Protection from Pirates!
Location, Location, Location
The last time I wrote something here about Panama’s history, I was telling you about Panama Viejo, which was the ancient capital city of Panama. Panama Viejo was completely destroyed by Pirates in 1671. After this, for better protection, the capital city was moved about 8 km away where it could be completely surrounded by water . To make the location safer and more defensible, a huge wall was built along the coast, hence the name “Casco” (which means “Protector”) Viejo.
The city began to grow within the huge walls from the late 17th century through the beginning of the 20th century. Because this old city grew over a period of 2 1/2 centuries, there are many different and distinct architectural styles evident here, which gives the area its unique flavor and wonderful character. You see Spanish, French and American colonial, as well as neoclassical and art nouveau architecture. It is a veritable showcase! Many of the buildings bear witness of the prosperity of the inhabitants of Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo was positioned with Cerro Ancon mountain in the back and fortified with massive walls around the peninsula-like area to withstand pirate attacks. This allowed the city to grow in size and importance.
The Canal’s Influence on Casco Viejo
In 1904, the construction of the Panama Canal began. This was the beginning of a major change in population in Casco Viejo. From 1904, the entire population of Casco Viejo (which became Panama City) was drawn into the activities of building the Canal. The old quarter’s location close to the Canal Zone made it less desirable to many of the monied residents of the area. This was the beginning of the exodus of Panama’s top society from Casco Viejo and the migration into the suburbs. As a result, the Casco Viejo area began its decline into a slum area. In the 1930s, Casco Viejo lost even more of its population due to the ease of travel to the suburbs by use of the automobile and many of the stately mansions and edifices became totally uninhabitable. The area’s inhabitants were primarily jobless people and criminals who made a living through robberies and thefts. This became a place for insiders only–no visitors or investors dared to spend any time in this quarter.
A Change in Fortune
It took centuries to build the old quarter with all of its gems of architecture and charm and only decades to almost destroy it. A high crime rate coupled with a ruined intrastructure created a dangerous environment for everyone. It was risky to walk along the streets even in broad daylight.
Panama as a country began to develop a healthy economy, attracting investors from many different countries. In 1997, Casco Viejo was declared by UNESCO to be a World Heritage Site. Since that time, the old quarter’s charming Spanish, French and American colonial architecture coupled with the 20th century neoclassical and even some art deco has been slowly undergoing a massive renovation and the area is seeing a major revitalization thanks to efforts by both the government of Panama and private investors.
This now vibrant area teems with culture and history and with hotels, restaurants and nightlife. It has become one of the hippest places in Central America. Banker, attorneys and entrepreneurs from many world capitals turned into creative developers and invested their money and their ideas in Casco Viejo. The government of Panama has contributed a huge part by rebuilding all of the streets in the 28-block historic area with brick and by assisting in the restoration of several buildings to their original beauty. The Presidential Palace, the official residence of the President of Panama and several state offices, is located in Casco Viejo. There you can see the presidential guard night and day in their task of protecting the President.
But Is It Safe?
Of course, one of the major concerns in any city area is safety. One of the hallmarks of Casco Viejo is a narrow street system leading to large plazas. I know that when Norma & I visited the first time, in 2013, we worried that we might be in danger at night on these narrow streets, trying to walk to a restaurant or club.
The great news is that Casco Viejo is a very safe area for visitors and residents alike. It is one of the great accomplishments in the area. Consider that this place was a perfect breeding ground for criminals and that unemployed and indigent people populated crumbling buildings they did not own. Many gangs started in this area and spread fear all over.
Rather than arming the police with weapons (like usually happens in the US or the Middle East) and trying to restrict everyone’s movements, this problem was resolved by business groups, evangelical groups and developers who offered the “gangsters” an opportunity to build their own future prosperity. This was a difficult plan to create, since not so long ago the members of the Ciudad de Dios Gang were occupying some of the buildings which were abandoned and were selling drugs from there as well as robbing tourists. Over a period of about 5 years, the lives of most of the gang members were changed completely for the better. Rather than evicting and/or arresting these people, these groups offered them jobs and some received assistance for starting their own businesses.
Today there are even tour guides in Casco Viejo who used to be members of the Casco gangs. As you can imagine, they have some in-depth knowledge of the area and are good protectors. Other former gang members have started restaurants, jazz clubs, bars.
In addition to this positive movement in the area, the streets are patrolled by national police, who are very friendly and helpful.
The Future of Casco
Nobody can say how successful this transition will be in the long run, but it seems to be working in Casco Viejo and it is just another reason to visit these fabulously restored buildings which house just about everything you would expect from a hot new locale. You can go to the theater, opera, concerts, museums, clubs, dinner, social events and more. Casco Viejo is on our travel agenda many times during the year and is a place we delight in showing to friends who visit. It is one of the most fashionable destinations in Panama and we hope that you will have the opportunity some day to visit and see for yourself the charm of this place and how humanity and respect can change a society without resorting to force and police action.
BEACH W(T)ALK – John Wayne Island for Sale!
Reprinted with permission from our friend Cynthia, a realtor in Panama:
Panama is so gorgeous and from my condo, I can see down the coast past Gorgona to Punta Chame. Located to the right, visible in the distance,are two islands. Each time I show someone my view, they ask, “What are those two islands?” When I answer, “The one on the left is John Wayne Island,” the response is, “Really? What does John Wayne have to do with Panama?”
Wayne was the same rebel in his private life that he is renowned for in the Western films of the United States. In the sixties, he was fighting for the independence of Panama diplomatically, not violently. Even though he was a Republican, he openly differed with the Republican Party over the issues of the Panama Canal.
The Canal was on Panamanian soil but under United States control and had been disputed over for years. In 1964, a conflict of flags between the United States and Panama arose. There was a clash between the United States Military and Panamanian demonstrators which caused fatal injuries and is remembered each year on January 9th as “Martyrs Day.”
Wayne’s former wife Josephine was a native of Panama and Wayne was a personal friend of the former president of Panama, Omar Torrijos. The conservatives had wanted the U.S. to retain full control of the canal, but Wayne believed that the Panamanians had the right to the canal and sided with President Jimmy Carter and the Democrats. He supported the treaty of July 9, 1977. The “Torrijos-Carter Agreement” was signed, which guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal after 1999, ending the control of the canal that the U.S. had exercised since 1903. This agreement also stipulated the permanent neutrality and functionality of the Panama Canal. The United States was awarded the right to defend it against any type of threat. His support of the treaty brought him hate mail for the first time in his life.
As compensation for his extraordinary efforts, Omar Torrijos gave John Wayne a beautiful island off the coast of Panama in the middle of the Pacific–Isla Taborcillo.
After his death, Wayne’s family sold Taborcillo to the millionaire Farhad Vladi. Currently owned by Austrian businessman Ralph Hubner, founder of the publishing company “Who’s Who,” the island contains a resort hotel and theme park. Isla Taborcillo is a small private island located 40 km from the mainland and only an hour and a half drive from Panama City. It can be reached by boat within approximately 15 minutes from the Panamanian fishing village Punta Chame. It was the land of the natives, an old civilization in higher Central America, a link between the Mayas and Aztecs in the north and the Incas in the south.
As a visitor to the island you can walk back to the “Wild West” and experience:
- A walking tour that re-creates a Western motif and learn interesting facts about “the Duke”;
- A sheriff’s jail with two cells, a post office and a church;
- A museum;
- “Far West” activities such as archery, shooting or horseback riding, John Wayne style;
- Western houses on “Duke Morrison” street have guest rooms.
- So, if you are like my sister, who is part of John Wayne’s posse or just someone looking to explore–put Isla Taborcillo on your list of things to experience in Panama. As John Wayne said, “A goal, A love and A dream give you total control over your body and your life.”
WHAT’S THE BUZZ? WHAT’S HAPPENING?
We reported last month that the opportunities for purchasing the Mango Farm were coming to an end. Sadly, if you didn’t jump on that opportunity, it is now closed–no more Mango Farm sections left to purchase.
But stay tuned: there is an exciting new opportunity on the horizon! Watch our upcoming newsletters to see more about your chance to own a piece of Panama that brings you income!
If you have a question of general interest, please send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will answer it in one of our future editions.
How are the doctors and dentists in Panama? Naomi N, Colorado and Texas
Before coming to Panama, I never thought too much about medical care, since the Lord blessed me with great health. While living in the United States, I was a kind of profit center for my insurance company because I hardly ever used any benefits. In the past 15 – 20 months, since being here in Panama, I have needed to consult a doctor once or twice. Medical doctors are everywhere. You can simply walk in to most of the clinics and doctor’s offices here and expect to be seen in short order. If you need to see a specialist, you may have to wait a week or so, but nothing like the months you would need to wait in the States.
If you need a hospital, there is no shortage here either. Many of the Panamanian hospitals have US affiliations and most of the doctors speak English. Regular doctor visits are affordable and qualify for the Jubilado discount (see our April newsletter).
Let me share a personal experience here: Last year I needed to go to the doctor to check out my foot, which I seemed to have hurt somehow on the beach. I saw the doctor at around 4:30 PM on a Saturday. He sent me to the hospital for a blood test and told me to bring the results back to him. Now, first of all, the hospital took my blood within 10 minutes. Within 50 minutes, the results were ready and the cost to me for the test was $10! At this point, I took the test results back to the doctor–it was almost 7 PM by this time–who was waiting for me. He made his diagnosis, gave me a prescription and told me to pay the bill with the receptionist. The total cost for my doctor visit was $7, but I paid only $5.60 since I got the 20% Jubilado discount!
My visit to the dentist for teeth cleaning cost $35–and this was ultrasonic cleaning and included xrays! Although I haven’t needed other services, Norma has had plenty, at extremely reasonable rates.
What I particulary like about the doctor and dentist offices here is the kind and friendly atmosphere. Discussion of treatment are done with careful consideration of costs. They recognize that many people here, even expats living in Panama, are on a limited budget and pay these expenses out of pocket, as opposed to having a government program to take care of us.
The medical and dental care in Panama is excellent and costs substantially less than in the United States.
For specific questions, please email me at email@example.com