panama's casco viejo: a look at how wynwood could be

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panama's Casco Viejo is the oldest neighborhood in this quickly Central American developing city where they use the American dollar. Panama's skyline is dotted with skyscrapers and looks a whole lot like Miami's; suddenly, over the past decade, they've had a Brickell pop up on their skyline too. Along with an urban renaissance, comes a gentrified "hip" area - in MIami, we have Wynwood, in Panama, there's the Casco. 

They aren't exactly the same, the Wynwood ethos is strictly art, and yes, there are the dozens of galleries and spaces that have taken root in the neighborhood. In the Casco, perhaps the more successful of the two projects, there's art, touristy little galleries and spaces with native-made goods, there's indie culture in the form of a creative space that houses a cafe and gallery, and there are hotel. The Casco is dotted with tiny ultra-luxe boutique hotels like Las Clementinas and Canal House. Legend has it that Daniel Craig stayed at Canal House when he was filming a Bond movie in Panama and went on to make it a one man mission to tell everyone how much he enjoyed the neighborhood.

Most recently, the American Trade Hotel, a project of the Ace Hotel group in collaboration with a Panamanian real estate group focused on revitalizing this UNESCO World Heritage site's buildings. The American Trade Hotel is the hotel of my dreams. I snapped pictures of everything from the custom stamped leather "Do Not Disturb" sign to the tile details in my bathroom and the almond butter pancakes my friend had for breakfast. One night the lobby bar was filled with Panamanian twenty-somethings who were going to see Astro, a band described to me as the Chilean MGMT, down the street at a renovated theater. The hotel, with it's Bertoia chairs and stocked library, it's old-meets-new menu and mini-bars with local beers and Ron Abuelo, the handpainted Cuban tiles and fiber art hanging in the dining room - is just about the center of hip in an already hip neighborhood. 

Just down the street is Diablo Rosso, a "creative think tank" that features emerging artists in the gallery/concept store and transforms the space into an indie-movie house twice a week. The cafe serves sandwiches with punny names like the "Kevin Bacon" and they won't raise an eyebrow if you order a beer at 10:30 AM - I know because I tried it. 

But, what's most jarring about the Casco, is the true blend of old and new. The way the crumbling buildings that haven't been touched by a restoration group are just as much a part of the Casco as the chic and clean new hotels or the neighborhood's local brewery. When I say crumbling buildings, I mean, truly decrepit pieces of history. 

But back to Wynwood, the time in the Casco really got us thinking, Wynwood doesn't have something that's truly important in the sustainable development of a neighborhood - hotels. Our first day in the Casco, I kept saying that this is like Panama's Wynwood, but a few years down the road. If Wynwood wants to be anywhere near the Casco in terms of cool, they'll have to attract someone like an Ace to open a true, permanent-feeling hub where travelers who are visiting Miami strictly to visit the neighborhood can stay. In fact, it kind of shocked me when I realized there isn't a single hotel in Wynwood.  

In terms of historic preservation, Little Havana is more worthy of that kind of project. In Miami, the buildings will never get as old and crumbled as they are in Panama, the neighborhood won't be more or less neglected for decades until the buildings have enough charm to merit restoring - they'll be bulldozed and an Irish pub will go right on top. 

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almond butter pancakes for breakfast at the American Trade Hotel 

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view from the fourth floor of American Trade Hotel. 

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exterior of the American Trade Hotel 

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a little alley between the American Trade Hotel and their event space located right next door 

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the library

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here I am, casually reading a book about religious extremists in the most beautiful room ever. also, that couch. 

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these animal masks were at all the gift shops in the Casco. I bought an owl and a parrot. 

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ruins in Casco Viejo.

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there was actually an exhibit called "We're So Miami" at Diablo Rosso. It was a commentary on how Panama is growing up to be a lot like Miami. 

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part of the Diablo Rosso, "We're So Miami" exhibit. 

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cafe at Diablo Rosso. 

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Diablo Rosso's shop and concept store.

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"We're So Miami." 

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galeria Karavan sells these fresh new takes on the traditional mola, native fabric work.

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more cool new mola's at Galeria Karavan

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i found Galeria Karavan on my last trip to Panama a few years ago. I was hell bent on finding it again, luckily, nothing is too far in the Casco and we stumbled upon it on the first day - and I cleaned up shop

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this is a bar right across the street from American Trade Hotel called Mojitos Sin Mojitos. They don't sell mojitos there. It's an outdoor space with a little BBQ set up under the tent that you can just barely see here. 

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you're seeing right. This is a raspado, a snow cone with leche condensada. LECHE CONDENSADA!

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this is the studio of Chajin Designs, this designer makes the uniforms of the staff at the American Trade Hotel - so I tracked her down with the help of my very, very helpful cousin Olga. 

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at Chajin Designs the Kuna Indians make really, really colorful, awesome jewelry and clothes. They take the traditional methods and make them a little more modern and fun, like the mola clutch in the above photo. 

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and last but not least - a hallway of piƱatas at Diabo Rosso.