Panama City is growing and reinventing itself every day. In Panama’s capital, you see new high rises and new hotels under construction. The city is a dynamic expression of the growing importance of Central America in the world economy, and it manages to combine this ever-shifting, ever-growing dynamism with the beautiful and time tested traditions of Latin and Caribbean culture.
That’s what makes Panama City fascinating, its headlong rush into major city status, its skyline immediately makes one think of Miami, and its appreciation for what’s before, for the narrow cobblestone streets and squares of the beautiful Casco Viejo. You can walk down from Casco Viejo to the pier and try hundreds of kinds of Ceviche so fresh you might sense something swimming in it. Or you can head into town and eat at the classiest restaurants run by world-famous chefs. Panama City is truly an international city and the most important city in Central America. Although more and more retirees are heading to Panama, Panama City is no Tampa or Boca Raton. It is young, vibrant, and eclectic and should be a major destination for any serious traveler.
Hotels are popping up all over Panama City these days. Still, the best is at the beautiful strip of land twenty minutes outside the city on the secluded Pacific Ocean beach known as Playa Bonita. With easy access to the city and everything else, you can enjoy the beautiful beaches of Panama while being just a quick hop on a shuttle away from Panama City’s lively city life.
The Panama City beach hotels are out in Playa Bonita. The best beach hotel is The Westin Playa Bonita, a fantastic resort that is bordered on one side by sand beaches and the other by verdant jungles.
You can take one step out of your room’s balcony and find yourself practically hovering over the beach or step outside your room to use one of the many pools on the property. The thing that makes the Westin Playa Bonita truly unique is the newly opened Aquabella Sensory Spa by Clarins, which features a thermal circuit spa treatment. It is not just for ladies as I experienced the circuit – a mixture of alternating hot and cold treatments, which manages to be both relaxing and rejuvenating. The circuit includes rain dance showers, vitality pools, warm and hot hydrotherapy massage pools, a cold plunge pool, an herbal sauna, and a river path with rounded stones that massage your feet as you walk. That was prior to an hour-long massage that I suggest a man undertake as soon as humanly possible.
The hotel also has six fine dining restaurants, four bars, and a 19th floor open-air VIP Lounge, which provides breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the rainforest, and the city’s skyline. For Westin Playa Bonita restaurants there is Asiana, an exotic and contemporary pan-Asian restaurant. Then there’s the more casual Cafe Pacifica, which specializes in Pacific Rim cuisine while being open for breakfast, dinner, and Sunday brunch. Tierra y Fuego offers an international menu in an elegant, fine-dining environment. The Starfish Grills serves up fresh Seafood while giving you a taste of colonial Panama. For an upbeat and lively Mediterranean feel, head to Soleo. Then there’s Tidal, which serves up the light fare by the pool, and Oceanica, the best spot to drink on the beach.
Exploring Casco Viejo or “old city” by foot is one of the first things you should do in Panama City. It’s the part of the city that was rebuilt after being ransacked by pirates in 1671. It hasn’t changed a lot since then, which is that the area was established as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Although it is a world heritage site with great restaurants and shops, this place is not just a tourist area. It is a part of the city like any other, with kids playing in the streets in front of family homes and small businesses. It is historical, but it’s just as much a piece of the present as a piece of the past. It also is home to an emerging arts scene. Galleries are popping up all around, and super chic and cutting-edge restaurants.
After a hike around Casco Viejo, you have to see one of the true wonders of the modern world, the Panama Canal. As most of us learn in school, the canal is the 48-mile artificial waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Work started on the canal in 1881, and it was completed in 1914. And since it was completed over a million ships have passed through the canal. The best way to experience the canal is to go to the Miraflores Visitor Center, named after the Miraflores locks. Here you can sit in stadium-style seating and watch as the ships pass while listening to narration in English and Spanish that explains the fascinating technical achievements that made the canal possible. The Miraflores Visitor Center has many amenities of a modern, first-class museum, including a restaurant open until eleven that features a full-service buffet. The views from the restaurant, especially at night, are nothing short of spectacular.
After seeing one of the design marvels from the last century, be sure to see one of the design marvels of the new one. The Biomuseo, or Museo de la Biodiversidad, is located on the Amador Causeway, a narrow strip of land that extends into the ocean that is popular with walkers and bikers. The Biomuseo was designed by Frank Gehry, and is the master architect’s only building in Latin America. The primary reason he chose to design something in Panama is because of his family connections. His wife is from Panama, after all. The building is typical Gehry. Its vibrant colors and shapes don’t look like any other building. The inside of the museum is just as original. Meant to demonstrate the uniqueness of Panama’s biodiversity, the center is far more than just a museum. Exhibits are more like giant art installations than animal-in-cage or fossil-in-case exhibitions. One of them, the Panamarama, is a truly unique experience that places you inside a variety of Panamanian ecosystems by virtue of three-story high-definition screens and glass floors. Walking through the tunnel is like walking into an IMAX movie.
Another experience that feels like being in a movie, yet is on the exact opposite end of the technological spectrum, is a visit to the Embera Indian Village with Gamboa Tours. The Emberas are a people who have rejected the technology of the west. However, that doesn’t mean they reject Westerners, as they are happy to demonstrate their traditional way of life to visitors. Visitors getting off the boat at the remote village will find a traditional Embera greeting party waiting for them, which consists of music played by smiling Embera, who wear brightly colored loin clothes and no shirts. You will then witness traditional dances and ceremonies, eat freshly prepared food, and have the opportunity to buy woven baskets and other goods that demonstrate the highest degree of craftsmanship.
For dinner, head to some of the new restaurants in the Casco Viejo, which exemplify an appreciation for tradition mixed with the finest fusion trends of the day. One favorite is Manolo Caracol, named after the restaurant’s Spanish owner (who shares the name with a famous Flamenco singer). The restaurant offers a ten-course price fix menu that blends influences from all over the globe in an atmosphere both relaxed and sophisticated.
Another great restaurant is Tantalo, which is located in the heart of Casco Viejo. Tantalo features an eclectic tapas menu that regularly adds exotic items you might dare each other to try and old twists on the best traditional comfort food. Tantalo’s skilled chefs managed to do all of this while taking and blending ingredients and inspiration from all over the globe. Tantalo also boasts a two-story-tall living wall, which features 983 different species of lush native plants. The wall is irrigated by recycled rainwater collected from the skylights, which enable natural light to flood into the atrium. Not only does Tantalo offer a fantastic kitchen and dining room, but it is home to a rooftop bar with some of the best views in the city. There you can see the diversity of Panama City, the super-modern skyline to your right, the steeples of Spanish churches to your left, and the line of lights from the ships in the harbor waiting to make the journey through the canal stretched before you. On the rooftop, you will enjoy drinks made by professional bartenders who understand a drink is not just something you pour. You might also see live entertainment. Soon enough, the bar will fill with beautiful people when the night truly begins. And just like Panama City itself, the night could take you in a hundred different directions.