Panama Panache – Whether you’re looking to slow things down in a serene setting or turn ’em up at pulsing hot spots, this tropical country just a three-hour flight from South Florida does not disappoint.
Nestled between the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, Panama is best-known for being the home of the Panama Canal, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. But there’s much more to this Central American country than meets the eye. Part cosmopolitan metropolis, part tropical wilderness, Panama is a study in contrasts. You can explore some of the world’s most pristine rainforests by day, then dine, dance and gamble under the stars by night. In Panama City, the capital, tall skyscrapers glisten in the golden sun, while in the city’s historic district, Casco Viejo, 17th-century colonial architecture conjures images of Old Havana or Buenos Aires. Surrounding it all: expansive jungles, white-sand beaches and warm, translucent waters.
Where To Stay
Just 20 minutes from Panama City is the remote Westin Playa Bonita, a sprawling resort sitting on a mile-long stretch of sand backed by lush rainforest. From the moment you walk into the resort’s marbled lobby, floor-to-ceiling windows frame a breathtaking view of three freshwater swimming pools, shaded garden pathways and the shimmering Pacific Ocean beyond. Rooms are clad in warm woods and shiny tiles, while suites are equipped with giant soaking tubs. Several bars and restaurants and a tranquil spa beckon you to spend an entire day — or two — exploring the resort’s nooks and crannies. westin.com/playabonita
Your own private oasis
If you’re traveling with friends, or you’re simply seeking the ultimate secluded hideaway, opt to stay in one of the Westin’s two ocean-side villas. The larger of the two, Villa Bonita, has a whopping 20 guest rooms and an underground wine cellar complete with an antique church confessional. The more intimate, six-bedroom Casa Naga has a sexy, modern edge with low-lying sofas, an infinity pool and an authentic Panamanian rancho perfect for alfresco dining. Upstairs, the master suite has its own plunge pool and an enormous open-ceiling shower worthy of Architectural Digest.
Recharge your batteries
As good as the massages are at the Westin Playa Bonita’s Sensory Spa by Clarins, the facilities are really what set this resort spa apart. From the herbal sauna and amethyst steam room to Aquabella, a hydrothermal wellness circuit with hot and cold plunge pools, you can easily while away half a day here. The panoramic ocean views aren’t bad, either.
Step back in time
Discover Casco Viejo’s Spanish-colonial charm with Fortaleza Tours, a company whose guides are graduates of the Esperanza Social Venture Club, a local nonprofit that educates underprivileged youth. The two-hour excursions begin in the neoclassical American Trade Hotel & Hall, where the graffiti blanketing the walls in the main stairwell provides a peek into what life was like when the building was a haven for gangs. Having been brought back to life as part of the neighborhood’s gentrification and revitalization program, today the hotel welcomes expats from all over the world, and the area boasts a peaceful, friendly vibe. Stroll along the cobblestone streets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site as ex-cons-turned-tour-guides tell old stories of pirate invasions and introduce you to a few locals along the way. esperanzasvc.org/anniversary
With an outpost conveniently tucked inside the Westin Playa Bonita, Gamboa Tours is Panama’s premier destination company offering a slew of guided tours in English. For a look at life in Panama’s more remote locales on its Caribbean side, book a daytrip to Portobelo, a fishing village founded in 1597 that was once a major port for Peruvian silver. Walk through the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo and the Iglesia de San Felipe, where a statue of Cristo Negro, or “Black Christ,” draws thousands of pilgrims in search of healing each year. Board a small motorboat from Portobelo to Isla Grande, where you can indulge in an authentic lunch of sautéed fish, yellow rice and tostones (fried plantains), and spend the afternoon swimming in the crystal-clear water. gamboatours.com
The charming Café Unido in Casco Viejo is the place for authentic Panamanian empanadas, pastries and midafternoon espresso (the region is home to some of the world’s best coffee growers, including the pricey Geisha at about $40 per cup). With wrought-iron doors and Spanish tile floors, the ambiance is both romantic and bohemian, akin to being in a Parisian café. cafeunido.com
For small plates in a garden courtyard setting, Ocho y Medio, with its black-and-white checkerboard floors and local artwork, is another Casco Viejo standout. Relatively new to the percolating scene here, it’s grown a following among locals in part because of its craft cocktails infused with gin. The fish tacos, marinated meats slow-cooked over a robata grill, and fresh artisan breads are also delicious. ochoymediopanama.com
For late-night drinking and dancing, the Tantalo Hotel’s rooftop bar provides views of the historic district to one side and the sleek city skyline to the other. tantalohotel.com
Back at the Westin, start your mornings at an outdoor table at Starfish Grill, where the daily buffet offers traditional favorites such as eggs Benedict and French toast as well as Panamanian specialties such as tamales, tortillas and hojaldras (doughnuts). For dinner, Asiana and Tierra y Fuego are both excellent options. The former’s menu is a fusion of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese, while the latter is a Latin steakhouse.