“Panama is an enchanting oasis, where easy island jaunts and mountain retreats are a way of life…
“Until recently, it was known more as Central America’s economic center, but that booming economy is also paving the way for a rise in next generation designers, artists and chefs.” (Vogue 2016)
Soooo, Panama has an economic center capital city with a charming old section; mountains filled with coffee plantations; and beaches that rival the best of the Caribbean islands…Let’s divide those up and explore the sights, shops, hotels and restaurants of South Carolina-size Panama. Are they worthy of a visit from us??
The capital has 1.3 million people, is home to the fastest growing economy in Latin America, and a stable, democratically run government.
SEE THE SIGHTS
- Casco Viejo–“…the seductive, burgeoning arts district of Casco Viejo…Filled with a continuous hum of Caribbean music and decorated with the paint-chipped facades of Spanish and French colonial buildings, Casco Viejo—the city’s UNESCO-designated historic district—is Panama City’s vibrant, bohemian hub.” (Vogue 2016) Casco Viejo “is where Panama City was relocated in 1673 after the original Pacific settlement was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan…The 100-acre peninsula’s legacy of Spanish, French and American colonial, neoclassical and art nouveau architecture is unique.” (from Las Clementinas‘ web site)
- Panama Canal—“The first set of locks is a less than fifteen minutes drive from Casco Viejo. It is perfectly possible to see a vessel pass through the locks and be back at Casco Viejo in less than two hours.For those who are more curious about the Canal’s history and workings, visit the visitors center, called the Museum at Miraflores, or even do a half-day Canal transit.” (per Las Clementinas)
- Mimi’s Travel File Tip: I just got back from Panama (January 2017). Two Tips: (1) The very best way to experience the PC is to do the half-day transit. (2) Our Panamanian friends said the Museo del Canal Interoceanic de Panama, located in Casco Viejo, is better that the Museum at Miraflores. We visited the Museo del Canal Interoceanic and, while it is a bit disorganized, it is informative and interesting.
- Biomuseo–Frank Gehry-designed (his wife is Panamanian) museum is a series of rain-forest-like gardens and biosphere galleries developed with the Smithsonian Institute, recommended by Travel+Leisure (2012). “The Amador Causeway is a narrow land-bridge, built with rocks excavated during the construction of the Panama Canal, that connects Panama City with four islands next to the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal,” per visitpanama.com. The Biodiversity Museum is located on one of these.
- Pollera Dancing–Not to be confused with pole dancing, pollera is a folkloric style of dancing in which the women wear elaborate and colorful traditional Panamanian costumes. Ask your hotel to recommend someplace to see a performance. It’s beautiful!
- Soberanía National Park (near the Panama Canal)–“a pristine tropical rainforest noted for its remarkably diverse species,” per Andrew Harper. “Soberania National Park, one of the city’s largest green areas and home to lush flora and varied fauna (such as caimans, crocodiles and iguanas), as well as the starting point to many outstanding birding trails.” (visitpanama.com)
- Abutting Soberania National Park is the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, a 50-acre reserve of untouched forest and famous for its abundance of bird species, on the eastern bank of the Panama Canal. Check out the view of the rainforest from its 40-meter observation tower!
- Barro Colorado Island–“Barro Colorado Island is home to the world’s most important tropical research station, with over 500 scientists conducting experiments at any given moment. The Smithsonian allows a very limited number of visitors to the island each year for 3/4-day educational hikes. Due to the popularity of these hikes, several months’ advance booking is suggested, though there are occasionally cancellations.” (from Las Clementinas website)
- Why all this focus on birds, you may be wondering?–“When the North American winter sets in, Panama is flooded with thousands of species of migratory birds–so much so that the Audubon Society routinely sets and resets its records for most species seen in a day in the jungle just on the edge of Panama City.” (per Las Clementinas website)
- Punta Pacifica is a skyscraper zone (bars, restaurants, malls, boutiques) in close proximity to the ocean. The much-lauded Trump Ocean Club International Tower & Hotel (one of only two hotels in Panama liked by Andrew Harper) is located here. However, I have read PP described as “soulless.”
- Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage site “where you can wander through grassy grounds, exotic trees and the 16th century ruins of the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The cathedral is the best preserved among the stone remains. Climb up 72 feet in its bell tower for expansive views of Panama in all directions. It once served as a lookout post for pirates.” (Forbes 2015)
- “Just a short one-hour sail from Panama City is the candy-colored Taboga Island, known locally as the Island of Flowers. You’ll find no cars on this island—this white-sand stretch of coastline is a remote paradise where nature trails and flower-lined walkways comprise the local infrastructure…
“Skip the ferry lines and opt for a day aboard the Azuleta, which includes an entire day of sailing on a wooden sailboat. You’ll spend your day kayaking the clear open waters, diving from the highest rungs of the ship, and wandering the paths of quaint Taboga Island.” (Vogue 2016)
- American Trade Hotel: “Stay to enjoy the relaxed tropical ethos of the rooms, but venture out to explore the open-air environment of the first floor communal spaces, where a mosaic-tiled floor makes every step an Instagram opportunity…” per Vogue 2016; Travel+Leisure, 2015, also approves; small swimming pool; 50 rooms, of which all but 13 have balconies. Be sure to get a room with a balcony!
EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY
“Panama City’s culinary scene is on the rise. Casco Viejo is at the heart of Panama’s culinary revival…here you’ll find Panama’s best chefs and creative minds.” (Vogue 2016)
- The American Trade Hotel’s Danilo’s Jazz Club–“where notable Panamanian jazz singers fill the hall with soulful tunes until the early morning hours. Before the night ends, cross the street to…
- Grab a sunset drink at the rooftop bar, Casa Casco, directly across Plaza Herrera from the American Trade Hotel. Such dreamy pretty views of all of Panama City!
- Las Clementinas –“Panamanian comfort food” (T+L 2012 and NY Times 2013)
- Caliope –“…enjoy a farm-to-table feast with a menu designed to reflect local ingredients and culture.” (Vogue 2016) A Mimi’s Travel File favorite!
- “After dinner, opt for a raucous night of dancing at Casa Jaguar” in Casco Viejo (Vogue 2016)
- ” If you still have energy, leave Casco Viejo for a nightcap at the recently opened Hooch Panama in the San Francisco neighborhood. Built in a speakeasy style…” (Vogue 2016)
- Intimo–recommended by the NY Times, 2015
- Humo-“adapts American barbecue to Panamanian ingredients,” per NY Times 2014.
- Maito-near Humo, Maito “has an organic garden of more than 1,000 square feet, growing culantro, ají chombo, ñame (a root vegetable) and micro sprouts. The restaurant offers 10-course-tasting menus ($50) reflecting the history of the canal, incorporating the different ethnicities involved in its creation and the plants and animals around it,” per NY Times 2014.
- “The most eclectic menu can be found at La Trona on the second floor of the former residence of a queen of the traditional folkloric pollera costume, known for her over-the-top style…decorated with coffered ceilings, red curtains, wrought-iron windows and gaudy Renaissance-style oil paintings. In this two-year-old restaurant, the young chef Alfonso de la Espriella’s menu jumps around from the Mediterranean to South America.” (per the New York Times, 2014)
- Riesen–in a small space in El Cangrejo. There are fewer than a dozen plates driven by what he can get that day from local farmers and fishermen…” (per the NY Times, 2014)
- Karavan Gallery–“The best local artisans” (T+L 2012)
- Papiro y Yo–“Accessories made using recycled papers” (T+L 2012)
The Mountains of Western Panama: Boquette
“Shrouded beneath a canopy of clouds, Boquete is Panama’s mountainous refuge: Birds chatter symphonically and volcanic peaks yield to a flourishing landscape of bucolic coffee plantations.” (Vogue 2016) “Boquete is a delightful small town 4,000 feet above sea level in the cool highlands of Chiriquí Province… Tucked away on the slopes of the dormant 11,000-foot Barú Volcano, Boquete is surrounded by the country’s richest agricultural land…a dense cloud forest that is teeming with plants and birds, including resplendent quetzals and toucans. We reached Boquete from Panama City via a 50-minute flight to the town of David on the Pacific, followed by a one-hour drive.” (per Andrew Harper)
- Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation and Boutique Hotel–“Here, every room comes with a hammock on its front porch—the perfect spot to sip the property’s own “Geisha” coffee, which happens to be one of the world’s most exclusive blends. If you can pull yourself out of the hammock, take a hike or a plantation tour.”-Vogue (2016)
- “The most venerable hotel in the area is the Panamonte Inn & Spa. All of the 25 rooms are set in a lovely garden, whose rolling lawns are punctuated by noble old trees and flowering bushes.The newest accommodations are the most desirable…Activities include birding, coffee plantation tours, whitewater rafting, hiking, horseback riding and golf; hot springs nearby.” (one of only two hotels in Panama recommended by Andrew Harper)
Beaches & Islands of Panama
- “Island-hopping escapades are just a short jaunt away . Located off the northern Caribbean coast of Panama, the 365 islands that make up the San Blas Islands (2.5 hour drive from Panama City) all seem to come standard with white-sand beaches, coconuts for purchase, and leaning palm trees that will make any city-dweller contemplate life off the grid. Explore the region with a tour from Thread Caravan—visit with the indigenous Guna people, learn the complexity of hand-embroidering mola textiles, and spend your days snorkeling and sailing the pristine ocean waters.” (Vogue 2016)
- Mimi’s Travel File Tried and True Rec: Just back (Jan. 2017) from chartering a captained catamaran through Susan Bruce Travel. She and her staff are good!
- Portobelo (on the Caribbean, a 90-minute drive from Panama City)–The hotel here looks GREAT! In addition to being recommended by the Wall Street Journal (2013), InStyle (2012), and Condé Nast Traveler (2013), Mr. and Mrs. Smith love it: “Tucked away across a cerulean Caribbean bay from the historic port town of Portobelo, El Otro Lado hotel is a laid-back, yet luxurious, outpost of traditional Panamanian culture that’s right at home in the jungle-blanketed wild. With original artwork adorning every room, local woodworkers carving sculptures on site, creative Caribbean cuisine and an ambitious list of activities for outdoor enthusiasts, this jungle retreat is the ideal mix of art and adventure.
El Otro Lado is perfectly positioned for history buffs curious about the lore-loaded colonial town of Portobelo…For a glimpse of life in one of Panama’s native tribes, journey to Charges National Park where you’ll travel up the Charges River by canoe to spend the day in an Embera village. Once there, you’ll listen to music, watch native dances and admire the highly detailed woven baskets and vibrant beaded necklaces created by the Embera.” (see Mr. and Mrs. Smith for more details) –7 rooms