Cartagena, Colombia, and Casco Viejo, Panama, are two of the most impressive colonial districts in Latin America. Both districts have rich histories dating back to Spanish Empire rule and are resplendent with enchanting colonial architecture. Today, these two historic districts are drawing attention after years of neglect. As a result of their restoration, Cartagena and Casco Viejo have landed on the international destination map as closely competing travel and investment hubs.
When it comes to restoration of historic architecture, Casco Viejo is still in its infancy. Lining the streets you will encounter more abandoned and unfinished buildings than those that are completely restored. Moreover the pace of building restoration has slowed down due to the recession but it still said to be one of the most sustainable districts in the Republic. With a large 5-star hotel restoration project as well as many smaller renovations scheduled to come online at the end of 2010-2011, the rate of restoration seems to be picking up again.
Cartagena is more advanced in this regard. It has a wonderful mixture of architecture – colonial houses, old military installations and modernist buildings. Restoration projects are imaginative and those involved are remarkably good at preserving old facades and blending them in with newer buildings. This is due in part to strict historical preservation laws watched over by the district’s patrimony. Even the buildings that have not yet undergone complete restoration have been given a facelift with decorative front doors and brightly painted exterior facades. Many people consider Cartagena as the gold standard of restored colonial architecture: in this way, Cartagena acts as a model for restoration in Casco Viejo.
The cost of visiting/living in Cartagena is dependent on current market value of the volatile Colombian peso. The following are a few of the current facors:
Although one of the most sought-out places to stay while visiting Panama City, Casco Viejo has a very limited fleet of accommodation options. One mainstay option for travelers is to rent out completely restored luxury apartments with prices ranging from $150 – $350 per night. On the budget side, a dorm bed can be had at one of Casco Viejo’s several hostels for around $12 a night.
Cartagena has a bevy of boutique hotel options. Prices range from the luxury colonial-style homes that have their own private pool for starting at $1000/night to $60/night at the mid-range boutique hotels. Cartagena has a abundance of lodging options at all price points and is much more advanced in the tourism industry.
Casco Viejo offers properties at many price points. If you are looking for a turn-key, completed ocean view apartment, the appraisal prices range around $2,600 a square meter. If you are in the mood to roll up your sleeves and breathe some new life into a rundown building, a TLC restoration property towards the outskirts of Casco Viejo can be fetched for around $700 a square meter according to Kent Davis, owner of Panama Equity.
The Cartagena real estate market is more developed because it’s more of an international destination. With this comes the pleasantries of a mature real estate market such as options, information accessibility… etc. A downfall is that prices are more inflated and buyers pay more. For examples, according to Patrick Enste, general manager at La Heroica, homes in the San Diego district, a central neighborhood with primarily single-story colonial homes, are about $2,000 to $2,800/m2 ($186 to $260 a square foot) unrenovated, and $4,000 to $5,000/m2 ($372 to $465 a square foot) for renovated. New construction in Bocagrande (not included in the historic district) and other beaches north of the city are about $1,700 to $3,000 a square meter ($158 to $279 a square foot).
When it comes to security, there is a blatant income discrepancy in Casco Viejo. Almost of its residents can be classified as either extremely wealthy or extremely poor. To deter crime as a result of this disparity, Casco Viejo has developed a very robust police presence in addition to the already-prominent presidential guard. Cartagena’s income gap is less apparent because of the presence of its substantial middle class.
To bolster this working-class mentality, Cartagena offers travelers more budget and mid-range accommodation options. These two factors help reduce the income discrepancy between neighbors and the impulse to commit inequality-related crimes. All in all, both places are safer than commonly believed though recent reports have showed the occasional spurt in crime.
Quality of life
In terms of quality of life, Panama City is widely regarded as one of the best international retirement destinations because it has a low cost of living, quality health care, and political stability. By default, Casco Viejo piggybacks Panama’s aforementioned retirement benefits. Casco Viejo itself has a growing expat community as well as one of the most active community organizations in Panama. For this reason, Casco Viejo residents are passionate about their neighborhood and uniquely concerned about its growth.
A beer in a local grocery store:
Casco Viejo: . 43c
Colombia does not hold the same reputation as an international retirement destination as Panama, yet Cartagena is one of Caribbean’s most dynamic cities to live. Like Casco Viejo, Cartagena has year-round warm temperatures, low costs of living (albeit, Cartagena is the most expensive place in Colombia), and a growing expat community. Since Cartagena’s historic district is larger in sheer size and is more developed, there exist more of life’s comforts such as museums, watering-holes, bookstores, etc, to fill your time.
Panama’s best restaurants are located in Casco Viejo, with swanky new bistros popping up all the time. Yet, many of Casco Viejo residents observe that there are more new restaurants than residential projects, making an interesting betting game among locals of which will survive and which will go under. The nightlife, on the other hand, is beginning to brew a collection of trendy bars and cocktail lounges that draws both locals and foreigners due to their affordability and fresh energy.
Cartagena simply offers a greater volume of eateries as well as more ethnically diverse dining options. The polite Colombian formality and servitude caters to guests and makes dining a wonderful experience. It is not a surprise, therefore, that The New York Times put Cartagena on the international food map. As for nightlife, Cartagena’s main nightlife strip is located outside of its historic district city walls along the bay. Inside its gates, nightlife options range from pick-up bars to outdoor patios playing music.
There is little doubt that both of these areas are beginning to develop their potential as desirable destinations for tourism and places to live. Each seem to understand that their uniqueness of preserving their old world charm is key to their success.
Author Evan Forbes lives in Panama and is editor of eyeonpanama.com