Many of the first nightspots that followed the start of renovation work in Casco Viejo failed, most likely because affluent city dwellers are still sometimes leery of going to Casco Viejo at night. But a more interesting kind of nightlife has been emerging in the last few years.
Something of a bohemian, international art scene has begun to bubble up from the underground, fueled by the arrival of young backpackers and, especially, European and South American expats. The last time I was in Plaza Bolívar at night, I saw plenty of Europeans (especially Spaniards), South Americans, and young gringos dining al fresco on the plaza while a fire dancer vied for their attention. But I encountered almost no Panamanians, oddly enough.
The art scene is kept alive through a loose network of friends, artists, musicians and artist-friendly establishments, especially La Casona, Relic Bar, the Diablo Rosso café/art gallery, and the Super Gourmet store.
Most of the more mainstream action is concentrated around Plaza Bolívar, though nightspots pop up from time to time on the streets leading up to Plaza de Francia. The Parque Herrera and Plaza de la Independencia areas look poised to take off in the next couple of years.
Be careful in this area at night, particularly around Parque Herrera. It’s best to come and go by taxi; ask the bar or club to call one for you.
Relic Bar (at Luna’s Castle: Calle 9 Este and Avenida Eloy Alfaro, tel. 262-1540, www.relicbar.com, Tues.–Sat. nights) is a funky bar with an underground vibe. It’s on the lowest level of the Luna’s Castle hostel, so patrons must be buzzed in through the security gate. The bar opens onto a huge patio that looks up into the homes of the poorer residents of Casco Viejo, who no doubt find the shenanigans of the generally far-more scruffy tourists below at least as interesting as the tourists do the “Rear Window” peek into their lives. The bar itself is cavelike and contains part of the old wall that used to ring Casco Viejo.
The week before my most recent visit, the bar’s most prominent neighbor stopped by: Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, and assorted ministers showed up unexpectedly to an event at the bar, much to the surprise of everyone there. Luna’s Castle’s staff report that Señor Presidente and his entourage were very cordial and encouraging of what the hostel and its bar were bringing to Casco Viejo. The only moment of consternation came when Martinelli ordered Johnny Walker Blue, a premium scotch that costs more per bottle than most backpackers spend in a fortnight. Naturally, the bar didn’t have it in stock. (“But we do now,” a Luna’s Castle manager assured me. You never know when the unpredictable president might pay a second visit.)
La Casona (just east of Parque Herrera, behind the old Hotel Herrera at Calle 9 Oeste, tel. 211-0740, www.enlacasona.com, hours vary Wed.–Sat.) is a combination bar/dance club/cultural center. It has inspired more affection and excitement since it opened in 2005 than any new place I can remember; it’s filled a major gap in the nightlife scene. People love its informal vibe—it’s one of the few hot spots in Panama that doesn’t have a dress code—as well as the mixture of people it attracts, from backpackers to the hipster art crowd to overdressed yuppies. They also love the ambience: The heart of the place is a large interior courtyard that preserves the crumbling colonial charm of the dilapidated mansion it’s housed in. There’s an art gallery, and La Casona occasionally hosts films, artists’ talks, live concerts, and traveling exhibitions.
Platea (near the intersection of Avenida Central and Avenida A, tel. 228-4011, www.scenaplatea.com, 6 p.m.–2 a.m. daily) is a cozy cave of a bar on the ground floor of the same building that houses S’Cena, a Mediterranean restaurant, across from the ruins of the old Union Club. There’s live jazz and salsa Thursday–Saturday.
The bar at Restaurante Las Bóvedas (Plaza de Francia, tel. 228-808 or 228-8068, 5:30 P.M.–late Mon.–Sat.) hosts live jazz Friday and Saturday after about 9:30 p.m.
Man, I hope this new place makes it: Habana Panama (Calle Eloy Alfaro and Calle 12 Este, tel. 212-0040 or 212-0152, cell 6780-2183 or 6678-1415, www.habanapanama.com, Thurs.–Sat. nights) is an attempt to bring actual dancing back to Panama City clubs, and to play something other than the same old típico, salsa, and reggaeton. It’s a Cuban music hall that quite accurately bills itself as el bunker de la música cubana. Bunker indeed: It’s right across from the ruins of the old public market, just down from the entrance to Casco Viejo, in an area that’s supremely dangerous to wander around at night.
Huge spotlights beam down onto the street from the entrance to the surprisingly upscale club, keeping the vampires at bay. This is definitely a place to take a cab door-to-door. The proprietors are going for old-Havana romance. This place was still getting on its (dancing) feet as this travel guide went to press, but it looked likely it might be able to attract touring Cuban musicians and serve real Cuban food. Fingers crossed.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition