February 23, 2012
A combination of the historic and the modern, the international and the Latin, Panama is a versatile destination like no other in Central America.
Written by Christine Otsuka
Strolling through the streets of Panama City, it’s easy to see why people refer to it as ‘Little Miami.’
Sky-high buildings, like the impressive Revolution Tower, shaped like a double helix, create an enviable Manhattan-like skyline.
The last two decades have yielded new, skillfully designed buildings and an explosion of chain restaurants, massive contemporary malls and luxury hotels. That, in combination with the city’s renowned financial base, has earned the city its spicy moniker.
But perhaps a more accurate description is that Panama City has one foot in Havana and the other in Miami.
Like Havana, Panama’s capital city oozes history everywhere you turn. In the eastern end, the ruins of the first Spanish settlement (1519), known locally as Panama la Vieja or Old Panama, remain. Nine kilometres away, the original colonial-era architecture that lines the narrow streets of Casco Viejo is still visible. Old homes and churches provide a picturesque backdrop and enough authenticity to transport you from the everyday.
Atop Cerro Ancon, a mix of colourful residences and lofty skyscrapers juts out from the landscape, embodying the vivid juxtaposition of old and new.
While the city owns a 476-year-old history, the modern Panama is no stranger to contemporary design. In 2011, the city welcomed the 70-storey, sail-shaped Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama, on the Punta Pacifica Peninsula. The hotel and condominium tower boldly contributes to the city’s skyline and features more than 46,000 sq. ft. of function space, including an 8,611-sq.-ft. grand ballroom that can accommodate 950 guests.
In January, Starwood Hotels & Resorts unveiled the $100-million Westin Playa Bonita, Panama’s first Westin hotel property, which features 611 luxury rooms and 62,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
But not all of the city’s properties are so grand. Amidst the downtown bustle sits a quiet, understated, yet luxurious five-star resort, the Finisterre Suites & Spa. Barely a year old, its pristine interior furnishings and luxury amenities, such as rooftop pool, fitness centre and spa, create a comfortable home-away-from-home for hotel guests.
Eighty minutes west of Panama City, the Bristol Buenaventura provides a luxury option for incentive-travel groups. This secluded and exotic locale offers 109 guestrooms, five suites, eight villas and three pools with swim-up bars and beach butlers.
Old-school buses, painted vibrant colours, find new life as the city’s public transportation system and add charm to the city. Street vendors serve up ice cream and sno cones by the roadside. Traditional Panamanian fare—rice, meat and plantain—can be sampled at any local restaurant. For upscale dining,
Oliva y sal is a certain hit, with first-rate service, a variety of private dining rooms, and fine Mediterranean cuisine. Or feast on the sea bass in tamarind sauce at Barandas Restaurant, in The Bristol Hotel.
Beyond historic city tours, an indisputable must-see is the spectacular Panama Canal. Fifteen minutes from the city, Miraflores Locks allows visitors to watch as transiting vessels temporarily surrender their ship to a Panamanian captain, who guides it through the infamous waterway.
Miraflores Visitor Centre features a restaurant with panoramic view, fully-equipped theatre and hall for special events. Nature lovers can travel by boat to the uninhabited Isla Monos or Monkey Island and spot Capuchin or Howler monkeys in the trees. Take a guided tour through the rainforest via gondola or zip through the canopies and hike the trails and hanging bridges.
Cap off the Panamanian experience by watching the sun rise in the Pacific and set on the Atlantic, as Panama is the only place in the world where this is possible. Its remarkable geographic location, bridging two different worlds, is what keeps visitors coming back.