Panama is so much more than the canal. From a downtown area of glittering high-rises — virtually all new since the country regained control of the famous waterway in 1999 — to beautiful rainforest just 20 minutes outside the city limits, there’s a lot to explore here, whether over a long weekend or on an extended getaway. And with Panama City celebrating its 500th anniversary this August with a lineup of music and cultural festivals, now is the perfect time to go.
We flew Copa Airlines on a direct flight from JFK to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, which takes approximately five and a half hours. Our hotel, The Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort, was close to absolutely everything we could pack in over our three-night jaunt: A 10-minute drive from the airport, approximately 20 minutes from Casco Viejo and about a half an hour from the rainforest. Best of all, it’s in an exclusive gated community, so it feels like a little private retreat from the hustle and bustle of the larger city.
This is a can’t-miss property for golf buffs — it’s home to the only Championship Nicklaus Design 18-hole golf course in Panama City, which was designed to handle the country’s unique climate. The course serves as the focal point of the hotel, viewable from nearly every room, with some looking onto its signature waterfall hole. To book, contact chief concierge Alvin Silvera ([email protected]; 011-507-304-5557.)
For the most spectacular views of the course, book the Master Suite. This beauty on the seventh floor has its own private terrace looking over the course — good for a small get-together — plus a kitchenette, dining room and a separate bathroom for guests.
The concierge can also arrange private tours of Panama Viejo, the ruins of the original old city of Panama — unfortunately destroyed by pirates — or Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site mixing hip new boutiques and restaurants with historic Colonial, Republican, French and Art Deco architecture. This is a great place to pick up a souvenir — either a traditional craft, or a trendy art piece! Alternatively, Reprosa, a shop in the Costa del Esta district near the hotel, is the spot to nab a framed, gold-plated silver orchid, Panama’s national flower.
Also available are day trips to the rainforest. We took a boat trip on Gatun Lake, where we got quite close to a white-faced capuchin monkey and encountered some rowdy howler monkeys. After that, it was a quick stop at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is home to a sloth sanctuary; it’s great for families who want to get up close with the adorable creatures.
A boat tour on Gatun Lake offered the chance to get quite close to some wildlife.
At the hotel’s spa, try the Espiritu Santo Massage, which incorporates fragrances that mimic the national flower. For other VIP enquiries, advisors can reach out to Suley Sanson ([email protected]; 011-507-6019-7941), sales director – tour & travel, or general manager Fidel Reyes ([email protected]; 011-507-304-5555, ext. 5201).
Around town, we recommend the Biomuseo, also known as the Museum of Biodiversity at Panama. The building is the only Frank Gehry-designed building in Latin America (an honor, some locals say, that’s due to the famous architect’s Panamanian wife), and its design is a colorful, abstract representation of the richness of the continent’s rainforest, with a series of tree-like pillars supporting a canopy of overlapping, sloped roof sections. Inside, the museum tells the story of the isthmus of Panama’s creation, and how that process shaped the evolution of species across North and South America, and even the entire world. The centerpiece is a sculpture depicting the “crossroads of the Americas,” with species ranging from giant ground sloths to dire wolves — they were real, even though they didn’t look like the ones depicted in Game of Thrones — meeting in an arrangement that mirrors their historic migration routes. We think kids especially will be entranced. Out back, there is a lovely park with views of the canal, skyline, historic district and the Bridge of the Americas. It’s the perfect spot to unwind.
Panama City’s food scene has been drawing quite a bit of buzz these past few years. We checked out two prominent local restaurants, both with inventive menus and dramatic arrival experiences. Caliope is an elegant space decorated in honor of its eponymous muse, set behind an unassuming, speakeasy-esque door in the Casco Viejo. The farm-to-table menu mixes traditional Panamanian ingredients fused with the techniques of five-star French cuisine; our sea bass, paired with a creamy lemon risotto, coconut sauce and ginger, was wonderfully light, with just the right amount of acidic bite. Azahar Restaurant hides its charms even more: The entrance is behind a vault door in a flower shop. In addition to flowers, it serves up a seafood-heavy, Mediterranean menu, plus some spectacular views — a meal on the restaurant’s terrace, which looks out over the bay, makes for a lovely cap to a busy day.
The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort’s One-Bedroom Buenaventura Suite (here), which can be booked with a standard adjoining suite, is a good bet for families. // Photo by The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort
For travelers looking to extend their getaway, The Santa Maria’s sibling property, The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort, is a good bet. Part of the Autograph Collection, it’s a secluded resort with two miles of white sand beach, another Nicklaus Design 18-hole golf course and access to Valle de Anton, considered one of the best bird watching areas in the country. The hotel is less than an hour from the El Caño and Sitio Conte archeological sites, which date back to 450 and 900 AD, respectively, and close to El Valle de Antón, which offers the chance to soar on a rainforest canopy tour. Foodies can check out a tour and tasting of the famous Ron Abuelo rum at Hacienda San Isidro.
The spa is set below a majestic, 100-year-old Corotu Tree. Amalia Sucre and Marleth Cigarruista are the top therapists to book for a relaxing massage, while Casilda Arquiñez specializes in therapeutic massages. Be sure to book when clients arrive, or 24 hours in advance, by reaching out to spa director Ibeth Isaza ([email protected]; 011-507 908-3319).
Insider Tip: For a family getaway, book both the one-bedroom Buenaventura Suite and a standard adjoining suite. The Buenaventura Suite offers stunning views from two private balconies, while a second suite provides some privacy for the kids. For something truly over-the-top, though, book one of the resort’s Panama Villas, a two-story, four-bedroom retreat with a full kitchen and an expansive terrace with its own whirlpool.
Buenaventura’s Panama Villas have four bedrooms and a terrace with a whirlpool. // Photo by The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort
Limor Decter, a travel advisor and concierge with Ovation Travel Group, also recently visited Panama, and shared with us her top picks for things to do:
Yes, the canal is really a must see! This 48-mile canal is an engineering marvel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A VIP guided tour allows up-close and personal access to the huge ships crossing the canal. A quick stop at the Miraflores Visitor Center, with its interactive exhibits and theater, shows the historical backdrop of how the canal was built.
Rent a bike and peddle along the Amador Causeway until the end of Isla Flamenco to reach the colorful Panama sign. The ride offers stunning ocean views and breezes along the way.
Limor Decter, a travel advisor and concierge with Ovation Travel Group, calls the 48-mile canal an engineering marvel.
Hike Ancon Hill to see the best views of the Panama Canal, Casco Viejo and city center. The moderate-level hike has a gradual incline and you might see some monkeys, sloths or guinea pigs along the way.
Drinks Up High: The best place to see the glittering skyline is at a rooftop bar. I loved this sea of skyscrapers in glass and steel flanked by miles of blue ocean waters. Tantalo Bar offers spectacular views.
Dining Around: The word Panama means an abundance of fish. The country is a melting pot of food consisting of Afro-Caribbean, Native American and Spanish flavors. It is in the midst of a culinary revival and is quickly becoming a foodie mecca. Every palate and craving can be satisfied whether it is simple comfort food or a gourmet meal.