We whizzed through the narrow, brick-layed streets, our cabbie with reckless confidence and me, the dizziness from my mild dehydration exacerbated by his aggressive maneuvers. He stopped abruptly in front of the Panamericana Hostel, our sleeping quarters for the next several days in Casco Viejo, Panama City’s historic quarter and UNESCO World Heritage site.

The sun hid deceivingly behind the cloud cover that afternoon and the days that followed. Its heat, coupled with the moisture in the air assaulted us every time we stepped out into Plaza Herrera, or trudged the handful of blocks to Luna’s Castle to book a jaunt to San Blas and as we strolled around in search of our next ceviche fix.

We were so removed from the manicured neighborhoods of San Diego. Being in Casco felt a bit like New Orlean’s French Quarter; beautiful arched windows and ornate balconies for days.

Graffiti greets you as you turn the corner of both crumbling and newly restored buildings. The old town is small, and although we meandered through the same streets multiple times during our stay we always seemed to stumble across a new alley, cafe or a different view of the new causeway, which created quite the traffic jam on the day of its inauguration (Apparently the then President was in town to help with the inaugurating).

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One of the handful of graffiti murals around Casco Viejo.

We woke each morning to the sound hammers whacking away at yet another renewal project to complement the cafes and the few swanky bars already in place. The newer boutique accommodations and evening entertainment options like the American Trade Hotel and the Hotel Tantalo rooftop bar seemed to mingle amicably with the more casual options; we frequented both with ease.

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The Panamericana Hostel in Plaza Herrera; next door, a neglected building and across it the American Trade Hotel.

Many buildings remain neglected, and an eye sore on the one hand. Rather than view it that way, I chose to see the renewal among the scraps; a second chance. Most of the ragged buildings were still standing, as if seeing the rest of the town grow more vibrant each day gave them a reason to hang on.

Casco Viejo’s future is a beehive; it is buzzing within the circle who have already bore witness to its potential while the murmurs from outside begin to get louder. Being there last month felt like watching a rehearsal of a grand performance; the fundamentals are there, all it needs is a little more practice to smooth out the rough patches and work out the dynamics.

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View of the new causeway (it lights up different colors at night), and beyond it Panama City.

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