Architect Frank Gehry designed the BioMuseo in Panama // © 2014 Panama Tourism Authority
Panama’s capital provides a base for exploring the country. Read about the top trips from Panama City here
It’s difficult to talk about Panama as a tourist destination without using the word “first” several times. The capital, Panama City, just debuted Central America’s first modern urban rail system. The city has the recently opened BioMuseo, a biodiversity museum that is Latin America’s first creation by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. It is also home to the first Waldorf Astoria and Trump hotels in Latin America, as well as the first joint venture in the region by the creative team behind Ace Hotels.
When you add to this the excitement surrounding this year’s 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, a continued surge in hotel development, an airport that’s in the midst of doubling in size and a historic city center that’s being reborn as a hip hangout for globetrotters from around the world, it’s easy to see why Panama City is Central America’s most exciting city — and why Panama may be popping up on more travelers’ wish lists.
“Panama has been expanding its hotel industry and flight offerings during the last few years as international visitors continue to learn about the uniqueness of the country as a tourist destination,” said Anthony Emanuelo, vice president of operations for Latin America and the Caribbean at Wyndham Hotel Group, which has nine hotels under three brands in Panama, with a total of 1,382 rooms. “In fact, according to the Panama Tourism Authority, from 2009 to 2013 there has been a more than 40 percent growth in international visitors to the country. In 2014, Panama expects to welcome more than 1.7 million international travelers.”
Unlike a lot of emerging destinations, Panama has demonstrated its ability to plan ahead and keep its infrastructure growing as well.
“The growth uncovers many great opportunities,” said Andres Korngold, director of business development for both Hilton Panama, which opened this year, and Waldorf Astoria Panama, which opened in 2013. “The good sign is that the demand is still growing. But the amount of rooms is growing exponentially more than the demand.”
Indeed, Panama City in particular is witnessing one of the hemisphere’s most remarkable booms in hotel inventory. According to a promotional campaign by Marketing Challenges International, Panama City has nearly doubled its number of hotel rooms, from 7,000 rooms in 2007 to 13,000 rooms in 2014. And there are more on the way.
Hoteliers, however, aren’t entirely happy about all the competition, since occupancy has dropped. According to a report in La Estrella de Panama, a newspaper in Panama, the city’s hotel occupancy rate in the first quarter of 2014 was 57 percent, a 10 percent decrease compared to the same period in 2011. The advantage for travelers, however, is the downward pressure the competition has had on prices. After all, how many places can offer a night at a Waldorf Astoria for less than $200?
But the word is getting out about all that Panama City has to offer. Korngold, for example, noted that he was surprised at the bookings Waldorf Astoria received during what it had predicted would be a sluggish time late last year.
“We were expecting a slow season, and suddenly we had a hotel full of American leisure travelers,” he said. “You have Panama on the news as one of the top destinations to visit before you die and as a top destination for retirees. There has been a buzz going around about Panama.”
Ask anyone to name the most famous attraction in Panama, and it’s pretty easy to predict their answer: the Panama Canal. This marvel of engineering is undergoing a major expansion as the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of its construction.
Tour operators, hoteliers and tourism officials are also banking on the appeal of another big name in Panama: architect Frank Gehry. His first work in Latin America, the BioMuseo, officially opened in October. The eye-catching, 44,132-square-foot building — a jumble of angles and colors set on Amador Causeway near the entrance to the Panama Canal — houses permanent and temporary exhibits about natural history, biodiversity and ecology.
Panama City is also an ideal base for exploring other parts of Panama, whether on day trips or multiday excursions to beach areas such as Bocas del Toro, Coronado and the San Blas islands, which are part of a semi-autonomous indigenous region on the Caribbean coast.
Getting to Panama, meanwhile, has become an increasingly efficient experience, thanks to continued expansion at Tocumen, the nation’s main international airport. A $60 million project added 12 new gates in 2012, and work is now under way to build an additional terminal that will nearly double capacity by adding 20 new gates, for a total of 54. Copa Airlines, the airport’s largest operator, continues to grow as well. Using the airport as its “Hub of the Americas,” Copa plans to increase capacity by 10 percent through the addition of eight new Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
Among the most visible signs of Panama City’s increasing appeal is the Casco Antiguo district, also called Casco Viejo. This has been the city’s original downtown ever since the first European settlement was abandoned in the 17th century, following attacks by the pirate Henry Morgan. The area, which juts out into the ocean on a small peninsula, grew to include an eclectic mix of Spanish, French and early American architecture, and like many city centers fell into disrepair in the 20th century as Panama City grew. But in recent years, “the Casco” has been reborn, as investment pours in to restore historic buildings and open trendy new restaurants, bars and small hotels.
Perhaps the most attention-getting new development in the Casco is American Trade Hotel, a 50-room property that opened a few months ago in a former department store that had become a hangout for squatters and gang members. The property is the result of a partnership between Atelier Ace, the creative team behind Ace Hotels in the U.S., and Panamanian group Conservatorio and Commune. Today, a jazz club and a celebrated restaurant have opened inside the hotel, and guests have easy access to stylish shopping, dining and nightlife. In addition, five former local gang members now lead fascinating tours of the neighborhood, as part of a company called Fortaleza Tours.
“Casco Viejo’s got the energy of a neighborhood in transition,” said Brad Wilson, president of Ace Hotel Group and Atelier Ace. “It’s evolved from those decades of neglect and decay into a premiere cultural destination, and the influence of Panamanian cultural growth is just one facet of that development. Casco’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation and unique architecture have already attracted some of the local creatives, and we hope the American Trade Hotel will throw more international musicians, innovators and tastemakers into the mix.”
Indeed, the Casco neighborhood still exudes the excitement of change and potential. Narrow streets are lined with hulking historic structures representing a variety of different architectural styles. Some have been pristinely spruced up and recast as hip venues, while others are still vacant and awaiting rebirth. Hotel Central — which sits on a square opposite the Metropolitan Cathedral — is still in the midst of an ongoing renovation, while Las Clementinas and The Canal House are already open and ready to provide upscale accommodations with boutique style. Noteworthy tourist attractions in the neighborhood include Las Bovedas, a sea wall that once protected the city and now serves as a waterfront promenade, and Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama (Interoceanic Canal Museum), which tells the story not only of the Panama Canal, but also of the nation itself.
Even with all the recent growth, Panama City has yet to reach its peak as a tourism destination, according to many observers.
“The potential is tremendous, as the growth rate has not caught up with the surplus of rooms available,” said Henry Josephs, general manager of Rainforest Adventures by Panama Excursions, a local tour operator.
“It’s only a matter of time before Panama becomes a world-class destination for travelers,” predicted Wilson. “There is room for growth, but the changes it has seen already have been enormous and inspire us to keep forging ahead.”
Wilson added that travel agents should stay on top of all the developments taking place in Panama in order to sell the destination — and that they should be aware of the destination’s many selling points, too. Not only is Panama City reachable by nonstop flights from several North American gateways, including Los Angeles on Copa Airlines, it’s also a convenient place to stop over on the way south.
“Panama is a touchstone for cultural exchange; for example, the Panama Jazz Festival is still going strong after 10 years,” said Wilson. “It’s also host to some incredibly captivating ecological and historical sights. There are local coffee farms that you can visit in just 45 minutes by plane, where our own Cafe Unido sources its Panamanian coffee. The Caribbean — and San Blas and Portobelo — is a one-hour drive away via expressway and 25 minutes away by plane. There’s also the expansive Lake Gatun, or the hike to the top of Cerro Ancon.”
In Panama, there is no shortage of sights to be seen or experiences to be had — and there are plenty more to come.