Plaza Bolívar (on Avenida B between Calle 3 and Calle 4) has been undergoing a charming restoration, and several cafés and restaurants have sprung up (and folded) here. It’s especially pleasant to hang out on the plaza in the evening, when tables are set up under the stars. It’s a good rest stop for a drink or a bite. Cafés don’t tend to last long on the plaza, but as soon as one closes another one opens. A long-term survivor that’s likely to be there when you arrive is Restaurante Casablanca.
The plaza was named for Simón Bolívar, a legendary figure who is considered the father of Latin America’s independence from Spain. In 1826 Bolívar called a congress here to discuss forming a union of Latin American states. Bolívar himself did not attend and the congress didn’t succeed, but the park and the statue of Bolívar commemorate the effort.
The congress itself was held in a small, two-story building that has been preserved as a museum now known as the Salón Bolívar (Plaza Bolívar, tel. 228-9594, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 1–5 p.m. Sun.,US$1 adults, US$0.25 students).
While the museum is designed attractively, there’s not much in it. The room upstairs contains the text of the protocols of different congresses called during the independence movement. There’s also a replica of Bolívar’s jewel-encrusted sword, a gift from Venezuela (the original is now back in Venezuela). The actual room where the congress took place is on the ground floor.
The little museum is entirely enclosed by glass to protect it and is actually in the courtyard of another building, the massive Palacio Bolívar, which was built on the site of a Franciscan convent that dates from the 18th century. The little building that houses the Salón Bolívar was originally the sala capitula (chapter house) of that convent, and is the only part of it that is still intact. The palacio dates from the 1920s and was a school for many years.
Now it’s home to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (Foreign Ministry). During regular business hours (about 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.) it’s possible, and well worthwhile, to explore the huge inner courtyard, which has been outfitted with a clear roof that’s out of keeping with the architecture, but protects it from the elements. The courtyard is open to the surf in the back, where part of the original foundation can be seen. Be sure to notice the beautiful tile work, and the posh chandelier at the entrance.
Next door but still on the plaza is a church and former monastery, Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís. The church dates from the early days of Casco Viejo but was burned during two 18th-century fires, then restored in 1761 and again in 1998. It’s been closed for renovation for ages.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition