Casco Viejo, Panama: Homes with Colonial Charm

Casco Viejo: colonial mansions, derelict buildings awaiting restoration, and “graffiti” by local artists vie for your attention. Beloved Panamanian painter Rolo de Sedas has decorated the area’s trash bins—old oil drums—with bug-eyed ladies. They are the dames of Casco, dressed in eye-watering shades of orange and red. Cars snake single file through narrow roads. They seem to almost scrape the walls as they search for the latest detours.

“Gentrified” Casco, if you can call it that, is a small place…10 or 11 streets long, intersected by Avenue A, Central Avenue, and Avenue B. Yet there’s so much going on. Panama’s artists gravitate here…and there are galleries, shops, handicraft stalls, chic little cafes and bars, and more.

Half the ground is dug up, and bright orange barricades dominate the landscape. The Public Works Department is burying the power lines and repairing the old roads. Once it’s all done (next year, we are told), things will be grand. For now, frankly, it’s a pain to get here (and an even bigger pain to find parking).

Casco’s hippest bars continue to do well…especially the newly opened Tantalo, a hotel, bar, and restaurant. Weekdays and weekends, the happening rooftop bar is the place to see and be seen. Another favorite hangout of mine, a little wine bar called Divino, seems to have a steadfast clientele as well.

But with half the roads closed and parking being such a hassle, business has slowed for many, as have real estate sales. Which means it may be a good time to snap up some bargains here. (If you’re looking to start a business or live here, just keep in mind that prices in Casco Viejo don’t tend to change quickly.)

Property in Casco Viejo: some recent listings

A studio-size loft is on offer for $170,000. It’s about 645 square feet, not an unusual size for Casco Viejo. What makes me say this is a good deal? The one-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom unit is fully renovated and comes fully furnished, including air conditioning and major appliances. It’s also located in Plaza Catedral, one of Casco Viejo’s two most sought-after plazas. (The other is Plaza Bolivar.)

If you’re going to live here and want the best of what Casco Viejo has to offer, then look for apartments that offer ocean views or that overlook one of these two plazas. Plaza Catedral is the site of the Panama Canal Museum and the stately Metropolitan Cathedral. Plaza Bolivar is the site of the historical Salon Bolivar and steps away from the little gem that is Panama’s National Theater.

Another one-bedroom unit in a fully restored colonial building is on offer within walking distance of Plaza Bolivar, just off the National Theater. The unit has one full bathroom and one half-bathroom, and a small laundry area off the kitchen. At just over 1,250 square feet, it’s a spacious apartment for this area. Priced at $250,000, it boasts traditional colonial-style tile work and original Calicanto stone walls. This apartment, too, comes with major appliances and air conditioning units.

I’m not saying $250,000 isn’t a lot of money. In Panama, it is. But in other such colonial areas you’ll pay a lot more for a unit as well restored as this. Consider, for example, Cartagena, Colombia, where people pay upward of $4,500 a square meter ($418 a square foot) for restored properties in the historic center.

It seems a little more luxury is easy to find in the $300,000 range right now in Casco Viejo. A unit of nearly 1,500 square feet comes with its own private rooftop terrace, as well as two balconies in the unit itself (see the ocean from one and the Plaza Catedral from the other). Price: $345,000.

One of Casco’s most elegant buildings, the Star & Herald (a meticulously restored former newspaper house) also has an opening. Just over 1,800 square feet, the unit has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, one half-bathroom, and comes furnished (including major appliances). The building has something few others in Casco can boast: a parking garage. Price: $365,000.

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