First, a big thanks to my regular readers for staying with me and a warm welcome to new readers to Traveling with Tom. Your comments and feedback are the energy that keeps me writing and sharing my experiences with you. It also motivates me to keep traveling to see and learn more about the world and the people that occupy this space with us. When returning home from travels both near and far, I bring new ideas and understanding that help me comprehend and make some sense of the world around us. For example, in our travels we encounter and connect with people just like us, trying to make a living, raise a family and make some contribution to the betterment of society. That view helps me to see those folks that surround us regardless of their circumstances with empathy, someone with a story to understand and appreciate. Enough philosophy for now, let’s get on with this week’s story.
We continue our journey in Panama with a visit to Casco Viejo, also known as Casco Antigua, and translated to Old Town or Old Quarter or Old Compound. Casco Viejo is where the residents of Panama Viejo (the subject of last weeks article) moved their city after being ransacked in 1671 by pirate Captain Henry Morgan. The new city was built on a rocky promontory that offered more protection from invaders arriving by ship. The residents built a wall and moat around the small, compact city (only about 40 acres) to protect the residents and their businesses from attack. When the Americans arrived on the scene in 1904 to complete the building of the Panama Canal, many of the residents and businesses moved out of Casco Viejo and to the east where there was room for growth and expansion. Besides that, the threat of invasion from the sea had long passed. When the wealthier and powerful residents left Casco Viejo, the less fortunate moved into the now decaying and dilapidated quarter, in essence becoming a slum. This changed again in 1997 when Casco Viejo was named an UNESCO World Heritage Site. With that designation, rehab and restoration efforts began in earnest that drew tourists leading to new businesses such as restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops and etc. and driving out many of the poorer residents.
During our stay in Panama, we made two visits to Casco Viejo, one during our Road Scholar program and the other when we were on our own. One of the first things I noticed was how much the area resembled the French Quarter in New Orleans.
In fact, the French Embassy is located in Casco Viejo. The pleasant looking building with the blue shutters serves as a stately anchor to the French Plaza.
Across the plaza from the Embassy is a memorial dedicated to the workers during the French effort to build the Panama Canal. The Gallic Rooster that sits on top of the obelisk is an unofficial national symbol of France or Gaul derived from the latin for gallus or coq or rooster.
Up the steps from the French Plaza, one reaches the wall that overlooks the Bay of Panama. Today the promenade sports vendors rather than defenders! The vendors are selling traditional Panamanian crafts as well as souvenirs.
Of particular interest to us, especially my traveling partner, were the colorful cloth appliquéd panels offered for sale by the indigenous Guna (formerly the Kuna or Cuna peoples). These bright molas as they are known are used to make blouses and other clothing worn by the Guna. After making a couple of purchases from these tough negotiators, I asked if could take their photos. Here are the results. We had a nice chat with the woman in the second photo and her husband shown in the third photo who was quite proficient in English. He explained some of the symbols depicted in the molas such as animal, plants, garden tools, and etc. This art form is a main source of income for the Guna peoples in addition to farming and fishing.
As we toured the many booths, I noticed these young kids of the vendors patiently watching something on a tablet, one of my favorite photos from Panama.
And further on, a guy playing a four stringed instrument, maybe a ukulele. Quite a contrast, I’d say!
One of the sites in Casco Viejo is the Arco Chato or flat arch. This arch was built in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s by Dominican friars. Legend has it that they tried a couple of times to construct the flat arch but it fell down. The friars then prayed for guidance and a vision was revealed to them on how to keep the arch from falling. This time it didn’t fall and in fact stood for a couple of hundred years. Some thought there had to be a wooden beam running through it but in recent years it was determined to be of true construction.
Surrounding the arch are the remains of this once massive house of worship. In the last photo, note the bird watching the tourists mill around in the plaza below, maybe looking for it’s next target!
A walk down the street brings us to Independence Plaza, the central meeting place for visitors to Casco Viejo.
On one side of the Plaza is the Panama Canal Museum that we visited during our participation in the Road Scholar program.
On another side is the Cathedral Metropitana or Sacred Heart Cathedral. It’s the episcopal see (seat) of the Archdiocese of Panama. This is where Pope Francis celebrated a mass and rededicated the refurbished alter during his visit to Panama. On our first visit, the cathedral was closed for security purposes but on our second visit to Casco Viejo, there were lots of visitors, many pilgrims in town for the World Youth Day festivities. You’ll note that on these banners, the symbol JMJ Panama 2019 is used and even the statue of the alter boy sported an umbrella hat with the symbol. We wondered what this meant, one person told us Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and then laughed hysterically at their own joke when we quickly accepted this translation! In reality it’s Spanish for World Youth Day, Jornada Mundial de la Juventud or JMJ.
The interior of this church is very stunning with a beautiful new alter.
In addition to visitors praying and lighting candles, there were lots of photos being snapped!
Near Independence Plaza is the Capilla San José or the Chapel of Saint Joseph or commonly known as the church with the golden alter as depicted below. Quite stunning to view.
As we were admiring the Chapel from the outside, a young fellow approached to show us the menu for the restaurant across the street. We declined Orlando’s offer but he then proceeded to tell us part of his story. His restaurant hawking gig was his second job because he had very good English language skills and was outgoing. His day job was as a laborer on construction and roofing jobs. He’s an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua and for several years was an illegal worker in the US. He said that he is discriminated against in Panama because of his nationality but he has a good work ethic so is tolerated. He’s thinking of trying some other country, maybe Canada or someplace in Europe where he can settle down and make a life for himself. An interesting discussion as a result of just standing around gawking at a building!
As we were about to leave, we noticed this line up of national flags against the skyline of Panama City and near the main stage of the WYD activities. The flags represent the nearly 150 countries attending the festivities. A beautiful site against the backdrop of an international city.
Well, that does for this week, hope you enjoyed your visit. Next week more Panama with a look at the Biomuseo.
Until then, happy travels!