The Oldest Café in Panama


Café Coca Cola is the oldest cafe in Panama City, Panama or so they say.  A Panama City institution, it opened its doors  in 1875, making it the oldest café in the city. It is also the only café in the world to be named “Coca Cola,” a namesake endorsed by the Coca-Cola corporation.

Nobody knows for sure when Panama City’s Café Coca Cola acquired the nickname that has made it famous for most of the 20th century. The truth is that it was one of the first places in the world outside the United States where the famous beverage was sold and served.

In 1906, Panama, along with Cuba, became one of the first countries to operate Coca-Cola bottling plants outside of North America, just in time to refresh the thousands of laborers brought to build the Canal during those years. Therefore,  2006 marked the 100th anniversary of Coca-Cola on the Isthmus.

A neighborhood institution near Plaza Santa Ana, Café Coca Cola is an old-school diner, complete with chess-playing señores and no-nonsense waitresses. It’s also air-conditioned and chock full of TVs playing the latest Latin American football matches, which makes Café Coca Cola something of a hang-out spot for Casco Viejo’s working class.

The place is full of history. If you walk to the end of Avenida Central you will see the Café Coca-Cola; this is where Che Guevara stayed when he was passing through Panama on his way to Guatemala and later Mexico around late 1953 or early 1954. This is also where Noriega’s men beat up the opposition, after the opposition had won the elections of 1989.

This is where that terrible video you probably saw on the History Channel, in which Billy Ford, the vice-presidential candidate is beat up on the street, occurred. Those days are gone and Panama is a safe place to visit. As you walk down Avenida Central note the apartment balconies above the storefronts. Many of the families that live in these apartments came to Panama from India.  Most of the Indian population came to Panama from Gujarat, the home province of Gandhi.

The place is home to many Gujarati Indians who run a flourishing business. They came to Panama with virtually empty pockets but have since prospered, thanks to their money lending business called ferri. They charge exorbitant interest rates for giving petty loans to the poor and the middle class Panamanians.

During a recent foray into Santa Ana Park, I took a couple of pictures of the well known Panama landmark.  This is what I saw on a cool Sunday morning.  Here we go.

Photograph of Café Coca Cola in Panama City, Panama.  (Credit:  Omar Upegui R./Michael Moore)
Photograph of Café Coca Cola in Panama City, Panama. (Credit: Omar Upegui R./Michael Moore)
Artistic version of previous photograph created by Michael Moore, a professional photographer in Dallas, Texas.  (Credit:  Omar Upegui R./Michael Moore)
Artistic version of previous photograph created by Michael Moore, a professional photographer in Dallas, Texas. (Credit: Omar Upegui R./Michael Moore)

Next time you’re in Panama City, drop over to Santa Ana Park and enjoy the nostalgia of the forties at Café Coca Cola. It was also famous for being a meeting ground for politicians and high government officials during the fifties and sixties.

Many political plots and schemes were discussed at this historic site while sipping a pintao (a tiny cup of black coffee splashed with a few drops of white cream).  Pintao in Spanish means painted.  Good Day.

5 thoughts on “The Oldest Café in Panama”

  1. Hello. It is for sure one of the places someone have to visit when they come to Panama. This is a place not named on history books, and for me just walking in Ave. Central and Casco Viejo tells you story itself. Everyday people walk in there not noticing all that. We panamenians are ignorant of our own history.

  2. I have been eating here since 1979 during breaks in my fieldwork to the San Blas and the Darien

    I usually stay at the Hotel Colon, which is a short block away.

    Breakfast here with the “tortillas” and the sauce is out of this world!

    Hopefully the restaurant is still open.

  3. I visited Panama, City in April 1985 While on a mission trip into the Darien. Pano the owner served me a Freshwater Shrimp dinner on the house. Great food and culture. Do yourself a favor and visit. I too hope it is still open!

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