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Casco Antiguo (also referred to as Casco Viejo or San Felipe) is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is quickly revitalizing after years of neglect. The neighborhood is where Panama City was founded in 1673 after the original Pacific settlement (Panama Viejo) was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan.

It remained the center of Panamanian life for nearly 300 years, until the 1930s, when, like many old quarters in Latin America, Casco Antiguo declined as Panama’s upper crust moved to the suburbs.

The reasons for the exodus are typically attributed to the emergence of the automobile, which made suburban living feasible and downtown living more difficult. In the Casco Antiguo’s case, these pressures were exacerbated by the fact that the boundaries of the Panama Canal Zone, which was off limits to Panamanians, were drawn so as to pinch the Casco Antiguo off from the rest of the city, leaving only one narrow road for entrance and exit.

The handover of the Panama Canal in 1999 and UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1998 ushered in an era of revitalization by government, entrepreneurs and international organizations. During its 300 years as the center of Panamanian life, the peninsula developed a unique legacy of Spanish, French, American colonial, Neo-classical and Art Nouveau architecture. Certain styles, particularly the narrow 16th – 18th century houses with internal courtyards, are specific to the region. So, while Casco Antiguo is often called a “colonial city”, the current cityscape is heavily dominated by French and Early American architecture. UNESCO stated that this unique aspect of Casco Antiguo “lends it a special quality that other colonial cities in Latin America lack (with the exception of New Orleans, where the quality of the architecture is markedly inferior),” and was used to justify World Heritage status.

UNESCO drew a further connection between this eclectic collection of architectural styles and Panama’s historical role as a world cross roads – with each style representing a boom in inter-oceanic trade through the Isthmus. This collection of architecture and the people who inhabit it are distinct reflections of Panama’s fascinating cultural makeup and an important part of our common heritage.

Fundación Calicanto is in the Santa Familia Building, located at 4th Street West, Local 1, San Felipe.