Panama City's Haiti stand-in is the neighborhood known as Casco Viejo—the crumbling colonial "old city" on the edge of Panama Bay. While crime and deterioration once made it about as tourist-friendly as Port-au-Prince, a recent revitalization spearheaded by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site has turned the neighborhood into an intriguing study in contrasts.
Its tiny cobblestone streets are in places lined with restored French colonial mansions on one side and squalid, overcrowded apartment buildings on the other. If you squint while gazing at the 15th Century churches, you might think you're strolling through Paris' Latin Quarter; turn the corner and you'd swear it was Haiti again.
Parts of the Casco are still a clear no-go for tourist strolling, but that's OK because the 'hood has become enough of a draw that it's now patrolled by somewhat comical tourist police who bike around the old city in tight yellow shorts and stop obvious out-of-towners, directing them away from less desirable blocks. It certainly makes an exotic exploration less exciting when you're stopped and told to turn around because you're such an obvious future mugging victim, but locals insist it's still necessary.
[Photo: Carlos Affonso]