My husband and I have been in Panama since Jan. 16. We are coming home very soon. And I’m happy to say that, although I’m not anxious to leave, I’m happy to be going home. Not a bad way to feel.

I miss a few things, like my kids and coffee — good coffee. Café Ladro on Queen Anne. Fiore in Ballard. Cafes with baked goods and fresh bread. Even when I choose not to eat them, it’s comforting to know they’re there.

Wandering through Casco Viejo, Panama’s “old town” last week, Dan and I had a hankering for coffee and something sweet. Well, I had a hankering for coffee, and I knew Dan could be talked into a sweet. And with the gentrification that has been going on, I was sure there had to be something that would satisfy. 

The good and the bad

When we first visited Panama five years ago, Casco Viejo was in the beginning stages of revitalization. Curious about the history (Casco Viejo was built in 1673, after Henry Morgan ransacked the original settlement) and the architecture, which we had heard was a cross between New Orleans and Paris, we set off to explore.

The cab driver from our hotel warned us to stay strictly within the four-block radius at the center of Casco Viejo. Driving through some of the outlying streets, I saw why. After 300 years as the center of Panama City, Casco Viejo declined when residents started moving to the suburbs. Buildings were neglected and deteriorated, and squatters moved in.

One street outside of the safe zone was nicknamed “Get Out If You Can.” “Do NOT go there,” warned our driver.

Each year that we have returned, the four-block radius has expanded and become increasingly more pleasant. I feel perfectly safe there now, as do the tourists who spill out of air-conditioned buses and wander the streets. Gorgeous buildings, recently renovated, are lovely to behold. And slowly, but surely, boutique cafes and shops are moving in to serve — and profit from — the increasing visitors.

Just like home

We found a lovely, little coffee shop. The smell of dark-roasted beans hit my nose as the rush of cool, air-conditioner air welcomed me like an old friend. The espresso machine looked serious, and the pastries were gorgeous. For just a few minutes — except for the bucket on the floor catching whatever was leaking from the ceiling — I was in heaven. Home.

And then — music, please — the owner, an Italian woman who bakes all the goods herself and insists on the darkest-roast coffee she can find, told me that the chocolate cake I was eyeing was gluten-free. Gluten-free! In Casco Viejo, Panama.

Unlike my sisters and daughters, I do not need to avoid gluten. No celiac disease, no gluten intolerance that I have discovered.

But the fact that, like in Seattle and many parts of the world now, there was a gluten-free option in this little shop in Panama made my day! I savored my double, tall, iced latte and my piece of gluten-free chocolate cake.

Who says there’s no place like home?

IRENE PANKE HOPKINS lived on Queen Anne for 20 years. She can be reached at