. The one other strength it has other than geographic location is diversity. In every aspect. Panama has a little bit of everything, and for those adventurous soul who enjoy exploring a petit store of curiosities, Panama is a good fit.

Since I have dedicated my life to a very specific part of Panama, Casco Viejo, I should make a disclaimer right away: Casco Viejo is not paradise. It is a 300 year old colonial site, where everything is mixed. From architecture (art deco side by side with Caribbean, colonial, French, republican among others) to social (poor, middle class and rich), to lifestyles and ways of thinking. Restored and unrestored, ruins side by side with sites under construction.

Casco Viejo is the most down to earth community I know and that is where the true beauty lies. It is not fabulous in a "dinner topic" manner, but it is highly unusual and very special because it is so rare and somehow for those who get it, your connection is visceral, no words needed. Here people care about people and the ones who have moved here and / or invested here enjoy building a community for others. This, in combination with the beautiful site itself, makes for the best you can hope for anywhere whether it is back home or not.

This morning, I woke up with a thought. I understand the deep need for people to constantly be looking for paradise and happiness. Aristoteles said that was mankind only mission, and certainly mine. But the truth is that if anywhere, paradise is within ourselves. Once we know that, then the world is our playground and is important to see things for what they are, not judge them on how the magazine cover looks like. Those are made to shine on our faces and trigger "buy, buy, buy" instinct. Be curious, don´t expect anything. This is not only with Panama, this applies everywhere. With open eyes, you´ll be able to enjoy both the sun and the everlasting beauty of a night full of stars.



Last Saturday a nice article came out about Casco Viejo (which in Panama is known as San Felipe, Catedral, la Ciudad... so many names!). I looked for it in the electronic version of La Prensa, but couldn´t find it. So here is my translation and the original piece scanned at the bottom.

La Prensa, August 9th, 2008

10 Years as Human Patrimony

San Felipe, more than historic buildings


Casco Viejo is acquiring a new face, but there are still some pending works for underground electric cables and street repairs.

Ana Teresa Benjamin


Dozens of years ago, the neighborhood of Casco Viejo was almost in ruins. With tens of years in abandon and a good part of its population living in forgotten houses, Casco Viejo started to receive brushes of decorum in the middle of the 80´s, when the government started rehabilitating some of the plazas, buildings and churches.


During the sociopolitical crisis of 1985-1989, the neighborhood was left aside and the panorama didn’t change until 1997 when a special incentive law was approved to restore the properties. Finally, in 1998 UNESCO declared the site World Heritage Site.


What has been done, what is still pending

With a total of 865 properties, the current rhythm of restoration is good, according to the director of the Office of Casco Antiguo, Ariel Espino.

However – and according to 2007 statistics – only 13% (114) properties have been restored, while the other 74% are public buildings without intervention, abandoned, empty lots or unrestored occupied houses.

“The unrestored homes have a relation with the investment rhythm”, says Espino. It is also related with speculation which has affected the speed of restorations. Because as Patrizia Pinzon, sales manager of Arco Properties confirms, the “big illness” of Casco Viejo is speculation. “People that bought to restore, but they never did”, explains.

Nevertheless, the projects that have given a new face to Panama’s first neighborhood runs up to 13th Street. Government built social housing thrive the main development in this area.

Some of the rescued houses are the Boyacá, the Casa Rosada, San Felipe Neri and Elsa Salazar. In construction are Casa Amarilla, Casa Nueve and Casa Francia. The idea is to provide old residents and those who can pay and be responsible with an option in the neighborhood.

And the fact is that, as Pinzon says, although at the beginning they tried to rescue and preserve only the architectural patrimony, it has also been important to protect it’s human patrimony.

But for Heriberto Trejos from Fundación Calicanto there is still a need for the organizations working in different programs to coordinate efforts more consistently. “We are still in debt”, he says, especially with children. “They are lacking of options in fields like sports and arts, we have to follow up closely their family situation” he adds.

Hildegard Vásquez, restoration architect of Hache Uve S.A. thinks the same. “The idea is to start building a community where everyone wants to live”.

On the infrastructure, there are still some streets to repair and burying the cables and sewer repairs are an ongoing project. The costs of this project will be known at the ends of this year, said Espino. Then they’ll need to find financing.


Panama, Casco Viejo
Casco Antiguo, San Felipe

While everybody is excited today about Beijing´s dramatic opening for the Olimpics (which, by the way, where simply amazing! wao), another bright sun shined this morning over the newspaper as they announced the bay cleaning project has been completed so far in 21%, with an investment of 35 million dollars so far. According to the note at La Prensa, they are currently working at the collectors at the main city rivers (Juan Díaz, Matías Hernandez, Rio Abajo, Monte Oscuro, Espavé and others). And the most exciting part is that they expect the project to be 90% completed by the ends of 2008, which would represent a total investment of $200 million dollars.

Why am I so excited? because we have waited almost 50 years for this to happen. Meaning, the city was never planned for its growth and now we finally had the good sense to fix the problem, plus create a nice park along the coast to cover all the pipes (Cinta Costera). As I´ve posted before, this will change the city and especially Casco Viejo profoundly. Panamanians lost the habit of going to the beach right in front of the city because it was contaminated. If everything goes well, in less than 8 years, we´ll be able to run around in bikinis and sunbathe right outside our doors without having to go to the country side.

For Casco Viejo this is huge, as we already have sand beach and although locals anyways bathe here and even surf a small wave at the point of Las Bovedas, I wouldn´t call it exactly the cleanest thing you could ever do.  So there you go, even if the fireworks and amazing artists at the Olimpics in Beijing are today´s main event, I would say this one contributes more to my personal happiness and trully raises Panama´s lifestyle for the long term.

Panama News: Oil companies target Panama

Panama, Casco Viejo
Casco Antiguo, San Felipe

While the Panama Canal Expansion has gotten all the national and international media attention, oil companies like Occidental Petroleum (OXY) and Qatar Petroleum have entered almost through the back door, negotiating as quietly as possible a refinery hub in Puerto Armuelles at the frontier with Costa Rica.  

Although there is still very little known about the project, studies are on its way and according to calculations it aims to produce up to 350,000 barrels per day. This would allow Panama to become a regional hub for energy distribution, adding one “hub” more to a convenient collection that already includes air travel, cargo and ports. It is worth mentioning that this combination is what have made it possible for companies like Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, Proctor and Gamble and even ST Aerospace to move their regional headquarters or open their maintenance centers in Panama, investing approximately 1.825 billion US Dollars according to the Ministry for Trade and Industries numbers for 2007 quoted in the last AMCHAM magazine.

According to El Economista, the second phase studies should come out this year and the company is expected to begin operations at the beginnings of 2012. 

Puerto Armuelles, as I remember it from short visits five years ago ( or more) is a quiet town, traditionally a banana producer and not really very active in any other aspect. This project will change everything for Puerto. New housing, new industry, new infrastructure. Not bad for a town where public schools are made out of wood and the first computer lab came in only eight years ago. On a global level, the investment alone will surpass the Canal Expansion itself, and with the current energy crisis it will probably mean an incredible advantage for Panama as a country. 

In a world where resources are scarce, Panama has unique advantages that allow you to weather the storm easier. Key and diverse geography, short distances within the country. Coast to coast in 2 hours or less if you are flying. Center to frontier in less than 7 hours driving or 1 hour flying. No hurricanes, no natural disasters. Only rain, sun and a 100% humidity half of the year. And, of course, there is Casco Viejo. Nothing like it in the country both as an investment or a home. Add to it the increasing number of international commercial trade treaties, the Canal Expansion and now the oil refineries... where would you rather be?


Casco Viejo Business Directory:

What to do? Restaurants, bars, theatres

Ego & Narciso: One beside the other at Plaza Bolivar. Wonderful Peruvian tapas at Ego and very good italian food at Narciso. You can order from both, no problem! the owner is thinking on opening a third one in the same plaza... so coming soon!  262-2045

CasaBlanca: casual dinning at Plaza Bolivar. 212-0040

Indigo: oriental mediterranean fusion cuisine. Located between 2nd and 3rd street and Central Avenue, between the Tourism Police and Manolo Caracol, at the back of the National Theatre. Morocan ambiance and great tapas. Their back patio opens to the Arco Chato, a great spot for private dinners. Ph. 228-1822  indigo@indigopanama.com

Platea & Scena: Scena is a nice formal restaurant above Platea which is our favorite jazz bar. They also have live music most nights, ranging from salsa to rock. Located on Calle 1era, in front of the old Club Union.  228-4011

Casuale: great mix of Argentinian food in two ambiances: formal and lounge. Location: Calle 1era... at the side of Arco Properties!   228-1017

Caffe Per Due: Manuela and Marco run our favorite neighborhood spot for pizza.  She is from Mantova, where I have to say I got the best food ever in Italy. They are located at A Avenue and First Street, at PH Paseo Las Bovedas. 6512-9311 / 6496-4878/ caffeperdue@gmail.com

Buzios: Brazilian inspired, meditarrenean food. Relaxed ambiance, outside seating, ocean view. Location: Calle 1era, at the side of the French Embassy. 228-9045

Grandclement: the best icecreams in Panama. French owned & run, wonderful new flavours! Location: Central Avenue and 4th street. 228-0737

Manolo Caracol and Caracol Verde: Two restaurants, one beside the other. Spanish tapas and salads. Location: Avenida Central and 3rd street. 228-0109

Mostaza: italian food with a cozy feeling. You will feel at home, either sitting outside or inside. Location: 3rd street and Avenida A. 228-3341

Super Gourmet: great gourmet sandwiches and food to grab & run. Location: Avenida A and 6th street.

La Casona de Brujas: our favorite bohemian bar. Location: Plaza Herrera.

Baños Públicos: at the corner of Plaza Herrera, if you are lucky, they open on Fridays and Saturdays. Heavy Metal, local bands. Please remember to pay for the beer; they don’t tend to charge people.

Café René: Tapas restaurant, informal. Location: Plaza Catedral, at the side of the church. 262-3487

Caffe per Due: Very nice pizzas, thin crust. Email: caffeperdue@gmail.com or 6512-9311/ 6496-4878

Las Bóvedas Restaurant: because it’s set up at two of the vaults of Plaza Francia, its interesting to see the interior. Sometimes they have live music. Location: Plaza Francia. 228-8058

Casa Portugal: good meats and bacalao. Central Avenue and 3rd street. 228-8569. They have free wireless internet.

Cedro´s: Local food. All about patacones, arroz con pollo and ropa vieja! Location; Central Avenue, at a side of Hotel Central. 262-1275

The National Theatre: to check out what´s going on: 262-3525

Where to Stay? Hotels, hostels and short term rentals

Canal House Panama: A beautifully restored colonial mansion at the heart of San Felipe. Ideal to rent the entire house, it has 3 suites, most of them with inner offices, all of them with internet. Fully staffed 24/7. Check it out at: www.canalhousepanama.com  Phone: 228-2907/ 8683.

Café de Asis (Plaza Bolivar): Nostalgic apartment with great views to Plaza Bolivar. Rent it through Arco Properties, per night, per week, per month. Email: igrenald@arcoproperties.com / Patrizia@arcoproperties.com

Los Cuatro Tulipanes: Management Company, based in Casco Antiguo. They’ve got very nice apartments for rent: www.loscuatrotulipanes.com

Hospedaje Casco Viejo: Very well located, low budget, perfect for backpackers. http://www.hospedajecascoviejo.com/hotel.html or  cascoviejo@centrodereservas.net or call (507) 269-6166

Luna´s Castle: Also for backpackers. This is the most recent acquisition of the guys who own Mondo Taitu and Heike hostel in Bocas del Toro. They are expanding to Casco and the place is beautiful. Give them a call at: 262-1540. http://wakansadhana.blogspot.com/2007/07/blog-post.htm


Hache Uve:   Architectural restoration is not an easy business. To do well you have to be really good. And these guys have been successfully in town for more than 10 years. Check them out at:  http://www.hacheuve.com/ 228-5204. Location: Third Street, in front of Arco Chato.

Paniza Arquitectura: One of the oldest neighbors and independent architects in town, Sebastian can be reached at spaniza@mobilmail.net .  Location: Third Street, behind Hotel Central.

The Government and NGO´s:

Oficina del Casco Antiguo (known as OCA): If you want to know about the current plans and projects for Casco, this office is basically the liaison between all government offices that deals with Casco and UNESCO.  Tel. 209-6300. Location: Third Street and A Avenue.

Museo del Canal Interoceánico: very good collection, in one visit you´ll get a wonderful overview of both Panama and the Canal. http://www.museodelcanal.com/

INAC (Institute of Culture): At Plaza Francia,  501-4000.

Fundacion Calicanto: one of the most active foundations in Casco Antiguo. They have all sorts of programs for the local community, ranging from urban agriculture to hotel trainning for women, not forgetting art school for children. Want to be part of it? send an email to fcalicanto@gmail.com  Or visit them at their offices in Calle 4ta and A Avenue, PH Cuatro Casas.

Tourism Police: You can call the main number 511-9426 if you need your neighbor to lower his music.

Well, we do have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Presidencial Palace, the Ministry of Justice… but do you really need those numbers?

Souvenirs and more:

Spanish Classes for foreigners, or english for spanish speakers: Rebecca Tassi at A Avenue, in front of Super Gourmet. 6465-0041

Sculpture and great jewelry: Doug Zaruba at A Avenue, in front of Super Gourmet:dreamgate@earthlink.net  

La Ronda: Calle 1era, 211-1001

Galería de Arte Indígena: Calle 1era, 228-9557.

El Farol: 228-8597, Calle 1era.

Emerald and Pre Columbian Jewelry: 228-9557, Calle 1era.

Artesanías Daisy: local seamstress. Guayaberas and children´s clothing made out of molas and other indigenous patterns. Located at Calle 1era.

Reprosa:  Pre Columbian and Panamanian Jewelry. Located: Art Deco building, groundfloor, Calle 1era.

The Emerald Museum:  Located at Plaza Catedral, corner with 5th Street.

Karavan Art Gallery: great afroantillian art from Portobelo. Located at 3rd street, at a side of Arco Chato.Featuring art from the art shop of photographer and artist Sandra Eleta. Ask for Rosina.

Entre Pulgas: small art gallery with curiosities hand made. From rustic glass to jewelry. They are located at 4th street and Central Avenue, behind the Hotel Central, near Casa Gongora.

 Finally, but not least important... !

Arco Properties: A full brokerage specialized only in Casco Viejo. We live for this stuff; we actually live in the stuff. Contact us: (507) 211-2548. clara@arcoproperties.com or Patrizia@arcoproperties.com .  Location: Calle 1era and A Avenue.

Conservatorio S.A.: Socially responsible, Casco style, Casco based developer. For each luxury building they build one low income housing project so that the local community stays authentic.  Website: www.conservatoriosa.com


  Karavan Art Gallery, at Calle 3ra, next to Arco Chato

Panama, Casco Viejo
Casco Antiguo, San Felipe

Have you seen those TV shows where they take a one level house and turn it into a mansion or where they promise you to look at least ten years younger by changing your makeup, style or even surgery? I have seen some incredible human makeovers in a show that is all about plastic surgery.

Well, how about a 100 years younger? Restorations at Casco Viejo have the same incredible effects. As a real estate broker focused only in Casco Antiguo, I have dealt with both unrestored and restored properties. For me, restored apartments are the best investment purchase, but my passion lies on dealing with professional developers who are looking to restore a jewel. I love unrestored buildings.  They are usually a mess, but the beauty is there, just hidden behind layers and layers of stuff.

One of the biggest challenges, however, to present an unrestored building is to convey the vision of what it was and what it can become. Today, I can present you with a beautiful example. I just happen to have pictures from way back... historic pictures from the colonial times, when the plaza that has the building now called Montefiori was a bull ring.  Then you´ll see pictures taken about three years ago, when we sold the building to the developer. And today, Montefiori is fully restored, the amazing work of polishing the jewel is over.

When I showed this property, over and over again as it usually happens, it was so hard for people to see the boulevard of commercial spaces. Furthemore, we didn´t know it had an original water well made of stone in the middle of the property, next to the inner garden, which makes a lot of sense as in colonial times this was the common way to get water for the house. Otherwise you had to carry it all the way from the river in Santa Ana, a river named Chorrillo.

So there you go, a piece of Panama´s history has been recovered. Now, the building is renting apartments and commercial spaces. You can still own one apartment at Montefiori, if you are interested, let us know.

Now... enjoy the pictures!

Montefiori is the corner building next to the "H" shaped building.  The "H" building is already under restoration. The project is called La Merced.

Montefiori towards the Plaza before the restoration:

And now.... with our magic wand... cha chaaaannnnnn.... Casco Viejo Extreme MakeOver! 

Panama, Casco Antiguo
Casco Viejo, San Felipe

This sunday, La Prensa ran a full page interview with Ariel Espino, the Director of the Oficina del Casco Antiguo called usually OCA.  Here is the full article in Spanish and a brief summary in English.

Casco Antiguo has gone through an intense revitalization process. "In 10 years, you won´t be able to recognize it." says Ariel Espino.

Next year is Panama´s election year. Most officials are presenting their reports and even more of them have started early their political campaigns. But the Office of Casco Antiguo has kept working and is looking to gain autonomy that will enable them to continue with long term policies and not be tied up to the political changes.  They are presenting a law that would create them as a Patronato, which would be a permanent figure, and would grant more freedom of action and sustainability.

The Oficina del Casco Antiguo has been quite busy. From cultural events to the urban planning of the Casco there are very few aspects where they aren´t present. It´s Director is a dinamyc architect with a passion for historic cities, which makes it perfect. In this interview, he speaks about the train project , the advances against speculation, the controversial projects at Hotel Central and the old Club Union. The Oficina del Casco Antiguo supports all tourism ventures in the Casco, specially hotels. Hotel Central got into trouble recently because they demolished protected structure. However, according to Espino, some of it was taken apart to be brought in again with the restoration. On the Club Union project he mentions that they already have plans at Patrimonio Historico pending for approvals. They are also waiting for the archeological study and environmental impact study.

He summarizes his balance after 4 years of working in the OCA by saying that the Casco has finally gained a momentum where about 20 or 30 projects are being built per year. He is glad this has been achieved and with the only 800 properties in the entire protected area this should be enough to transform the Casco radically in about 10 years. It won´t be "finished" but very different from what you can see today.

Panamá, domingo 20 de julio de 2008



Espino: ‘En 10 años más el Casco estará irreconocible’

El director de la Oficina del Casco Antiguo advierte que todavía hay que trabajar en controlar la especulación.

En agosto se recibirá la última consultoría para el tranvía, que ayudará a definir el modelo de gestión.

LA PRENSA/ Gabriel Rodríguez
Recuperación. Ariel Espino asegura que los trabajos del Hotel Central son similares a los de la mayoría de los edificios del Casco. 1061742
Zoraida Chong

Con los cambios de gobierno, cada cinco años, históricamente ha habido también cambios de administración en la mayoría de las oficinas públicas, de manera que muchos de los proyectos de las diferentes entidades estatales quedan en suspenso o en abandono.

En el caso de la Oficina del Casco Antiguo (OCA), el año pasado se planteó la necesidad de darle mayor autonomía, para garantizar así la continuidad del plan maestro del barrio más antiguo de Panamá.

Aunque esto no se ha conseguido todavía, Ariel Espino, director ejecutivo de la OCA, explica que ya se tiene un borrador de anteproyecto de ley, que está en estudio en el Ministerio de Vivienda, y que debería entrar a discusión en la Asamblea Nacional en el próximo periodo de sesiones -en septiembre de este año-.

Pero mientras esto se decide, Espino ya puede hacer un balance de los cuatro años que lleva a cargo de la OCA y de los principales proyectos que se encuentran sobre la mesa.

¿Cómo va el proyecto de instalar un tranvía en el Casco Antiguo?

Hemos hecho tres consultorías, la tercera está por entregarse en agosto y esa es la última. Esta consultoría va a producir unos pliegos de licitación para la concesión del proyecto.

Lo que este consultor está preparando es un estimado de costos, rentabilidad, número estimado de usuarios, rutas, tecnología.

Eso no quiere decir que inmediatamente lo vamos a sacar a licitación, porque todavía tenemos que ver cuánto cuesta y qué rentabilidad tiene, pero este último trabajo nos va a decir mejor cómo lo podemos gestionar.

¿Tiene alguna idea de cuándo podría empezar a operar?

Está en una etapa final de estudio. No me atrevería a dar fechas, pero cuando el proyecto ya está formulado, es mucho más fácil gestionarlo, ya sea con fondos disponibles o amarrarlo con otros proyectos de transporte público.

Ya se ven más propiedades en recuperación en el Casco, ¿significa esto que se ha avanzado en el control de la especulación?

Se ha avanzado... Era un problema grave en 2004 cuando empezamos en esta administración, porque aunque había una ley contra el abandono de edificios desde 1997, no se había aplicado ninguna multa. Ahora hay más de 60 procesos y algunos ya se han cobrado.

¿Y las propiedades condenadas?

La Dirección de Patrimonio Histórico [del Instituto Nacional de Cultura] está constantemente mandando cartas a los propietarios de los edificios que están en muy mal estado. Nosotros cooperamos con muchos procesos de desalojo, en especial cuando hay un proyecto de por medio.

¿Qué opinión tienen ustedes de los trabajos que se están haciendo en el Hotel Central?

El Hotel Central ha sido una preocupación de esta administración desde el inicio, porque fue el último gran hotel de la ciudad, está en una posición prominente y aquí hay una urgencia enorme de tener hoteles. Siempre ha habido pensiones y hoteles de mochileros, pero necesitamos ya la inversión de lujo.

Parte de la posibilidad de generar una economía turística en el Casco es tener a los turistas aquí, porque a veces el que viene en un tour no es el que más gasta .

Aun así, a los vecinos les preocupa que cada vez queda menos de esa estructura.

Las controversias han sido más por la modalidad de restauración o rehabilitación que se ha usado. Algunas personas hubieran preferido que se conservara más, pero mucho está conservado y guardado para reinstalarse en su momento.

Ahí se ha insistido mucho en que la fachada tiene que recuperarse. El primer patio es importantísimo -donde estaba la escalera- y se conserva parte de la escalera, pero mucho estaba muy deteriorado.

Son discusiones válidas que se dan con frecuencia, pero desde la perspectiva del futuro del Casco, la recuperación de ese edificio como un hotel será una pieza fundamental en el desarrollo del área.

El que no parece tener muchos avances es el proyecto en el antiguo Club Unión.

Para el Club Unión se aprobó un anteproyecto y la Dirección de Patrimonio Histórico está esperando los planos finales. Tengo entendido que no han llegado hasta el momento, pero sé que han estado adelantando [el propietario] con el estudio de impacto ambiental y con algo de arqueología. Y sí, son los dos proyectos hoteleros grandes en los que estamos interesados.

Tras cuatro años de gestión, ¿cuál es su balance y cuáles las tareas pendientes?

El Casco tiene más de 800 propiedades, la mayor parte en manos privadas. Significa que para restaurarlo se necesitan 800 proyectos, y no hay un barrio en Panamá que necesite de tantas construcciones.

Lo que necesitas es ver un centro histórico con 20 ó 30 proyectos iniciándose por año, lo que te da un ritmo lo suficientemente sostenido como para ver cambios dramáticos en 10 ó 15 años. Eso lo hemos conseguido y esperamos que no caiga. Pero estamos en un momento de auge inmobiliario, el Casco se ha beneficiado de eso y creo que a este ritmo, en 10 años más el Casco va a estar irreconocible. No estará terminado, pero sí muy distinto a lo que vemos hoy.


ESPINO: Es arquitecto por la Universidad Católica Santa María la Antigua, tiene una maestría en planeamiento urbano de la University of Arizona y un Ph.D. en antropología de la Rice University. A mediados de la década de 1990 fue subdirector de Patrimonio Histórico del Instituto Nacional de Cultura, y entre 1997 y 2002 trabajó en la firma Knudson, en Estados Unidos, una empresa de arquitectura especializada en planificación y paisajismo. Es miembro del American Institute of Ciertified Planners y, actualmente, director ejecutivo de la Oficina del Casco Antiguo.