Somewhere in Latin America – La Sexta Cafe in Panama’s Casco Viejo

Manuela de Mendonça is a 23 year old geographer, traveller, writer and runner currently backpacking  through Latin America.

She is documenting her adventures across the continent and sharing her experiences of food, history, culture and nature with us. Expect to read about ancient temples, local restaurants and the best places in the world to go walking.

 

3 December 2018 – Somewhere in Latin America: Fonda La Sexta Café in Panama’s Casco Viejo

Panama City’s  old neighbourhood, the Casco Viejo, is an organised maze of floral balconies and hidden doorways. It’s a breath of fresh air compared with the business district of the modern city which has a skyline reminiscent of Miami. There are restaurants perched on each corner of the old town and boutique coffee shops down every side street, it’s the perfect city break.

But the Casco Viejo you walk through today is built on a darker past. Until UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997 it was a no-go area for visitors. It was dominated by drug cartels and known as one of the poorest neighbourhoods until the Panama City authorities displaced the resident families, moving them to another district and began to restore the facades. The lair of the final cartel was stormed by US troups, who killed it’s leader and several bystanders in the process.

Poverty rubs shoulders with prosperity in these narrow streets and at times it feels like you’re visiting somewhere completely fake. However, halfway down Calle 6 is a café juxtaposed between old and new.

Fonda La Sexta café is the latest initiative of the Calicanto Foundation, an organisation helping disadvantaged and vulnerable women, many of them single mothers who have been victims of domestic violence. Calicanto helps to improve their self esteem and provide them with opportunities for employment. Since 2005 they have run  a course, the Capta Program, which starts out in a classroom and finishes with vocational experience in a hotel training school helping to prepare them for work in hotels. The Fonda La Sexta café adds a new dimension to the range of opportunities on offer. 

Upon entering, I’m struck by how clean and modern the decor is. There’s art along one wall, created by interns in partnership with a local artist, and the chairs and floor are just begging to be posted on Instagram. The menu and kitchen are run by Panamanian chef Mario Castrellón, who is known throughout Latin America. He has put together a spread of original Panamanian recipes, some of which have vegan or vegetarian twists.

I’m meeting Stephanie who’s a member of the Calicanto Foundation. She sits me down and runs me through the history of the organisation and the food on offer. It’s the second day of December (although at 30°C it doesn’t feel like it) so she encourages me to try a traditional Christmas tamale: a parcel of corn flour, with tender pork and chicken wrapped in a leaf. This gives it the shape of a unique present and adds a tangy flavour. It’s the best thing I’ve had since arriving in Panama and will be one of the dishes I daydream about in desperate moments of hunger when no food is available. Next up is a cookie that looks like a cookie, but when I bite into it, the centre is all brownie. I’ve found the Holy Grail.

 

Fifty per cent of the profits from the cafe go back to Calicanto Foundation to help fund their work. As well as the Capta Program, Calicanto run other events as part of their mission to protect human heritage. This is everything from exploring community problems through digital marketing to human libraries. In Panama City they have taken one of the most vulnerable groups in society and channelled them into an Instagram worthy eatery, which is hands down the number one lunch spot in Casco Viejo. It’s worth a visit for the food alone.

 

Further Information:

The LATA Foundation has supported the Calicanto Foundation for a number of years and is helping to pay for course materials, supplies and transportation for the disadvantaged women who are participating in their Capta Program.

https://www.facebook.com/FondaLaSexta/

https://www.latafoundation.org

https://www.fundacioncalicanto.org

 

Other Blogs:

10 Dec 2018:  Somewhere in Latin America: Impressions of Colombia

26 Nov 2018: Somewhere in Latin America: 365 Islands

19 Nov 2018: Somewhere in Latin America: Costa Rica by Bus

12 Nov 2018:  Somewhere in Costa Rica: Wildlife Rescue in Manuel Antonio

 

Manuela’s blog: https://run4thehills.com/