The name alone invokes a heady cocktail of exotic indolence, international espionage, adventurers, chancers and pirates. For a tiny Central American nation, it has experienced its fair share of controversy. These days, however, Panama is an ever-evolving, modern country sitting securely in the midst of a luxury travel renaissance. Sure, there’s still a bit of controversy now and then but this just adds to the allure.
Panama City is a glittering mishmash of crazy skyscrapers and Latin American verve that has undergone a massive expansion project for the last four years including Frank Gehry’s first project on the continent. The $100 million BioMuseo is a typically bold design celebrating Panama’s unique biodiversity. Additionally, the local art scene is thriving with countless galleries, events and festivals.
Of course, it’s a requisite to check out the Panama Canal. A recent development to accommodate the mega ships of today has transformed the canal area and also the whole city. Take a tour on a tanker through this incredible feat of human determination.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Casco Viejo is a delight of cobbled, winding streets, colourful wood houses and charismatic residents. Simply wander around and soak up the history – architecture buffs will revel in the varying styles from colonial to art deco. This used to be gang territory and a unique project has former gang members show you the sights from their perspective before preparing a fine lunch. Don’t confuse the Casco Viejo with Panama Viejo, the site of the original capital before Henry Morgan and his horde of pirates burnt it to the ground.
Sleeping choices in Panama City are as broad and colourful as the city itself. For pure metropolitan bling go direct to The Grace or opt for the sublime Las Clementinas with its quiet ambience and only six suites. To step back into a more refined era book in at the American Trade Hotel, where pure luxury meets a modern take on colonial charm. For a splash of contemporary colour and a fiery artistic temperament check into the Tántolo, a superb take on the boutique hotel with a brilliant restaurant and rooftop bar.
Being a bridge between two continents means the cuisine is a delicious mix of Latin America and the Caribbean. For the true traditional experience head to the Mercado de Mariscos – the city’s seafood market – where you can pick out your preferred fruits of the sea and have them cooked to your liking at the restaurant inside. El Trapiche serves up traditional dishes too; make sure you try the pork sandwich made with crispy Panamanian tortillas. Humo is the second restaurant from the talented Mario Castrellón, who takes traditional American barbecue and adds local flavours. For dessert, stop by Granclément for the creamiest ice creams in the most amazing flavours.
Much can be experienced directly from Panama City. To truly escape without leaving the mainland head directly to El Otro Lado Private Retreat in Portobello Bay – if you only go to one resort make it this one. However, to fully experience this incredible country necessitates island hopping.
The heavenly, undeveloped archipelago of San Blas and the Comarca de Guna Yala is home to the Guna people who have successfully maintained their language and culture while creating sustainable tourism. Don’t expect five-star luxuries – the islands are isolated and resorts are not as tricked out as you may be used to. However, the divine beaches, lovely people and incredible experiences make up for it. Stay at Yandup Island Lodge for secluded bliss where you can take walks through the jungle, hang out with locals and eat seafood plucked direct from the sea. The mint green cabins that sit over the water at Akwadup Lodge on Achutupu Island are rustic and simple – the perfect place to connect with your inner Robinson Crusoe.
Made up of ten islands, Bocas del Toro is an archipelago that is slightly more developed than the San Blas. Casa Cayuco is an eco lodge of freestanding cabins perfect for adventurers and lazy beach dwellers alike. Eclypse de Mar on Bastimentos Island is a secluded collection of cabins over the water. Finally Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge is a dreamy escape hosted by eco-activists who know how to do luxury.
Around 200 islands make up the Pearl Islands archipelago. The Hacienda del Mar is transcendent with a choice of cabins or suites and a spectacular pool that appears to fall directly into the sea. Villa Montecielo is a privately owned property on Isla Contadora with three luxury bedrooms; direct access to the white sand beach and a view to die for – it was certainly built for indulgence. The jewel in the crown will be the Ritz Carlton Reserve, currently in development and opening soon.