Panama may be best known for its canal, but the country isn’t merely a convenient passageway between east and west — it’s a destination made up of a unique mix of city, rainforest and beaches. One of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America, Panama is on the cusp of becoming a hot luxury travel spot.
April 2015 saw the unveiling of Soho Panama mall, a new luxury epicenter in downtown Panama City. Not only did it bring shops from the likes of Chanel, Versace, Burberry and macaron masters Ladurée, but the mall also will house The Ritz-Carlton, Panama when the 220-room hotel (with two swimming pools, a spa and four dining venues) opens in late 2016. The Ritz-Carlton company will follow up its Panama debut with a second hotel in the country; its Reserve boutique brand will open an outpost on Pearl Island, a pristine private island about 45 miles south of Panama City, in 2018.
The country also is making it easier to travel to and within Panama. It launched Central America’s first subway in 2014 and plans to add a second line that will connect Panama City to Tocumen International Airport in the future. Speaking of which, the airport is building a state-of-the-art second terminal to nearly double its capacity in 2017 (Tocumen is still in transition, but you can peruse several luxury shops, like Carolina Herrera and Valentino). Even the canal is seeing improvements — a $5.25 billion expansion, the largest canal project since it was constructed, will double its capacity when it wraps up in 2016. While many changes await for Panama, here’s why our Forbes Travel Guide editors think you should beat the crowds and go now.
Where to Stay
Opened in 1997, InterContinental Miramar Panama is one of the city’s stalwart hotels. As part of an ongoing renovation, the cream marble lobby recently was refreshed and the modern, neutral rooms were upgraded with new flooring, beds and more. For the best views, book accommodations facing the water and gain access to the fifth-floor Club Lounge (which is slated for a makeover in 2016), where you can glimpse the city though big-picture windows at sunrise with breakfast and coffee and at sunset with appetizers and wine. The Bella Vista hotel sits along Cinta Costera, a 2.5-mile stretch lining Panama Bay where you can walk, jog or bike along a palm-framed path while taking in skyline panoramas. Follow the path south and you’ll hit the Mercado de Mariscos, or seafood market, where you can see fish mongers displaying fresh catch like corvina and locals popping by the no-frills outdoor booths for a helping of ceviche.
If you’re looking to explore a less touristy part of the city, try Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama in Punta Pacifica, a tony residential neighborhood. The 70-story sailboat-shaped building stands out on the city skyline. But what’s more impressive are the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the waterfront hotel’s chic guest rooms, the sexy deck where you can choose among five pools or simply sprawl out on a chaise lounge in front of an infinity pool that seems to drop off into the ocean, and the casino, whose 66th high-roller floor affords stunning vistas.
Where to Eat
As Panama modernizes, segments of the capital city remain charmingly stuck in the past. Casco Viejo (aka Casco Antiguo), the city’s historic district that was established after 1671, landed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for this reason. It recalls Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan with brick streets and colorful Spanish colonial buildings with upper-floor balconies running the length of the structures. Even buildings with peeling rosy paint or a chipped-away straw-colored façade bearing “Me encanta tu piel” (“I love your skin”) in cursive graffiti look romantic rather than rundown.
Casco is the spot to visit for cuisine. One of the hottest restaurants is Manolo Caracol, where chef Andrés Morataya leads the charge in using hyper-local ingredients by any means necessary. About 70 percent of the menu (such as rice and cacao) comes from the restaurant’s own farm. Lobster and octopus are sourced from free divers. A team drives through villages scouring for chicken to buy them piecemeal. Morataya then turns these fresh items to modern dishes (order the tasting menu for a feast). Of course, the selection varies depending on what seafood, produce and such he can secure that week. But expect to savor dishes like a flavorful seafood soup with achiote and coconut, silky bone marrow covered with caramelized onions, or crispy patacónes (fried plantain slices) topped with prawns.
Venture outside of Casco to the bawdier El Cangrejo neighborhood for a meal at Riesen. After winning the annual Panama Gastronomica competition, chef Hernan Correa Riesen used the prize money to convert part of his family home into a small restaurant. Don’t let the modest dining room fool you — Riesen’s creative cuisine deserves your attention anyway. The chef incorporates Panamanian ingredients and modernist techniques to craft dishes like the addictive housemade vegetable root crisps topped with dabs of national cheese (soft and creamy, it has the consistency of ricotta), dried cherry tomatoes and avocado slices. Entrées include a filling grilled octopus with peach palm and coconut, and a tender 48-hour braised beef tongue.
While Morataya and Riesen represent a new, younger generation of chefs in the city, you’ll still find traditional Panamanian favorites. At lunch, follow the locals to an oversized seafoam-green window on Avenue B that looks nondescript, save for a blackboard that says “Menu” with a few dishes listed underneath it. The namesake chef at La Cocina de Rosita serves to-go plates out of that window. For a mere $3.50, enjoy authentic dishes like guacho, a Panamanian version of risotto, or almojábanos, fried cornmeal with cheese that’s pure comfort food.
A visit to Panama wouldn’t be complete without a raspao, a snowcone made with condensed milk and fruit. You’ll run into vendors throughout Casco hawking raspao, but seek out the shiny silver cart of El Viejo Talentoso (typically parked in the Plaza de Francia). The raspao whiz puts on a show, scraping shards off of a large ice block. We opted for the coconut, so our refreshing treat came with coconut milk, condensed milk, a honey drizzle and a sprinkle of shredded coconut.
For something a bit stronger, head to the hip lobby of American Trade Hotel (Ace’s first foray into the high-end hotel market) for a mojito or seco, the country’s potent national liquor made of fermented sugar cane. Order seco like a Panamanian—with milk and on the rocks. American Trade also serves as a jazz hot spot; Wednesday to Thursday nights, it hosts Danilo’s Jazz Club with Grammy-winning jazz pianist-composer Danilo Pérez and other local and international musicians.
What to See
To see the city’s origins, head to Panama Viejo, 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.
Discover another side to Panama at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is a half hour from Panama City. Skip the resort and go straight for the forest, which is relatively young due to deforestation from the building of the canal. An aerial tram will raise you 280 feet above the rainforest floor for prime photo ops of the lush flora, including trumpet trees, mountain figs and balsa trees, along with wildlife. With the help of our tram guide, we spotted baby sloths, a chestnut–mandibled toucan and a flurry of butterflies (Panama has more than 16,000 species) during the 20-minute ride. As you glide through the treetops, you may hear drumming in the distance — there’s an indigenous Embera village nearby that performs for visitors.
Upon landing, you’re left to make your way up a 10-story observation tower (it’s all inclines, no steps, which makes it a breeze to walk to the top) to take in more rainforest vistas, and then you can catch the open-air tram back in the other direction.
Gain a deeper understanding of the importance of Panama’s biodiversity at the Biomuseo, which opened in 2014. The building’s misshapen roof panels in saturated hues like yellow, blue and red are enough to draw you to the museum, renowned architect Frank Gehry’s only work in Latin America, as is the lovely park surrounding it along the water. But step inside to learn how there are more tree species in 2.5 acres of Panamanian forest than all of North America combined. And if being in the rainforest wasn’t enough for you, the “Panamarama” audiovisual exhibit puts you in an immersive space plastered with 10 screens that offer an extreme close-up of the unique local ecosystem. The south wing hosts traveling exhibitions, but the goal is to fill it with permanent exhibits, including two aquariums, one representing the Pacific Ocean and the other the Caribbean Sea. Like the rest of this up-and-coming country, the museum has big plans for the future.