Discover Casco Viejo Panama

When you stay at Amarla Boutique Hotel in Panama you’re at the heart of the historic district of Casco Viejo, San Felipe, Central America’s most cosmopolitan capital. Panama City is a global metropolis in the middle of the tropics, colonial wooden houses in cobbled streets contrast with gleaming tower blocks which give way to spectacular dense jungle. There’s so much to see in a small area.

The best way to get a feel for the Casco Viejo neighborhood is by taking a walk or a bike ride through its historic streets. You could start at the spectacular baroque Metropolitan Cathedral with its twin towers encrusted with mother of pearl. One of the largest churches in Central America, it took more than a century to build before it was completed in 1796. It’s located on the city’s main square, La Plaza Mayor, which is also home to a thriving craft market. You’ll find more locally-produced crafts in the Paseo de Las Bóvedas, Paseo Esteban Huertas, a gorgeous trellised promenade covered in vines and bougenvillea that runs along the top of the sea wall. This shady refuge from the fierce tropical sun is beloved by locals and tourists alike. What makes it unmissable are the spectacular views across the Bay of Panama. Close by is the Plaza Francia with its monuments presented by the French in commemoration of the 22,000 workers who died during the construction of the Panama Canal. The old Spanish dungeons along one side of the plaza have been restored and now, in stark contrast to their original purpose, accommodate a collection of glamorous art galleries and shops.

 Amarla Boutique Hotel Casco Viejo

The origins of Amarla Boutique Hotel Casco Viejo date back more than 350 years. In 1671 Panama City was looted, its gunpowder magazines blown up and its buildings burnt to the ground by the British pirate Henry Morgan. Two years later the original Casa Amarla was built. Records from 1688 show the house as being occupied by one of the elite families of Panama. Sadly, their grand wooden-built home was not to last. In 1737 the ‘Fuego Grande’, Great Fire, destroyed it along with 95% of the San Felipe neighborhood. In 1751 the small fire, ‘Fuego Chico’ once again devastated the area of Manzana 13 where Casa Amarla is now located.

The current hotel’s physical origins date back to a simple wooden building constructed in 1921 to house the staff of Casa Góngora and the Arias Perez family. By then, with the advent of electric lighting, the wooden buildings were a little less vulnerable to fire. It is this more humble building that forms the basis of the next chapter for this colorful property, now reborn as a luxury boutique hotel.

Next door to Amarla is one of the oldest houses in Casco Viejo, and the neighborhood’s only surviving example of 18th century Spanish colonial architecture, Casa Góngora. Archeological evidence suggests Casa Amarla was once physically linked, via its patio, to the mansion which was built for the prominent Spanish pearl merchant, Paul Góngora Caceres. His former home now houses a thriving cultural center, Casa de la Cultura y del Artista Panameño. It’s worth checking out its program of art exhibitions, live jazz, folklore presentations and fashion shows.

Nearby Attractions

Just ten minutes drive away is the Biomuseo, the only building in Latin America by perhaps the world’s greatest living architect, Frank Gehry. The designer of places such as the Disney Theater in Los Angeles and Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, has created an amazing building formed from a tumble of multi-colored shapes. The museum tells the story of how Panama developed geologically to become the bridge of America.

With over 700 stores the Albrook Shopping Mall is one of the largest shopping malls in the world and it’s packed with bargains. Along with the slightly more modern Multiplaza Pacific Mall, it’s less than 10 minutes drive from the hotel. The spectacular Avenida Balboa, lined with gleaming skyscrapers as it runs along the Pacific Coast is about half a mile away. The Cinta Costera, ‘Coastal Beltway’, is less than a mile away. This stunning feat of civil engineering, a one-and-a-half-mile-long marine viaduct which rings the Casco Viejo was only completed in 2009. Panama’s original feat of civil engineering, the canal, is about 20 minutes drive from the hotel.

Panama’s Tocumen International Airport is about 30-45 minutes from the hotel depending on traffic. Transportation to and from the airport is available for a small extra charge.

Places of Interest

You are in the capable, caring hands of a small group of devoted individuals who work in Amarla Boutique Hotel, which is located in the center of Panama City’s compact old quarter, the Casco Viejo. History is never far away. Cathedral Square, the beating heart of Casco Viejo, is just a five minute walk from the hotel. It’s the ideal place to start your exploration of the brick-paved alleyways, colonial mansions, vibrant shops, bars and restaurants. Other nearby places of interest include:

  • Presidential Palace – 600 feet
  • Canal Museum of Panama – 600 feet
  • Ancon Hill – 1 mile
  • Maracana Stadium – 1 mile
  • Bridge of the Americas – 1.5 miles
  • Metropolitan National Park – 3 miles
  • Panama Viejo Cathedral – 5 miles
  • Rod Carew National Stadium – 6 miles
  • Estadio Rommel Fernandez – 7.5 miles
  • Views over Panama Bay – 0.25 miles M
  • The mountains of Cerro Ancon – 3 miles
  • Panama Pacifico International Airport – 5 miles
  • Tocumen International Airport – 14 miles

Casco Viejo Panama Hotels

The ‘Old Quarter’ Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo, as it’s sometimes called, has some of the finest of Casco Viejo Panama Hotels. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, the area itself dates back to 1673 when it was rebuilt after its destruction in 1671 by the British pirate Henry Morgan. More recently it was out of bounds to visitors when gangs controlled the streets. As they left, the spectacular facades and grand colonial mansions were restored to their former glory. Now the vibrant old town is a colorful mix of lively plazas, flamboyant buildings and endlessly fascinating little brick-paved alleyways filled with cafes, restaurants, shops and bars. These are some of Central America’s most desirable addresses. Not much four avenues wide, the compact old quarter is perfect for strolling. There’s history on every corner. It’s a photographer’s idea of heaven. Foodies will never run out of culinary choices whatever their tastes. And, at the end of the day, you can safely join the locals in the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

The Neighborhood of Casco Viejo

The Casco Viejo neighborhood also houses some of the city’s best museums. In the old main post office on the same square as the cathedral is the Museum of the Canal which traces in fascinating detail the checkered history of one of the world’s greatest feats of civil engineering, the Panama Canal. Not to be missed is the Museo de la Mola which is dedicated to the reverse appliqué fabric art created by the indigenous Guna people for which Panama is famous. The small museum is filled with Molas, showing how they are made and how they fit into a cultural, religious and political context.

They’re the perfect souvenir. But, perhaps of more immediate use under the tropical sun, is the country’s eponymous Panama hat. Pedants will point out that the headwear actually originated in Ecuador, but you’ll find them on sale everywhere in the city at anything from $15 to, well, the sky’s the limit. The price is largely determined by the tightness of the weave. You’ll find a variety of styles and colors for sale, but we reckon you’re best to opt for the classic look which can last for years.

Door ajar with gimps inside power room at Amarla hotel Cartagena

Culinary Delights

Once you’ve seen checked out examples of Panama’s traditional artistic skills it’s time to go on an adventure for your tastebuds. Blessed with a profusion of produce from land and sea, Panama’s foodie scene has developed in leaps and bounds. In 2017 the city was named UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. Whatever your taste and budget just ask us and we’ll point you in the direction of food that will blow your mind.

If it’s close to lunchtime join the locals and head for the Mercado de Mariscos, the fish market. It’s about a 10-minute walk or slightly less by car. You’ll see huge lobsters, piles of filleted fish and fresh shrimp on ice. Find your favorite and have it cooked to order in the restaurant upstairs. Many Panamanians, however, look no further than a cup of tangy cerviche and an ice-cold beer.

For a sweeter way to cool down, ice cream is the answer. In Casco Viejo there’s no better scoop than the one you’ll find in the French parlor Grancelement. It’s located in a restored colonial house. One visit and we guarantee you’ll want to return. There are more than 30 varieties to try: dairy or sorbet, including some unusual flavors such as basil. There are even vegan options.

You’ll also find our neighborhood has some of the world’s best coffee. Originating in Ethiopia, but now taking advantage of Panama’s perfect growing climate, Geisha beans have been sold for as much as $600 a pound. You can see whether they’re worth the price rather more economically at Cafe Unido in the American Trade Hotel in Plaza Herrera.

As nighttime beckons, Teatro Amador is the place to head for. Built in 1908 to entertain wealthy locals and canal engineers, it was immaculately restored to its former glory in 2012. It’s now one of Casco Viejo’s coolest night spots. On weekends there are deejays and occasional live bands.