A Fantastic Journey: Part 7

Canal Administration Building, Quarry Heights, Albrook & Clayton

Having returned to the city a day early, we decided to look around the old Zone a bit more, so we took a taxi for the morning. First we headed for the Administration Building as I wanted to show Gene the rotunda paintings. We had no trouble going in, but only to the rotunda. All other areas were off limits.
Once inside, I found the place as impressive as always. I tried to go to the terrace facing the El Prado, but succeeded only in setting off the alarm when I opened the door. Leaving the Building, we took Ancon Boulevard to Ancon finding it completely changed with all the wooden buildings gone. I was
disoriented until we got to the old clubhouse building, still in use, and headed towards “J” Street. We returned to Quarry Heights for a second visit entering from the Balboa Heights side. Taking a second view at the buildings that are being remodeled, we also stopped to see what we think is one of the buildings being converted to a hotel by Edgar McArthur and his partner. I keep looking at the places that were familiar to me once and realized that it is all losing its former charm and that I am being left with little connection to the whole place. This holds true for both the old Canal Zone area and Panama city.
We came down from Quarry Heights using Heights Road and headed for Albrook Field to a new El Rey Super Market at the gate of the old AF Base. I bought more film there and continued through the main base road making note of all the changes taking place on that old base also. The non-­com and officers family quarters are all being sold to individuals and, upon remodeling, few retain any similarity to military quarters.
Entering old Fort Clayton from the back entrance, we proceeded to the Base Headquarters Building where I worked for 18 months while in the Army. On the way there we passed the area where the old motor pool used to be, in the middle of the jungle, and where I walked so many guard duty hours on nights and week-­ends. There was, of course, no sign of the old motor pool. The Headquarters Building was locked up and not presently in used. But the memories flowed just the same. Then I looked down on the barracks where I was supposed to be housed, but where I never spent a night, and they look the same. From this vantage point I could also see where the infantry battalion was quartered. I think it was the 33rd, but I cannot remember. Driving by Officers Row my mind went further back in time recalling going there and the girls that lived there: Mary Ellen Kelly, Joyce Daily, Nancy Wells, Cecil Russell and the Morleys, to name a few.
That night I had dinner with one clan of relatives, my cousin Pachi DeSedas, his wife Shirley and his sister Graciela and all their offspring. There must have been 50 people in the house and food for 100. And what good food! That also brought on emotional memories of the good times we used to have as a family. My grandmother’s house, next to mine, was the meeting place and there was always something going on.
That night we made preparations to check out of the hotel the next morning as we were going to Boquete, Bocas del Toro and El Valle and would not be back    six days.

Every week we publish part of Louis Celrier’s story of how he revisited the country where he grew up. Subscribe to this blog, or like us on Facebook, to make sure you do not miss any part pf the story!

Mission: VIEJO – Can Panama City’s Old Town Survive Its Own Success?



The Casco Viejo of Panama appears to be a contrast of the old and the new, development and slums.  When I visited the area in 2005, it was in sharp contrast to the rest of the city.  It was quiet, no traffic and beautifully remodeled apartments and residences contrasting with those abandoned and falling apart.  But the brick streets were still there as I remembered them from my youth.  A friend sent me a short article on this sublet written by Fred A. Bernstein and with photos by David Leventi.  The article was on a page torn from a magazine, but I found no indication as from what magazine it came.  At any rate, what I saw in 2005 continues to be the norm for the area . . . contrast. I will quote a few lines from the article:


The area represents . . . “the storied past and seedy present of Casco Viejo, a neighborhood Panamanians call Casco and view as both a shrine and slum.  These days, empty lots once home to squatters and stray dogs are giving way to valet parking, part of a process that may make the neighborhood more popular, if less compelling.”


A Manhattan businessman, Matthew Blesso opened the Tantalo hotel in the neighborhood and said, “To me, Casco is cool right now.”  When he went looking for property in Panama a few years ago, he started by looking around the new Panama.  He found it “Banal and soulless”


“But on his third day in Panama, Blesso saw Casco and fell in love with it.  Blesso’s 12-room hotel has an elaborate roof deck and graffiti-style murals reminiscent of his apartment in New York.  Night after night, Tantalo’s rooftop bar is packed with 20-something Panamanians, drinking until the early morning.”


“K.C. Hardin fell for Casco even harder.  A new York lawyer, Hardin came to Panama in 2003 to surf and never really left. Hardin’s company has opened two hotel in the district – Canal House, in 2007, and Las Clementinas, in 2010 – and next spring will open its biggest project to date: the America Trade Hotel, which will offer 50 rooms, a rooftop pool and, next door in an old bank building, a ballroom.”


Threatening Casco is the extension of a highway called La Cinta Costera which will surround Casco and isolate it from the ocean.  “If the extension to the highway is built, Unesco could withdraw the neighborhood’s World Heritage status, bestowed in 1997.”


“Though foreigners tend to be entranced – the wide variety of architectural styles, reflecting periods of prosperity over four centuries, make it more interesting than purely colonial outposts like Cartagena, Colombia, or Granada, Nicaragua, and almost as enticing as Havana – Panamanians are often surprised  that travelers are drawn to the area. Matt Landau, who co-owns a hotel in Casco called Los Cuatro Tulipanes, says that Panamanians tend to think of Casco as a place you visit for a few hours to look around, not where you spend your evenings.”


Since 2002, when some of the hotels and restaurants opened in Casco, travel magazines have been giving it a lot of publicity.  It is hoped that the Panamanian government will not wrap it up in concrete with the Cinta Costera highway.


Source: Luis Celerier


For interesting and educating tours through Casco Viejo, feel free to contact EcoCircuitos at info@ecocircuitos.com to plan your adventure for you.