Panama Canal. Panama Papers. Panama hats.
The Tailor of Panama. There is nothing undiscovered about Panama except, perhaps, the nation itself.
Wedged between Costa Rica, to the north, and Colombia, to the south, Panama has long lured yachters, anglers, and adventurous pleasure-seekers. Most of the latter have typically assembled by the gin-clear waters along Panama’s Caribbean coast, saving a few hours to take in the canal on the way home.
But change is afoot in Latin America’s youngest nation. After 15 years of a much-buzzed-about “arrival,” Panama City, along with its nearby Pacific Coast archipelagoes, has finally arrived. The capital’s downtown now holds its own against Miami (if not Hong Kong and Dubai) for sheer skyscraper density. The colonial-era Casco Viejo, or “historic old town,” has quietly emerged as a lower-key rival to Cartagena, almost 300 miles to the east. Throw in a handful of posh private-island resorts and world-class eco-experiences and Panama is the hemisphere’s next great travel hot spot that’s actually happening now.
Thanks to its deep connections to America’s bankers, military, and government, Panama has never lacked for star power. Beauty executive Aerin Lauder and the art collector Jean Pigozzi have long kept secluded compounds along its Pacific coast. (Pigozzi’s is an entire island.) Landscape architect Edwina von Gal has spent years helping to conserve Panama’s fragile ecology through her Azuero Earth Project. Frank Gehry, who is married to a Panamanian, designed Panama City’s color-capped Biomuseo. And Toronto International Film Festival co-founder Henk Van der Kolk even set up a Panamanian iteration after he retired to Panama City, more than a decade ago.
This year and next are big ones for Panama, marking 35 years since the U.S. invasion that ousted strongman Manuel Noriega, the 110th anniversary of the canal, and the centenary of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the most important scientific center of its kind in the world. And Panama City is dressed up and ready to rumba, most notably in the historic district of Casco Viejo.
Thanks to its deep connections to America’s bankers, military, and government, Panama has never lacked for star power.
What’s best about the Casco, which dates back to the 1670s, is its unpretentiousness and authenticity. “Panama City’s historic district never wanted to be a perfectly restored colonial town,” explains KC Hardin, founder of Conservatorio, the largest developer in the Casco. “There is certainly a chic cosmo-tropical veneer, but Casco always has been, and hopefully always will be, a bit edgy.”
The most stylish spots in the Casco are along Avenida A, where the Hotel La Compañia and Sofitel Casco Viejo opened over the past 18 months, giving the Casco some five-star splendor.
La Compañia occupies an entire city block that once housed a Jesuit mission dating to the 1680s. Its Canadian owner, yachtsman Chris Lenz, made his first mint in Hong Kong in restaurants and nightclubs before winding up in Panama—like so many others—looking to service his boat. Instead, he discovered “an old town that was rising from the ashes, and the feeling as if a cosmic moment had allowed my planets to align.”
Nearly a decade on, they’ve thoroughly aligned at La Compañia, where 88 guest rooms and several restaurants are spread among treasure-filled wings featuring more than 1,600 original artworks and photographs. Just down the avenida, meanwhile, the Sofitel equally blends colonial with contemporary, and two additional properties, the hip American Trade Hotel and bobo Las Clementinas, round out the Casco’s slate of best beds.
Panama is a relatively new country, forced into existence by American neo-colonial will barely 120 years ago. And its culinary scene reflects a nation whose Spanish, Indigenous, Asian, and Afro-Caribbean communities contrast and collide. Fondas, roadside snack shacks, are where Panamanian chefs shine brightest. And none is more buzzed about than Fonda Lo Que Hay, an upscale take helmed by the young chef José Olmedo Carles.
In a former school in the heart of the Casco, Carles (who splits his time between Panama City and a new restaurant in Venice Beach, California) has elevated Panamanian staples, particularly its seafood. Also in the old town, Mahalo at Las Clementinas serves cosmopolitan crowd-pleasers such as white-sea-bass tacos and roasted-beet carpaccio.
Over in the city center, Makoto Okuwa (formerly of Morimoto) specializes in maki, sashimi, and nigiri, while the family-friendly Parrillada Jimmy serves up criollo classics with a focus on grilled meat and seafood.
Even if merely pit-stopping in the capital, there’s plenty to pack in. Start with the canal’s Miraflores Visitor Center, where elevated bleachers provide front-row views of the tankers passing through the intricate lock system. Better still is an early-morning ride on the Panama Canal Railway, which was built in 1855 as part of the continental trade system connecting the Pacific and Atlantic. Today, the train offers daily service between Panama City, on the Pacific, and Colón, on the Caribbean, an hour-long journey that hugs the canal as it passes along dense jungle, crocodile-filled lakes, and the locks, cuts, and causeways that make the canal a true wonder of human ingenuity.
Adventurous types will enjoy the Smithsonian’s day-long visits to its rain-forest-research center, on Barro Colorado Island. Set in the middle of the canal, the center features tropical plant and animal species that have been closely studied for more than a century. End the day back in town at Gehry’s Biomuseo, whose eight galleries and elegant botanical garden designed by von Gal detail regional plant, animal, and aquatic life.
There are few greater thrills than watching the queue of massive tankers waiting to pass through the canal when landing at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. The best views, however, are from the prop planes required to reach the private-island resorts, which lure deep-pocketed anglers and marine adventurers.
Pearl Island Panamá is the closer of the two, by way of a 15-minute prop hop in the archipelago of the same name. One & Only, Six Senses, and Ritz-Carlton Reserve plan to open resorts in the next few years, but, until then, a handful of private villas are available for rent. Pearl Island’s marina is a favorite for yachters and anglers in search of black marlin and mahi-mahi.
A similar setup awaits 90 minutes up the coast at Islas Secas, whose environmentalist owner, billionaire hedge-fund manager Louis Bacon, enlisted architect Tom Scheerer to design seven airy pavilions, all run by solar power. There’s no TV, but plenty of kayaking, canoeing, diving, and fishing. The private-island action continues on the Caribbean coast, where the Nayara Bocas del Toro hotel recently opened, bringing Maldives-style, over-water villas to Panama.
Despite the political rumblings next door in Colombia and the pura vida reputation of neighboring Costa Rica, Panama’s time is now. The dollar is one of the national currencies, and its national airline, Copa, has direct flights to more than a dozen U.S. cities. I’ve recently returned from my fourth visit, which included an impromptu Casco dinner with New Zealander eco-warrior Pete Bethune, and I am already plotting a fifth. Panama is just like that—edgy and improbable, familiar and approachable—and always leaving you wanting more.
David Kaufman is a New York City–based editor and writer