A Walk Through Time: The Rich History of Casco Viejo

By Cullen Heater


Strolling the streets and alleyways of Casco Viejo, Panama is like walking through the pages of history. It is one of the few locations in the world where you can witness such a striking overlap of French and Spanish colonial architecture. During your stay at Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo, you can experience it all: the gastronomic and cultural modernity of the area, superimposed on top of its rich and important history.


From the rooftop bars and restaurants, you can take in breathtaking views of the city. Overhanging plants cascade down from the French-inspired balconies. The church bells toll from the same towers that have stood for centuries since Spain dominated the isthmus, taking you on a journey through time. Deep inside the Iglesia de San José, the famous Altar de Oro, or Golden Altar, rests after having been safely hidden from marauding pirates in the 1670s. The stones that make up La Iglesia de la Merced were brought over one by one from their original location in Panama Viejo after Captain Morgan sacked and burned the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean. The Metropolitan Cathedral, built in 1796, glitters in the afternoon sun, its bell towers inlaid with mother-of-pearl from Panama’s Pearl Islands. Across the plaza stands the Panama Canal Museum, which was once the headquarters of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, the French attempt to build a sea-level canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific. As you walk past the arches of its stately façade, you can imagine French engineers, businessmen, and diplomats checking their pocket watches on their way to discuss the future of the path between the oceans.


While exploring the plazas of Casco, you pass by ruins whose stories have been burned by fire, buried by earthquakes, or simply lost to the passage of time. At the southernmost point of Casco Viejo, an obelisk rises up towards the sky: This is Plaza Francia, and its story is etched in stone. Here you will find the French embassy and a monument to the French efforts to build the Panama Canal. The busts of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the other founding fathers of France’s ultimately doomed project surround the obelisk. This area, known as Las Bóvedas (The Vaults), was built by the Spanish in the 1670s to defend from pirate attacks. Subsequently, it was used as a barracks and prison when the country was a part of Gran Colombia. It is now home to Panama’s Ministry of Culture and some of the city’s most spectacular views.


After a long day of walking, it is time for a glass of wine and a bite to eat. Fortunately, right across from Plaza Francia is the charming Dodo Bon Pan Café. You walk in and the aromas of coffee and freshly baked bread fill the air. Inside this cozy bistro, French art adorns the walls. Antique tea kettles and candelabras are for sale in a cabinet filled with historical curiosities. Outdoor seating is available to enjoy a glass of wine while taking in the rich history of Plaza Francia and the defensive walls of Las Bovedas.


Walking up the stairs to the rampart, you are treated to a 360-degree view of Panama City. In the distance, the Panamanian flag waves proudly on top of Cerro Ancon. You can see the Bridge of the Americas stretching across the canal, the colorful Biomuseo — an architectural wonder designed by Frank Gehry — and the islands that make up the Amador Causeway. Wrapping around Casco Viejo is the Ciclovia, an extension of the Cinta Costera bike path and park which leads to the modern spectacle of downtown Panama City. The gleaming skyscrapers signal the bright future of this booming metropolis.


As the sun sets over the Panama Canal, the sky explodes in a dazzling array of colors. Perched on top of the obelisk at Plaza Francia, the statue of the Gallic rooster looks on unperturbed, a symbol of hope and the daily victory of light over darkness. The waves crash against the rocks as the tide comes in. You continue your journey along the beautiful promenade shaded by a canopy of bougainvilleas. Couples hold hands as they walk down this romantic lane, sharing a sunset kiss as they take in the panoramic views of the city. Indigenous artisans sell their colorful handmade crafts to passersby as a man plays a soothing melody on his pan flute.


Arriving back at your refined accommodations, you feel as though you have experienced hundreds of years of Panama’s history. Now, it is time to enjoy the present — live in the moment and relax in luxury, enjoying all of the modern amenities that Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo has to offer. This is your story now — make it memorable.


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