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Panama City's historic district gets a makeover and a new Ace hotel

Until recently, travellers to Panama City would bypass the capital's historic district of Casco Viejo due to its deteriorated condition with narrow dark streets and abandoned colonial buildings. However, 340-year-old neighbourhood is changing and the new American Trade Hotel is helping to give the area a facelift.

Panama City's historic district gets a makeover and a new Ace hotel

The historic district of Panama City has not attracted travellers for years, due to its deterioration, dark narrow streets, and abandoned colonial buildings.

However, this is set to change as the 340-year-old neighbourhood welcomes a brand new hotel this month. The American Trade Hotel has been built in collaboration with Atelier Ace, an arm of the trendy Ace Hotel chain.

The Panama hotel features trendy interiors by the Los Angeles design company Commune Design, a coffee bar, a jazz club, a farm-to-table restaurant, a travel agency to organise day trips, and a banquet hall next door.

The 50-room Casco Viejo hotel is a joint effort by Atelier Ace and Panama City-based Conservatorio, which is owned by two preservation-minded lawyers, Ramon Arias and K.C. Hardin.

The new boutique hotel incorporates two storied buildings, one of which was the original American Trade department store which was built in 1917 as a place for wealthy locals and expats to buy American goods.

Over the years, the property has been the residence of various drug gangs but is has now been transformed into a luxury boutique hotel and the neighbourhood is seeing the arrival og high end restaurants, bars and hotels.

Ramon Arias, joint owner of Conservatorio, and his wife of 16 years, Hildegard Vasquez, Panama's leading restoration architect, work closely to restore the capital city's historic neighbourhood and as a result is was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

The "Casco Viejo" neighbourhood was founded in1671, following the dismissal of the original Spanish settlement by the British pirate, Henry Morgan. While the modern side of Panama City is home to a skyline similar to Dubai, the historic neighbour today is a blend of Old Havana and the French Quarter in New Orleans, plus a splash of Art Deco.

The staff at the new hotel are graduates of "Capacitacion para el Trabajo", a Calicanto programme for which Hildegard Vasquez serves as the president and chief fundraiser. The programme transforms the lives of brutally abused and impoverished women.

Vasquez believes the programme can work well in other countries too. She explained:

"Buildings are more interesting with people. You can't just fix the architecture-you have to fix the people. And in the process, they change you, too."

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