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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


The Gang Tour: Casco Viejo Through the Eyes of Its Own People

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The beauty of Casco Viejo’s narrow cobblestone streets, creeping ivy and bougainvillea, and restored colonial buildings needs no introduction. Casco Viejo, with its tree lined plazas anchored by ancient cathedrals and fine cafes dotting every corner, is the place where most people, myself included, fall in love with Panama City. In fact, it was in front of the Catedral Metropolitana that I decided to move to Panama a few years ago.

Now that I’ve moved to Panama, I often visit Casco Viejo and explore its nooks and crannies to uncover its secrets. Like the gentrified cities I left behind in the United States, it doesn’t take long to notice the divide in Casco. Beautifully restored, million dollar condos stand next to the crumbling façade of long-neglected buildings. Five-star hotel share the same streets with squatter dwellings. Children play in the streets as valets park the newest car models. Wanting the convenience of having everything within walking distance and the luxury of modern touches in a historical district, Casco’s new residents are slowly pushing its traditional residents out as the property value rises.

Wanting to learn more about the changing face of Casco Viejo, my friend and I joined what’s been affectionately dubbed Fortaleza’s “Gang Tour”. The tour is uniquely socially and grassroots-focused. Until recently, the street corners of Casco Viejo were occupied by rival gangs known as The Hot Boys, La Terraza, and The Prodigal Sons (or “LHP”). As gentrification and tourism pushed these gangs and their families out of their homes and to the outskirts of Casco and Panama City, robbing unsuspecting tourists became a way for displaced gang-members to make a living. Rather than lock their doors and move out, local entrepreneurs decided to integrate the gang members into Casco’s economic future. Now, the former gang members have traded bullets for business suits as they not only serve as the guides for the tour through their old haunts, but have also become local entrepreneurs themselves.

The Essence Of Casco Viejo Was Once Lost...

Check out the beautiful story behind this video here: http://www.esperanzasvc.org/fortaleza-video/

Posted by Esperanza Social Venture Club on Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The tour allows you to experience Casco through the eyes of its own residents. Our guide led us first into the American Trade Hotel, formerly a hotbed for drug deals, gang violence, and squatters which has now been turned into a five-star hotel. The hotel’s staircase is lined with photo tiles of the graffiti of its former occupants, in direct contrast to its post-modern décor.

This is where the tour starts: staircase of Hotel in Casco Viejo, lined up with photo tiles of the graffiti of its former occupants.
This is where the tour starts: staircase of Hotel in Casco Viejo, lined up with photo tiles of the graffiti of its former occupants..

The tour then winds through the neighborhoods on the outskirts of Casco’s creeping gentrification. Jaffett, a reformed gangbanger turned human rights attorney, walked ahead greeting people and clearing the way for our group. The transformation in the members of Fortaleza could be seen most prominently in how the neighbors approached him, a former gang member implicated in a couple of murders. Mothers handed him their babies to kiss, men shook his hand enthusiastically, the elderly shared their latest ailments with him as he listened attentively, and children ran away from him in a game of tag. These people were the true heart of Casco Viejo.

The gang tour emphasizes the need to integrate rather than push residents out of development. Casco Viejo can be both a place where children play safely in the street after school and a place where tourists enjoy lunch in cafes on cobblestone streets. Without the Panamanians, however, Casco is just another neighborhood with brightly colored buildings.

Local children playing in the streets of Casco.
Local children playing in the streets of Casco.

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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


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