Panama City’s oldest and smallest quarter, Casco Viejo, is known for its historic character, beautiful architecture and vibrant nightlife, and while it is only a short drive from the skyscraper-packed heart of the city, it feels like a world away.
With its pastel and brightly colored neoclassical buildings, maze of unnamed atmospheric streets, and laid-back tropical vibe, it draws comparisons with Cuba’s Havana and the French Quarter in New Orleans.
The area began regenerating in the early 1990s but gathered pace after it was named a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1997. Today it is a hip travel destination, increasingly attracting a wealthier type of tourist, some of whom have decided to stay and invest in a home.
One cannot help but feel inspired as they walk through the streets of Casco Viejo, said Lucy Haines, of the estate agency Panama Realtor.
“The history, architecture, art, and culture are apparent in every building, park, plaza and street,” she said.
She added that there is always something going on in Casco Viejo, whether it’s an event, festival, open-air market, theater production or parade. “It is a cultural, social and tourism epicenter of Panama,” she said.
Built on a peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean, Casco Viejo—also known as Casco Antiguo—lies on the western side of the city, close to the famous Panama Canal.
It is surrounded by the water on its north, south and western edges and the calles 12 Oest and 13 Este are on its eastern edge.
With only three main avenues, Avenue A, Avenue Central and Avenue B, it is compact. Plaza Catedral, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza Herrera and Plaza de Francia are the four main squares.
Prices in Casco Viejo have more than doubled over the past 10 years, according to local agents.
The official currency of Panama is the Balboa and its bound to the U.S. dollar. Panama uses U.S. dollar banknotes as paper currency and real estate is priced in U.S. dollars.
One-bedroom apartments cost around US$280,000 and two-bedroom apartments cost between US$300,000 and US$1-million-plus, according to Clara Hardin, co-founder of the estate agency Arco Properties, which opened an office in Casco Viejo in 2005.
The average price of a square meter in a restored home is between US$3,500 and US$5,000 and prices for restored homes start from US$500,000 and exceed more than US$1.5 million, said Carolina Courville, the sales manager at Panama Sotheby’s International Realty.
For a new-build or renovated apartment in Casco Viejo, buyers can expect to pay between US$3,500 and US$5,000 per square meter, Ms. Haines said.
Casco Viejo’s rich mix of architecture is a huge part of its charm. With the earliest buildings dating from the 1700s, architectural styles include Spanish and French colonial, neoclassical, art nouveau and mid-century modern.
Most homes in Casco Viejo are two-story apartments in restored converted houses, according to Ms. Courville. There are a few family houses in the area, but they rarely come onto the market, Ms. Haines said.
The most in-demand homes are those with character. “Buyers look for historic architectural details such as calicanto, or stone walls, balconies with French doors and courtyards,” Ms. Haines said.
While most of the buildings are renovated, high-end amenities are rare. In fact, there are only three residential buildings with swimming pools, elevators and underground parking, according to Ms. Hardin.
The area has a finite and shrinking number of buildings that can still be developed to multi-unit buildings, Ms. Haines said. It is estimated that more than 90% of buildings in Casco Viejo have been renovated. And though homes dating from the 1940s onward can be demolished and redeveloped, there are restrictions on what can be built if they are.
Ms. Haines added: “Considering that the push to renovate Casco Viejo, and the incentives that were put in place to help make this renovation a reality, started only 20 years ago, I would say that the stock in Casco Viejo is limited and will become more so in the coming years.”
What makes it unique?
Its architecture, buzzing restaurant and bar scene and views straight out to the sea, together with its authentic local vibe give Casco Viejo its allure.
You can find children playing in the streets, music being played all around and a lot of high-end restaurants with a varied gastronomic offerings, Ms. Courville said.
The ever-evolving nature of the place, its slightly edgy vibe and its thriving and strong community are its highlights, said Ms. Harding, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years.
It’s a 45-minute walk from Casco Viejo to Panama’s downtown area, via a pedestrian walkway that runs along the city’s waterfront. The walkway lies adjacent to the Avenida Balboa, the city’s most famous road that is lined with gleaming high-rises.
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Casco Viejo is home to the city’s principal Catholic churches, along with the National Theater of Panama, the Palacio de las Garzas, the president’s palace, the Palace of Government & Justice Museum, the Panama Canal Museum and the Museum and Arts Gallery.
The area is encircled by the Cinta Costera 3, a marine viaduct that consists of a road and pedestrian bridge built on reclaimed land. Built to ease traffic around Casco Viejo, it offers great views of the area surrounded by water and the city’s waterfront and skyline.
Casco Viejo is an attractive meeting point in the city for locals and visitors alike, making it a buzzing spot throughout the week.
The area is a hot destination in Panama City’s expanding food scene. More than 10 new restaurants and bars have opened in the past 10 years, Ms. Courville said, adding that the area has a number of supermarkets that sell “amazing coffee and locally made beers.”
Its fine-dining establishments include Madrigal, which serves contemporary Spanish cuisine, and is run by the Michelin-starred Spanish chef Andres Madrigal.
A small restaurant in an idyllic spot, Ego y Narciso has tables on Plaza Bolivar and an indoor dining room, and serves Latin American and Italian-inspired appetizer-sized dishes.
Other highlights include Donde Jose, which has gourmet Panamanian food; Caliope, which has a fusion menu and New York-style cocktails; and Mostaza, which lies opposite the historic ruins of Arco Chato and serves seafood, fish and ceviche dishes.
With colonial charm, high-tech fittings and private courtyard suites, the American Trade Hotel is considered the area’s boutique hotel, and Tantalo, another top boutique hotel, has a great rooftop bar, while the Central Hotel Panama, a five-star hotel in a 19th-century French colonial style building, has a rooftop pool and spa.
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The nearest high-rated school is the Metropolitan School in Panama, located six miles away in the City of Knowledge area of the city. It has an academic program for students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.
There is also the well-regarded International School of Panama, positioned 15 miles away in the San Miguelito area of Panama City. It is a non-for-profit, private independent day school that serves kindergarten to 12th grade.
Who lives there
Casco Viejo’s community is a mix of locals, expats and overseas second-home owners.
Over the past few years, the market in Casco Viejo has seen a significant increase in interest from international buyers. These buyers are drawn to the area’s architecture and authentic ambience.
Canadians, Americans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Spanish and Australians are the main nationalities outside of those from Panama living in Casco Viejo, according to Ms. Hardin.
“While official number does not exist, I would estimate as high as 60% of the sales transactions in Casco Viejo are from foreign buyers,” Ms. Haines said, adding that the Israelis, French, Swiss, Americans and Canadians are prominent buyers.
It attracts well-known affluent families, politicians, elite business owners, as well as some well-known local actors, artists and musicians, including Danilo Perez, a Panamanian pianist and composer who runs a foundation that provides outreach music programs to children living in extreme poverty in Panama, Ms. Haines said.
The area has potential for further capital growth given its growing international appeal and its limited scope for further development, according to agents.
Ms. Courville notes that its history and restored characterful properties have enduring appeal. “I see the market in Casco Viejo strengthening significantly in the next 12 months, with offices, companies, hotels and new housing developments opening in the area,” she added.
Although demand is increasing, it is still a competitive market. “No one is giving property away, but the market is more realistic,” she added.
She continued: “There is room for negotiation on prices, except when it comes to the top-end developments, such as those with swimming pools.”
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