Thursday, March 5, 2015

Panamá Part 3: Casco Viejo, the city that replaced Panamá Viejo

Casco Viejo is the nickname of the city that replaced Panamá Viejo after its destruction. Following our visit to the ruin of Panamá Viejo and its museum (see Part 2 of this series), our next stop was Casco Viejo.  The new city was built after Captain Henry Morgan's pirates sacked and burned Panamá Viejo in 1671. The Spanish crown approved relocation of the isthmus' capital to a much more defensible position on a peninsula to the west about 8 km (5 mi) along the coast. The nickname Casco Viejo means "Old Town", but the term casco also means "helmet" which is appropriate for the highly fortified location. For a Google map showing Casco Viejo and its peninsula, click here.  (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Our Caravan tour

Our tour director, Pedro Palma, accompanied by his Panamanian assistant. She is attired in the traditional dress of the country called a pollera. Unfortunately, I neglected to note down her name. However, she was very friendly and helpful. At one point, with skirts flying, she sprinted down a side street in pursuit of one of our elderly fellow tourists who got confused and wandered off. Pedro seemed to have a limitless supply of pretty young Panamanians to assist, guide, and even dance for us. He is not Panamanian himself, but a Mexican with a great sense of humor. Many people working in Panama today are from elsewhere, as must have been the case even from the earliest days of Panamá Viejo.

Our Caravan Tours bus driver waits to supply his passengers with cold bottled water. I don't mind giving a plug for Caravan Tours now and then. It is an excellent company based in Chicago that provides tours to many places in the US, Canada and Central America. We have traveled with them not only to Panamá, but to Guatemala and throughout southern Mexico. We plan to use them when we visit Costa Rica this coming winter. The tour bus above was roomy, the seats were comfortable, and we seemed to glide along the roads. The windows were large, and the passengers rotated seats every day so that everyone got a shot at the best places to view the passing scenes. Caravan is extremely well-organized and seems to have thought of every detail. Even when the unexpected occurs, the tour directors remain unfazed and always seem to have a Plan B. Meals have always been sumptuous, and the hotels always at least clean and comfortable. Sometimes the accommodations have been truly spectacular, as you will see later in this series. In spite of all of this, the tour prices--although not cheap--are still moderate, considering what you get.

View of the seawall and the Casco Viejo from a causeway across the mudflats. The new location chosen for the colonial capital was on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by reefs and sticky mudflats that are exposed at low tide. This was intended to present a major natural obstacle to any hostile force approaching from the sea. Another indication of the seriousness with which the Spanish took the destruction of their former capital was the choice of the new governor. Antonio Fernández de Córdoba was a military engineer with long experience in building fortifications. Construction began shortly after the site was approved and the new city was founded January 21, 1673. Panamá City was defended by three great bastions known as Barlovento, Mano de Tigre, and Puerta de Tierra. The last of these protected the gate in the walls across the the neck of the peninsula. At the end of the 18th Century, a fortress called Chiriqui was added onto the tip of the peninsula.

Government buildings and private apartments line the seawall. The flag of modern Panamá flies from a pole on the seawall. In the upper left background, you can see the dome of Iglesia de San Francisco de Assisi (Church of Saint Francis). The church overlooks Plaza Simón Bolivar, one of four beautiful old plazas in Casco Viejo. The ruins of Panamá Viejo were cannibalized for materials to build the new city. The great stone fortifications may have protected the city from attack, but the wooden structures inside them were still threatened by fire. Three catastrophic fires occurred in the 18th Century, destroying large portions of the city. As a result, much of what you see today is the product of 19th and early 20th Century construction.

On foot in Casco Viejo

The streets of Old Town are quite narrow, and lined by two and three-story buildings. Nearly every building, particularly those for residential use, is adorned with one or more balconies. I was reminded of the streets of New Orlean's French Quarter. Because of its historic importance and beautiful old architecture, Casco Viejo was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995.

Parque de los Aburridos, one of many interesting signs we observed on our walk. Translated, this means "Park of the Bored Ones". The sign also refers to the "recuperation of public spaces" as an objective of the national government. Much of Casco Viejo is still fairly dilapidated, with many buildings vacant and almost completely gutted. This deterioration occurred because the US-controlled Canal Zone blocked easy movement between Casco Viejo and the rest of the city. Development moved elsewhere and Casco Viejo moldered away. The reversion of the Canal Zone to Panamanian control in 1979 opened up the area. In recent years, spurred by the World Heritage Site label, Panamá began a major effort to renovate and rehabilitate the old city. When we visited, scaffolding full of workmen could be seen everywhere.

A typical corner, with multiple balconies overhanging the streets. On the left is a gutted building, with vines growing inside. In the middle is another that is in better shape, but still could use some work. On the right, a newly renovated building displays a sign saying se vende (for sale).

An apartment shaped like the prow of a ship. This was one of the most unusual buildings we saw in Panamá. Apparently I was not the only one so impressed. Many photos in Google Images show the same structure, some from an almost identical viewpoint.

The old and the new. We found the ruins of the 17th Century fortifications across a brick patio from the ship's prow building. Behind the ruins a four-story building from the early 20th Century is undergoing extensive rehabilitation

Two of Panamá City's finest. We came across this formidable looking pair outside a police station along our route. I always ask permission to take someone's photo, especially if it is the police. They were friendly enough, however. In addition to their extensive body armor, the man on the left is clutching an Uzi submachine gun in his right hand. Drug trafficking is a major problem in Panamá and the extreme profitability of the activity means that it is often conducted by heavily armed groups. Parts of Casco Viejo adjoin some pretty rough neighborhoods that are dominated by such violent drug-trafficking gangs. Our guides kept a very close eye on us to ensure that we didn't wander into unfortunate encounters. 

A highly decorated balcony shows that this was once a rich man's house. The decorative elements appear to be of the late 17th or early 18th Century Baroque style. Now, the windows are filled with cinder blocks. However, I anticipate that this place will soon house a wealthy family again, as the Casco Viejo revives and becomes a "hip" place of residence for the well-heeled. Unfortunately, this means that low and moderate income residents will inevitably be pushed out of neighborhoods they have occupied for generations. This is always the down-side of gentrification.

A man, apparently fresh from his bath, enjoys the morning view from his balcony. Notice the wooden french doors and the exquisite wrought-iron work. I was again reminded of New Orleans. I could see myself living in a place like this, except for the brutally hot summers.

An equestrian statue of General Tomás Herrera stands in the plaza dedicated to him. General Herrera was a hero of the movement for Panamanian independence from Spain, and later from Colombia. When independence from Spain was finally achieved in 1821, Panama became a province of Gran Colombia, which included Ecuador, Venezuela, and New Granada (modern Colombia) at the time. Some Panamanian leaders were discontented with this status because the isthmus had historically played a leading role in colonial Spanish-America as the first mainland colony. In 1840, Herrera led a struggle to gain Panamá's independence from Colombia. He became the President of the Free State of the Isthmus. However, a substantial part the population did not want to break away and the Free State lasted only 13 months. Over Herrera's objections, Panamanian leaders agreed to become a province of Colombia once again. Panamá maintained this status until 1903, when it became a sovereign state. After the demise of the Free State, Herrera continued to play a role in Colombian politics and even served as Governor of Panamá and Colombia's Minister of War and the Navy. In 1854, a military coup led to his appointment as President of Colombia. A civil war then erupted and, while leading troops into battle in December of 1854, Herrera was mortally wounded. 

It's not only the buildings that are being refurbished, but the streets too. This street was being re-paved with bricks when we came by. The whole feeling in Casco Viejo is one of transformation, not to a glitzy modernistic future, but to past glories from the present decay. By the end of the decade, I imagine the transformation might be complete. In the meantime, all this work, particularly on the narrow streets, makes the place a nightmare in which to drive. 

Looking down a Casco Viejo side street, modern Panamá City suddenly appears. The difference is startling. Immense wealth is again concentrating in Panamá, particularly in its capital city. Revenue is pouring in from the Canal, from the city's new status as a financial hub in Latin America, from the tourist trade and, no doubt, from the underground drug trade. A forest of skyscrapers dominates modern Panamá City, with many more on the way. In my next post we'll take a look at Casco Viejo's impressive Plaza Independencia, as well as the Iglesia San José with its famous Altar of Gold.

This completes Part 3 of my Panamá series. I hope you have enjoyed it! I encourage you to leave any thoughts you may have in the Comments section below, or to email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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