Former gang members are leading tours of Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo neighborhood. (Photo: Esperanza Social Venture Club)
Gangs are something most people want to avoid when they travel. But in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo neighborhood, it’s exactly those with a gang past that you’ll want to seek out: They are leading some of the most interesting-sounding walking tours available.
The tours are an offshoot of the Esperanza Social Venture Club, a gang intervention program that mentors and trains former gang members to find work or create their own businesses. Fortaleza Tours (or the gang formerly known as Ciudad de Dios) is one of those businesses.
During the weekly walks, former members of the Ciudad de Dios lead visitors through the one-time heart of their gang territory — now a revitalized district where an Ace Hotel opened in early 2014 — talking about their own experiences, criminal and otherwise, and pointing out bullet holes and former drug dens. But the goal of the tour is not to be gratuitous — it’s to introduce visitors to a side of the city they wouldn’t otherwise see, to learn about the authentic local experience, and to see for themselves how the formerly dangerous neighborhood has transformed into what the ESVC calls a zona de paz (zone of peace). There’s even an open-air food court, created by Fortaleza and called el callejon, where tour-goers can relax at the end of the walk and enjoy snacks and a cocktail.
Since it launched in the summer of 2014, Fortaleza has been picking up steam, partnering with hotels as the Casco Viejo neighborhood gets trendier and more touristy, but the tours remain a glimpse of what came before.