My neighborhood, Casco Viejo, is an official World Heritage site. To be honest though, one probably wouldn’t guess that at first glance. So much of Casco is not restored, houses at every turn are falling down, deteriorating, collapsed, and condemned. Many of these ghost buildings of the colonial era are inhabited by families who have lived here for generations but who don’t pay rent. Officially, they’re squatters. These buildings are made up of layers upon layers of colorful paint that is chipped and faded, electric wires cross in confused jumbles, laundry drapes from rickety balconies, staircases look as if they will fall beneath the feet of those who call them ‘home’.
There is such incredible history here in Casco Viejo, existing between the walls that are crumbling and those that are swiftly being gentrified. There is detail in the architecture that is rich and authentic, the streets are narrow and open up to tree-lined plazas that are welcoming to those of us who live here. Just behind the clean lines as well as the rough edges, one can find so many gems of the past which makes it a World Heritage site. For me, that link to the past can be found in the incredible tiles that lay all over Casco Viejo.
Speaking with locals and historians, I’ve come to learn that most of the tiles I’ve fallen in love with are actually replicas of the Colonial era. These replicas are made in Barranquilla, Colombia and the artisanal work is astounding. Most of these tiles are still quite old (some circa 1930’s) and incredibly attractive; every single design is unique. Many are polished and cleaned with care, while others are hardly noticeable under dust and clutter. They are thick, large squares (more like an adobe tile size as opposed to a bathroom tile size) and they are vivid, porous, and natural. Cafes, restaurants, homes both dilapidated and restored (including our home), entryways, shops, and front steps are adorned with these detailed tiles that bring an artistic life of their own to wherever they are laid. I have a slight obsession with popping into new friend’s houses or buildings that I’ve never entered before and seeing a floor patterned with tiles. That’s when I get annoying and whip out my camera for a photo, and it’s true that I have never seen two of the same designs in the three years I’ve lived here.
One day, when I’ve moved on from Panama and I’m building a home of my own, I want to include tiles made from Barranquilla, to remind me of Casco Viejo. I mean, who wouldn’t want to adorn a piece of their home with this amazing artwork?
My only problem will be making up my mind about which ones I want.