Colonial, contemporary and global dimensions come together along a Pacific shoreline as you approach Panama City from its gleaming international airport. Propelling the capital of the small but dynamic Central American nation of Panama into the forefront of Latin American cities is its development as a hub for both international tourism and finance. With roots dating back as far as 1519, Panama City was originally known as “El Castillo del Oro” or “The Castle of Gold”; nowadays, the modern city reflects a newfound prosperity while retaining its historic and natural legacies.
There is an almost tangible surge of energy in the air as you drive through Panama City’s downtown avenues, with construction visible everywhere you turn. The upward trajectory makes it the most high-rise of Latin capitals between São Paulo and Mexico City. That growth in density has brought with it other necessary expansion. With its established reputation as an offshore financial centre, its status as a free-trade zone and its role as a vital lifeline between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the expanded Panama Canal, Panama City has become an increasingly sophisticated global metropolis for both business and travel.
Reflecting the wide spectrum of interests drawing visitors to Panama City, both the modern district and the old colonial quarter of Casco Viejo are home to a broad choice of hotels, from soaring towers to restored old-world, boutique properties. Most of the new high-end hotels have sprung up in the Bella Vista and El Cangrejo neighbourhoods, but as well as the trendy newcomers, more well-established icons of the luxury scene, such as the recently renovated Bristol Panama, part of The Leading Hotels of the World, continue to draw discerning visitors.
Chief among the newcomers making stunning architectural statements is the 70-storey Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower, which is built in the shape of a giant sail on Panama City’s waterfront. Another well-designed base for business executives and discerning urban travellers is the Hotel Riu Plaza Panama. This five-star, 645-room property is one of the city’s largest and has plenty of amenities, including a spa and wellness centre, extensive outdoor pool and deck areas, and a range of culinary choices at four different restaurants. Our suite on the 30th floor has an astounding view across the concrete and glass canyons of downtown toward the green edges of the countryside.
Thanks to its proximity to the modern neighbourhoods of Panama City, the original colonial quarter of Casco Viejo is a viable option for luxe stays, with several recent additions to the boutique and luxury residential categories. One is the very elegant Canal House, a former colonial mansion now entirely refitted to the needs of modern travel, with interiors still richly reflecting period décor and design. There are just three guestrooms and a living room, library and dining area tailored to either single-party or entire booking of the premises. Staff can assist with anything you need, from transportation to bookings; one recent high-profile guest was actor Daniel Craig, who found it an ideal base while he filmed parts of Quantum of Solace around the city.
COLONIAL ROOTS, CONTEMPORARY PLEASURES
For those in search of cultural or natural experiences, the wider city provides easy access on its outskirts to jungle parks filled with wildlife, plus the chance to interact with native Indian communities just a short drive from the city centre. To the north of downtown, escape into the verdant Parque Natural Metropolitano, a 265-hectare national preserve with two walking trails, home to monkeys, anteaters, deer, turtles, iguanas and a huge number of bird species. A visitors’ centre provides maps for self-guided tours.
Travellers inclined to explore the nation’s legacies through the portal of a museum have a variety to choose from throughout the capital. The Panama Canal Museum, housed in the former headquarters of the French Canal Company that built the waterway, has exhibits that provide a historical account of its construction. The recently opened, Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Biodiversity is fantastic for its abundant botanical gardens. At the Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz, you can browse Panama’s most important collections of archaeological, anthropological and ethnographic material relating to the development of Panamanian culture.
For a clear observation of how the old and new have come together in the present, take a walking tour around the avenues and squares of Casco Viejo. This peninsula, adjacent to the modern city, is home to a fascinating assortment of historic and cultural landmarks, along with fine dining, entertainment and boutique hotels.
Also well worth visiting is Panama Canal itself. This monument to human ingenuity and engineering is best viewed from the Miraflores locks. The terraces of the multi-storey Miraflores Visitors Center provide great vantage points from which to witness the Canal’s locks mechanism in action. Finally, discover the city’s Indian culture by visiting the village of the Embera Indian tribe, one of the seven existing Indian cultures in Panama. Their village is located near the base of the Chagres River, which can be reached by expert tour operators such as Rainforest Adventures.
As a meeting point between North and South America, an urban terrain that encompasses both historic and contemporary aspects, and a Latin American capital with the infrastructure to attract many interests in both business and leisure travel, Panama City has so much to offer visitors. And it’s only just beginning — this is a city that seems assured of a continued future to grow as a destination of global appeal.
THE GOLDEN BOOK
TRUMP OCEAN CLUB INTERNATIONAL HOTEL & TOWER
Tel: +507 215 8800
Tel: +507 228 1907
Tel: +507 264 0000
HOTEL RIU PLAZA PANAMA
Tel: +507 378 9000