“It’s so close to the city, yet when you’re here, you feel so far away. You have the best of both worlds.” At Panama City’s chic Westin Playa Bonita, director of operations Yvonne Loner shares her favourite corners from around the property. “And the view. Have you been out to your balcony?”
On the 13th floor of the Playa Bonita, an early morning means standing on one’s private deck and watching rays of sunshine radiate off the turquoise Atlantic Ocean, as the golden beach melts in and out of the tide. It also means drinking coffee made in the local style: a brew with condensed milk, perhaps savoured alongside dragon, passion, and papaya fruits at the onsite Starfish Grill.
Opened in 2012, this resort is nestled in a lush rainforest just a 20-minute drive from the heart of Panama City; thanks to such an ideal location, the morning is just the beginning of this great adventure—one spent discovering South America’s growing holiday destination and all the culture it has to offer.
“It’s not too far to go to see the sights,” explains Loner. “You can still be here but go see the canal, go to Gamboa.” A 45-minute car ride takes visitors to the 340-acre Gamboa Rainforest, home to a mesmerizing tram experience. The first and only one of its kind in Panama, the 18-year-old green tram takes passengers 26 metres above sea level into a canopy of whispering tropical trees and edible fruits. Among the odd sloth sighting, there are over 3,000 butterflies and moths that call this territory home, and it’s not uncommon to witness a kaleidoscope of morpho butterflies fluttering along while visiting this rainforest, their wings showing off a radiant royal blue. Perched at the tram’s observation tower, guests can also look down upon the Chagres River—just one portion of the famous Panama Canal waterway system that was built 104 years ago. The canal continues to be the main fixture in Panama, bringing in great economic wealth, but also sparking stimulation for art and design.
“This inspiration of the house is the Panama Canal,” Loner says back at the Westin Playa Bonita, showing off one of its private villas, called Casa Naga. This 25,000 square-foot mega villa is an open-air, Balinese-style home that emulates the canal’s waterway system (it has many staircases and levels, including bountiful ponds and aquatic displays), and is rented exclusively through the Westin for speciality events like corporate dinners and cocktail parties. Then there is the luxurious Villa Bonita, where former United States President Barack Obama once stayed, and where The Bachelor television show franchise filmed one of its dramatic Final Rose ceremonies.
For continued colour off-property, Gil Guardia of Gamboa Tours takes guests into the old town, or Casco Viejo. Stop to admire the ruins of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús, a World Heritage Site since 1887, in the centre of town; built in 1741 as a school, it burned down in 1781, and now sleepy stray cats roam the grounds, circling visitors for a piece of food or a pat. This area is a feast for the eyes, with vibrant Spanish architecture—think oranges, blues, pinks, and yellows—mixed alongside sophisticated French wrought-iron terraces. Together these elements are juxtaposed with regal churches, such as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Maria—where the Pope led Saturday mass in January 2019, when the city played host to World Youth Day. In church Iglesia La Merced, a woman sits in a wooden chair at the top of a stairwell, welcoming visitors to the basement; it is home to a display of overwhelmingly intricate handmade nativity scenes.
Worthy of exploration is the French quarter, or Plaza De Francia, which must include a visit to Raspados Don Julio: a juice and shaved-ice cart. In a white baseball cap, a vendor impressively scrapes a massive block of ice with intriguingly simple tools, handing over guayaba cones topped with condensed milk. There is also Casa Casco, a ritzy five storey-restaurant with a terrace cocktail bar serving passionfruit mojitos. “This building was falling apart a few years ago,” says Guardia. But today it stands majestically, and on the roof, panoramic views encapsulate old town; to the east are Panama City’s skyscrapers, and to the west is an ominous mountaintop on the edge of the Arraiján Protected Forest.
And when it comes time for a decadent meal, there is nearby Ocho y Media, situated on a dimly-lit street adjacent to Plaza Tomas Herrera—a square that, come December, is decorated ornately in a spread of lights and pirate-ship installations among the low-hanging tropical trees. Inside the beautiful solarium dining room at Ocho y Media, enjoy ceviche, pumpkin cream or fried yucca carimañolas balls, ravioli stuffed with clams, and sweet plantain layered with a homemade tomato sauce.
Exceptionally mixing history and culture, Panama City offers a little bit of everything. Here, there is no such thing as a wrong itinerary; each corner reveals new surprises and delights just waiting to be found.