For over a century, Panama has served as the central channel of economic and cultural exchange between North and South America. Today, over 15,000 travellers pass through Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport each year, yet less than a third of them choose to leave the airport. For most, Panama represents a quick stopover on route to your final destination. But overlook Panama and you risk missing the opportunity to have one of the most dynamic holidays possible within a single country.
Panama’s rich history, from Spanish colonial rule to the building of the Panama Canal that brought in hundreds of thousands of immigrants, has resulted in a unique culture marked by its diversity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Panama City, where art, design, and gastronomy is influenced by a mix of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and Mestizo cultures. With the city increasingly becoming an international business hub, it has also become a cosmopolitan destination for nightlife. As the parties rage harder, new healthy restaurants are springing up and hotel properties are offering refined spa experiences to ensure adequate recovery.
But Panama is not just diverse in the cultural sense. Outside the country’s capital lies a vast array of landscapes to explore, each with their own distinct ecosystem. From untouched island beaches to lush jungles, kayaking through mangroves to wildlife-watching from the trees, Panama’s beauty lies in its nature. Whether visiting for a taste of Panama City’s rising cocktail culture and culinary scene, to surf the empty beaches of Bocas del Toro, or marvel at sloths in the jungle, Panama is not to be experienced solely from the airport. Here is our guide to the best places to stay on your next stopover extension in Panama to fully experience all this country has to offer.
A Taste of the Old and the New in Panama City
Begin your journey in Panama City at the W Panama; a luxury hotel deeply influenced by Panamanian culture, making it the perfect introduction to the country’s diversity. From a dining room housed in a life-sized shipping container from the Panama Canal to Indigenous-inspired graffiti painted by local artist Oscar Melgar, every corner of the hotel pays homage to Panama’s history. As general manager Akis Neocleous says, “We’re the only Panamanian hotel in Panama. Everything you touch has a story of Panama behind it.” Yet for a hotel that draws most of its design inspiration from Panama’s history, it remains distinctly modern; bright colors contrast dark walls, angular furniture juxtaposes soaring ceilings, and the sleek pool, referred to as the Wet Deck, overlooks a horizon of skyscrapers.
Perhaps it is this commitment to designing with culture in mind that has made W Panama a nightlife destination amongst locals. Their themed, invite-only Happenings showcase international DJs and artists while weekly pool parties fill the rooftop bar. Local ingredients are celebrated and prepared in root-to-leaf style, in both the low-waste cocktails crafted in one of several lounge spaces and artfully-plated dishes prepared by chef Bruno Belloccio in the hotel’s most celebrated restaurant, Moro (meaning “Fresh” in the native language Embera). As Neocleous says, “We want guests to taste, live, and smell Panama,” and it is this focus on experiential travel that sets W Panama apart from other chain hotels in the city. “You’re not coming to a hotel, you’re coming to visit my home,” insists Neocleous. With hospitality that goes the extra mile, there is arguably no better place to call home in Panama City than the W Panama.
You might be tempted to never leave the W Panama but they do encourage it, as W Insider Yamal Silcott says, “The new luxury is about experiences. We focus on empowering the guest to discover the country.” As the local expert on Panama City, Silcott insists a visit to Panama would not be complete without experiencing the recently-expanded Panama Canal, which sees the passage of approximately 14,000 ships annually. Head to Miraflores Lockes for the best views of these impressive feats of human engineering. Continue your journey into Panama’s past with a visit to Casco Viejo, the city’s Old Town which was originally burned down in 1671 and looted by pirates. Designated a World Heritage Site today, Casco Viejo remains beautifully intact despite its turbulent history. Colonial architecture lines cobblestone streets where local vendors sell arts and crafts overlooking the calm waters of the canal.
For the most romantic views, visit at sunset and stay into the evening as, unlike most tourist attractions, Casco Viejo is a go-to for locals seeking the best dining and nightlife in the city. Head to Bao Dai for a taste of Asian-Panamanian fusion in an opulent historic home with design elements inspired by French colonial rule and the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai. Or for traditional Panamanian flavors with a modern twist, join the waitlist for Donde Jose; the tiny 16-seat restaurant offering a tasting menu from Cordon Bleu-trained chef Jose Carles. If your journey affords you the extra time the next day, unwind after a night on the town with a cruise on the Red Cat Catamaran to Taboga Island to see where the locals go to escape the city for a few hours.
Island Retreat on Bocas del Toro
For a more authentic island escape, fly to Bocas Town on Isla Colon, the largest of a series of islands on the Caribbean Sea that make up the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Skip staying in backpacker-crowded Bocas Town and head north to Playa Bluff, where impressive waves make this stretch of the east coast a surfer’s paradise. Nestled between the jungle and one of the island’s most deserted beaches, Island Plantation Inn stands out for its Balinese-inspired décor and commitment to environmental conservation. Built with local and sustainable materials, Island Plantation Inn is entirely solar-powered and relies on rainwater harvesting for fresh water. While the hotel has removed a portion of the jungle to build a hilltop tower for guests to have ocean views while they practice yoga, the remaining forested areas of the property have been sectioned off to protect the monkeys and sloths. Co-owner Herolf Andersen says, “We’re so connected to nature, without it we’re nothing. I’m a firm believer in coexistence between people and nature, that we can all live together in harmony.” Perhaps it is this desire for harmony that explains Herolf’s attention to the way energy flows in a given space and the resulting sense of ease and balance that this Buddhism-inspired sanctuary has achieved.
While Island Plantation Inn’s barefoot luxury offers a peaceful refuge from the parties of Bocas Town, it is worth the taxi ride into town to taste some of the country’s best Caribbean cuisine. Off the main strip lies Octo, an unsuspecting, leafy outdoor restaurant known for Panamanian chef Joseph Archbold’s “gourmet Caribbean” creations. Watch the former Top Chef contestant and internationally-trained chef bustle between the barbecue and food truck from your picnic table under palm trees adorned with hanging lights. You have come for the daily-changing menu highlighting native Panamanian ingredients, but you will quickly realize you are there for Archbold’s signature Smoky-Spicy Sauce. Archbold tells us, “It’s a love story this sauce. It’s one of my favorites because it is a combination of situations and products that I really like and that are the soul of our cultural flavors and smells.” What better way to experience Panama than through the palate of one of its most inspired chefs.
Learning from Nature on Isla Bastimentos
For a more engaged island adventure, take a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos and check into Tranquilo Bay; a family-run eco-lodge occupying 200 acres of secluded jungle. With just six cabanas and three on-site expert guides, the experience is highly educational and personalized. As two of the guides are former turtle conservationists, a visit to the Zapatilla Keys is not your typical beach day as you learn about the behaviors of local turtles in between dips in the warm Caribbean Sea. The education continues underwater as your guide identifies all the aquatic flora and fauna you encounter while snorkelling and kayaking through tangled mangroves. Property trails and a 60-foot observation tower, just steps from your cabana, allow for endless wildlife-watching. Every typical island experience is given a breath of fresh air at Tranquilo Bay, setting it apart from other eco-adventure properties in the region. “When you engage, you learn. You can still get the relaxation but why not get the other benefits that go with it?” Says co-owner Renee Kimball. For those who really want to get to the roots of Panama, this is the place to stay.
While on Isla Bastimentos, make sure not to miss La Loma Jungle Lodge for a tour of their cacao plantation with local expert Mr. Kelly. Following tastings of pure cacao, treat yourself to a full farm-to-table feast at the lodge’s restaurant. With sixty percent of the food sourced from their own farm, the dishes here are distinct simply for their freshness. The experience ends on a sweet note with a selection of homemade chocolate desserts and cacao tea, savoured with a newfound appreciation for the long journey this native plant takes from bean to bar.
Urban Recovery and Renewal
After a few days of sun-bathing and exploring the jungles of Bocas del Toro, ease your transition back into reality with a pre-departure stay in Panama City at the new JW Marriott. Situated on the quiet waterfront of Punta Pacifica, this soaring building, the largest in Central America, with its sleek, minimalist design and two luxurious infinity pools, provide a serene oasis amidst the city bustle for you to recharge. The recently re-branded property will see numerous renovations in the coming months including a complete overhaul of two of the hotel restaurants, the building of an executive lounge, and updates to the fitness center. With menus offering healthy cuisine, new curated wellness experiences, and a brand-new spa, the JW Marriott is likely to become one of the city’s most coveted spots for those seeking sophisticated rejuvenation.
For the curious traveller with more energy left to explore, head to the nearby San Francisco neighbourhood, an up-and-coming area boasting some of the city’s trendiest cafes, wine bars, food trucks, and vegetable-forward restaurants. Stop by the organic grocery store El Mercadito Biologico to sample inventive smoothies, vegetable bowls, and healthy desserts. Afterwards, shop their wellness section and continue on to the many boutiques within walking distance for crystals, vintage wares, and artisanal goods. Return to the JW Marriott for a final dip in the infinity pool or your private bathtub overlooking the city before catching your flight onward to your “real” vacation.
Article and photography by Anna Haines
Where to Stay:
Where: Calle 50 and Aquilino de la Guardia, Panama City
Why: A destination for locals and travellers alike for its Panamanian-influenced design, nightlife and culinary offerings. Learn more
Where: Playa Bluff Road, Bluff Beach, Isla Colon
Why: Bali-inspired eco-resort located on an untouched stretch of Bluff Beach, committed to preserving the local environment and supporting nearby communities. Learn More
Where: Isla Bastimento
Why: Eco-lodge that hires from local indigenous villages and specializes in personalized adventures led by expert guides with a deep knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region. Learn More
Where: Calle Punta Colon, Punta Pacifica, Corregimiento de San Francisco, Panama City
Why: The new luxury property is in the midst of becoming a destination for the sophisticated traveler seeking refined wellness experiences in an elegant, urban setting. Learn More
Where to Eat & Drink
Where: Calle F Bomberos, Bocas Town, Isla Colon
Why: Panamanian chef Joseph Archbold melds international techniques with Caribbean and Afro-Panamanian flavors in this relaxed outdoor restaurant. Learn More
La Loma Jungle Lodge
Where: La Loma, Bahia Honda, Isla Bastimentos
Why: This jungle eco-lodge serves fresh, seasonal dishes primarily sourced from their own farm and cacao plantation. Learn More
Where: Calle 50 and Aquilino de la Guardia, Panama City
Why: Chef Bruno Belloccio applies his Argentinian and Italian background, and Spanish culinary training to locally-sourced Panamanian products in an airy setting with striking views. Learn More
W Living Room and Cargo Bar
Where: Calle 50 and Aquilino de la Guardia, Panama City
Why: Unique cocktails showcase a root-to-leaf approach and are inspired by Panama’s diverse history and landscape. Learn More
Where: Calle 9 and 1 Av., Casa #1, Casco Viejo, Panama City
Why: Asian fusion offered in a chic, multi-story historic home with multiple bars, including one on the rooftop overlooking the city’s historic district. Learn More
Where: Av. Central 1100, Casco Viejo, Panama City
Why: Cordon Bleu-trained chef Jose Carles uses endemic ingredients and traditional techniques to transform Panamanian ingredients into contemporary plates in an intimate setting. Learn More
El Mercadito Biologico
Where: Calle 67 and Avenida 3b, San Francisco, Panama City
Why: More than just an organic grocery store; healthy smoothies, bowls, and baked goods are served in a bright, warm environment. Learn More
What to See & Do
Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe)
Where: Panama City
Why: Completed in 1673 and a World Heritage Site today, Panama City’s historic district showcases colonial architecture and is a local hotspot for dining and nightlife. Learn More
Where: Miraflores Visitor Center, Panama City
Why: One of the world’s most strategic artificial waterways, the 82-km canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and hosts the passage of giant cargo ships daily. Learn More
Red Cat Catamaran Tours
Where: Trump Ocean Club Marina, Punta Pacifica, Colon Street, Panama City
Why: One of Panama City’s newest catamaran tour companies offering guests a more personalized experience with multiple stops and all-inclusive drinks and entertainment. Learn More
San Francisco Neighborhood
Where: San Francisco, Panama City
Why: An up-and-coming neighborhood for boutique shops, wine bars, food trucks, healthy restaurants, and some of the city’s best cafes. Learn More
Where: Bluff Road, Bluff Beach, Isla Colon
Why: Strong swells make this long stretch of largely untouched beach on Isla Colon’s east coast a destination for surfers. Learn More
Isla Bastimentos National Park
Where: Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro Province
Why: Panama’s first National Marine Park is home to lush forests, mangroves, and a wide variety of wildlife, and serves as a nesting site for several endangered sea turtle species. Learn More
All Photographs by Anna Haines