Story and photos by Christine Loomis
Panama has looked to Costa Rica and seen its future, a future bright with tourists, economic prosperity and a reputation as the go-to destination for both eco- and business travel. While neighboring Costa Rica may have a lock on ecotourism right now, Panamanians believe their country is perfectly poised to change that, with its own twist.
Herman Bern, Sr., developer and owner of eight hotels in the diminutive nation, including one in the national park close to the canal, says Panama can offer something Costa Rica cannot: A city-rainforest-canal experience. That tourism trifecta is a powerful combo of urban excitement, a rich and virtually untapped ecosystem and an engineering marvel that stands as a monument to human ingenuity and resilience – all of it offered in a country smaller than South Carolina.
Panama anchors the southern end of the landmass that bridges North and South America, a geographical focal point luring visitors from both continents for business and pleasure. The fact that the business portion of the rosy future is already taking shape is good news for tourists less interested in Panama’s boardrooms than its 900 species of birds and vast, untouched forests and beaches.
The uptick in global business, fueled in part by the presence of U.S. companies including Dell, Proctor & Gamble, and Caterpillar, is helping pave the way for the things tourists need: a reliable tourism infrastructure, inviting hotels, good restaurants, and safe places to explore nature, history and culture.
Nowhere is the evolution of the country more evident than in Panama City. In less than a decade towers of striking, often fantastic, design have literally redrawn the skyline, many constructed by architects and engineers who seem to have honed their craft in Disney Imagineering labs. At ground level is an almost completely new urban landscape, one that is decidedly sophisticated and sexy.
Just opened this year, Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama is the poster high-rise for what’s happening in this city, a soaring 70-story tower that resembles a billowing glass and steel sail. It’s the tallest building in Latin America, designed to impress both tourists and industry leaders.
The Trump brand is not alone in recognizing the potential in Panama. There’s no lack of glitzy, elegant hotel options in the capital, and many of the names are familiar: Marriott and Le Meridien, among them. There are also independents to consider. The premier boutique choice is Bristol Panama in the financial district, whose guests are pampered with Villeroy & Boch fine china and Frette linens. The Bristol’s popular bar stocks more varieties of rum than the hotel has rooms, 70 vs. 56.
While visitors can appreciate all that glitters in Panama City – including a slew of clubs and discos – there’s also a very different experience to be discovered there, one grounded in Panama’s multinational and colonial history. Casco Viejo is the historic heart of the city, a neighborhood of curving cobblestone lanes lined with two- and three-story buildings in eye-catching colors, their wrought-iron balconies a tumble of tropical blooms.
In 2003, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But not all of it has been restored. On some streets, the pastel houses sit beside shells of decayed buildings or homes in disrepair where poor families or squatters have taken up residence. Still, Casco Viejo retains its charm, in part because of the grittiness, and is a must-see part of the city.
At its tip is Plaza de Francia, an area commemorating the French builders who started construction of the Panama Canal. The French Embassy is there, along with a collection of small shops. Up the grand concrete stairs is a broad walkway where vendors sell everything from schlock to finely crafted jewelry. Bring your camera; all along the seawall and walkway are views of the sleek city skyline across Panama Bay, and of the impressive Bridge of Americas. You can also see Amador Causeway, a ribbon of land connecting the mainland to four islands, created from rock dug up for construction of the canal. It’s one way out and one way back, but along Amador is where many of the city’s discos and clubs reside – and an excellent place to cycle. Some of the local tour boats leave from marinas off the causeway.
A highlight in Casco Viejo is eating out. Mostaza, popular with tourists and locals alike, is a tiny restaurant famous for ginormous lobsters served several different ways, all of them insanely rich and delicious. DiVino Enoteca is a sweet wine bar with an international list and owners passionate about their business; tapas pair nicely with the wine and there’s live music some nights.
If you’re compelled to buy a Panama hat, never mind the misnomer, Casco Viejo is your best bet. You’ll find a wide range, from cheap-won’t-last-but-you-gotta-have-it to exclusive designs made by workers skilled in the traditional art of hat making. If native handicrafts are your thing, Galleria Art Indigena near Plaza de Francia is one place to start.
There’s another part of Panama City that’s up and coming in terms of a burgeoning hotel zone. Playa Bonita, true to its name, exudes tropical beach ambience yet is just 20 minutes from downtown and even closer to Amador Causeway. In January, the first Westin in the country opened there with much fanfare, featuring multiple fireworks displays and several of the country’s favorite pop stars on stage, as well as appearances by all of Panama’s Carnival queens, who reign over the second largest Carnival celebration in the world. The Westin Playa Bonita Panama nicely melds beachy relaxation with bold architecture and décor, and shares a mile of sandy shoreline with its neighbor, the InterContinental Playa Bonita Resort & Spa.
For those who want to be immersed in the nature and wildlife Panama offers, and able to see firsthand why the country can give Costa Rica a run for its tourist dollars, there’s Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Set within vast Soberania National Park, the resort excels at nature tours. Boats motor away from the small docks at the bottom of the property, whisking nature-lovers down the Chagres River and up quiet waterways where natural Panama lies, the one with monkeys, crocs, exotic vegetation and the country’s indigenous tribes. Gamboa also takes visitors deep into parkland. Determined tourism advocates built a tramway in the park, which visitors can ride with rangers who provide info on the area’s flora and fauna. At the top, it’s a short walk to a viewing tower with panoramas that prove how lush and gorgeous this country is.
Gamboa’s tour boats also zoom out into the Panama Canal. There’s something exhilarating about speeding in a tiny boat alongside massive container and cruise ships, seeing the manmade wonder that is the canal in action from the water’s surface.
The complex canal system uses 21 rivers and two lakes, while six national parks and vast expanses of green areas protect the rivers and drainage systems. The canal, which was officially given back to Panama in 2000, along with all of the lands that the U.S. Army had utilized to run it, costs $12 million a year to maintain and $1 billion annually to operate. The best place to get an understanding of how it all works is at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the canal and closest to Panama City.
While the idea of staring at ships inching through locks hardly sounds riveting, it is, and it’s a Panama highlight. The Miraflores Visitor Center has a small museum well worth checking out, and viewing platforms that are typically packed shoulder to shoulder with camera and camera-phone toting tourists. You can avoid the crowds and get an even better view by booking (in advance) one of the few tables in the restaurant on the upper level, which also offers an excellent menu. When you arrive in the center, ask what times the English language version of the documentary film will be shown; it tells the mind-bogglingly dramatic story of the building of the canal.
Although Panama is tiny, much of it remains undeveloped. It doesn’t yet have the multiple high-end eco-resorts and tour operators of its neighbor, meaning there may not be as many destinations or activities to choose from. Those days will come. Panama could well be the next “it” destination in its region. But for right now, it’s a compelling mix of old and new, rustic and sleek, and a double-sided reflection of the marvels that both nature and man have created.
That’s more than enough reason to visit.
Capital: Panama City
Borders: Caribbean Sea on the north, Pacific Ocean on the south, Colombia to the southeast, Costa Rica to the northwest
Electricity: 120 V/60 Hz (no need for converters or adaptors)
Currency: U.S. dollar, though you may still come across Panamanian coins; ATMs dispense dollars but may not accept all credit/debit cards
International Airport: Tocumen International Airport (PTY)
Wildlife Sampler: Jaguars, pumas, white-faced capuchins, howler monkeys, crocodiles, more than 900 species of birds
Truth About the Panama Hat: It originated in Ecuador
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