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Great Escapes: Panama

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
When you go Daily flights on United (through a partnership with Copa) leave DFW, through Houston, for Panama City. Where to stay JW Marriott Panama Golf & Beach Resort 340 Calle 3ra Buenaventura Rio Hato, Cocle, Panama 507-908-3333 www.jwmarriottpanamaresort.com Bristol Hotel Avenida Aquilino de la Guardia, Bella Vista P.O. Box 0835-00257 Panama City, Panama 507-264-0000 www.thebristol.com/panama Tour guide Alvaro Montenegro c/o IVA Destination Management Calle 65 Oeste Piso 20 Oficina 2007 Panama City, Panama 507-279-0722 www.ividmc.com

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On a day when the Panamanian sky is dotted with dove-colored clouds, the Panama Canal spreads out before me, poised for its next performance.

I won’t have long to wait as the first of the afternoon’s ships — a privately-owned Belgian sailboat — enters the intricate series of locks that will allow it to travel from the Caribbean-Atlantic on the north to the Pacific on the south. The canal choreographs a graceful ballet of raising and lowering the boat — some 85 feet — shifting mind-boggling tons of water, steel and concrete, all in such a way that much of the world’s commerce, or everyday travel, occurs with nary a hitch.

I’m witnessing this daily dance in real time from one of the canal’s most tourist-friendly perches, the Miraflores Restaurant, on the top floor of the Miraflores Lock. Between my bites from a plate of paella with octopus, I wave at the deck hands on board the Belgian pleasure craft as it inches toward its ocean destination.

I used to take for granted the canal as a faraway engineering marvel. But after this afternoon’s “performance,” I won’t make that mistake again.

The Panama Canal, which I once considered to be the only reason to visit Panama, is now one of myriad destinations around which to build a several-day stay in Central America’s southernmost country.

Panama is currently engaged in a full-court press to entice tourists to enjoy all of its charms, from the kinetic, urban sophistication of Panama City, to the sun-kissed getaway luxury of its beach resorts — with the entire experience literally fueled by some highly inventive cuisine.

Nothing screams Panama’s brash new urbanity more than the sight of the capital’s gleaming lineup of waterfront skyscrapers.

Judging by the towering steel-and-glass office and condo edifices hugging the city’s tropical bay, I could be in Miami Beach, or perhaps Dubai.

But Panama City’s spectacular skyline, dotted with such dazzling architectural conceits as a building with a green-mirrored glass skin, corkscrewing into the clouds, acts as an apt metaphor for a country very much on the high rise.

Indeed, Panama City’s skyline neatly symbolizes a country determined to have more tourists spend quality time in its capital and countryside. Thanks to Panama’s recent double-digit economic growth — spurred by its role as a major banking haven, plus its launching of several construction projects (including an expanded Panama Canal to open next year), and its negligible crime rate, Panama is now laying out, perhaps, its widest welcome mat ever.

Because it all first starts with getting more visitors to Panama, the country has struck deals with as many as nine different U.S. cities to open up routes to Panama City.

A building boom

Five all-inclusive resorts are scheduled to open over the next five years in the country’s lush western coastal province. Panama City is adding 3,000 hotel rooms this year, and another 1,600 next year. These rooms piggyback onto the recent five-star hotel building push in Panama City — with properties managed by such brand names as the Waldorf Astoria and Westin, together with a mini-boomlet in the construction of world-class golf courses.

There probably is no more iconic name in a luxury Panama City accommodation than the Bristol Hotel. Instantly recognizable by its Panama hat-wearing bellmen, eclectic wall art and contemporary-chic room decor, the hotel will greet this new wave of tourists with total renovation — a new tower, a doubling of its room count and a new rooftop spa.

The Bristol also inaugurated a new restaurant, Sal Si Puedes, which is the unofficial launch pad for a revolution in Panama’s once overly homespun cuisine. Led by Sal Si Puedes’ executive chef, Cuquita Arias, along with other Panama City chefs such as Mario Castrellon of Maito and Elias Murciano of Capital Bistro Panama, Panama’s current cuisine emphasizes indigenous ingredients (rice, corn, beans, plantains, tropical fruits, hot peppers and seafood) paired in innovative ways to produce the strong, clean flavors of Panama’s nueva cocina.

For example, in Arias’ new Panamanian kitchen, plantains become soufflés, the traditional lentil is transformed into a ceviche. And crocodile — yes crocodile — is deep fried and kicked up with wasabi.

Scheduled to open by fall, the Bio-Museum will likely be one of the biggest touristic magnets of a growing Panama City. With its parrot feather-colored roof and sitting prominently at the tip of a causeway presiding over the Pacific Ocean entry to the Panama Canal, the museum bears all the trademark design flourishes of its architect: Frank Gehry. Gehry brought the same whimsy to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

It is widely expected that, just as Gehry’s mind-bending museum creation in Bilbao woke up that sleepy Spanish city, this museum could have a similarly transformative effect here.

Not far from the new Bio-Museum, I escape the urban hustle and bustle of downtown Panama City by losing myself in the Casco Viejo District. Tailor-made for meandering, Casco Viejo’s quilt of cobblestone streets, steepled churches, plazas and pastel-colored Spanish Colonial-era buildings — most of them now undergoing a meticulous renovation — transports me back 500 years to Panama’s past.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Casco Viejo bears an international stamp of authenticity as a quadrant of Panama City steeped in Panamanian history. As such, there is nary a Starbucks or high-rise condo in sight. Everything is walking distance. I’m particularly fond of the French Plaza, boasting the French Embassy on one side, and a stunning obelisk reminiscent of the one crowning Paris’ Place de la Concorde.

I find all of Casco Viejo’s quaintness summed up in the year-old, hip-casual eatery, Tantalo, where I sample more of the cuisine: garlicky eggplant, citrusy tamarindo beef and, the evening’s star, one of the most luxurious risottos I’ve ever tasted.

A day at the beach

I catch most of Panama City’s bold new urbanity in my rear-view mirror as I motor 2 1/2 hours to the country’s west to catch the other half of the new Panama: the country’s sole five-star beach resort, the totally revamped JW Marriott Panama Golf & Beach Resort.

As I enter the Pacific Coast-bordering Marriott, skirting the country’s only Jack Nicklaus 18-hole golf course, I am greeted by cooling towels and a fruity beverage.

My room is something out of a bygone age of subtle luxury, all done in taupe fabric and mahogany-toned wood. The room’s centerpiece is a four-post bed that could have been plucked from a castle.

At my first breakfast, I ponder over never-ending choices from a cornucopia of fresh fruit, including mango and guava, to such local favorites as carimanolas (corn cakes stuffed with meat). I can’t help but be distracted by the bright fuchsia bougainvillea fringing the hotel’s lagoon, where a white swan cranes its elongated neck.

After breakfast, I’m bound for the hotel’s El Faro Beach Club, where I finally start to understand what kind of an aquatic paradise this resort truly is.

I head toward the volcanic black-speckled sand of the Pacific Ocean for a dip into the slightly chilly water.

From there, it is off to the first pool next to the ocean sand — a lovely infinity model all lined in colorful tiles. The stiff breeze dries me almost immediately before I step into the first of three consecutive lap pools where I will do a dozen laps in blissful privacy.

For lunch at the El Faro Beach Club, I start with corvina (sea bass) ceviche and then enjoy an encore of corvina in four hefty grilled fish tacos, accented by dollops of guacamole.

As I’m in constant need of more relaxation, I seek out the “relaxation ritual” massage courtesy of the Marriott’s luxurious Corotu Spa.

The 60-minute experience is relaxation Nirvana.

My Marriott resort farewell dinner is served under the stars and a 200-year old Corotu tree.

New chef Jose Rodriguez’s two-hour, five-course tasting menu leads with a single, succulent sea scallop sitting on a tuft of yucca puree, followed by an ethereally creamy cauliflower soup, a pristine oval of local beef in a heavily reduced Merlot jus and culminates in a chocolate “textures” dessert that reacquaints me with the pure joys of cocoa.

Waterfalls and the rain forest

Leaving the Edenic refuge of the Marriott resort is a real challenge, but Alvaro Montenegro, my informative road guide, has fashioned a diverting itinerary back to Panama City. First up is El Valle de Anton, perched 2,000 feet above sea level, in the valley formed by a crater of a long-dormant volcano.

Before we get to town, we hike to a waterfall in the valley called El Valle de Anton, a 300-acre lush rain forest. The waterfall is postcard ready, creating mini-rainbows with its spray.

El Valle de Anton is dominated by a daily open-air market whose stalls all but groan with abundant stacks of produce: yuccas with their bark-colored skin and mini-bananas the size of swollen fingers.

The market also hawks folk art, mostly featuring parrot and toucan emblems, and jewelry formed of coconut shells.

All of five minutes away from El Valle de Anton, I throw myself into El Nispero Zoo. I’m seemingly inches away from a snaggletoothed Caiman crocodile, Jurassic Park-worthy iguanas, prattling blue-headed parrots and a jaguar that vainly poses for tourists.

Back to the city

Panama City’s incomparable skyline, etched on the horizon, signals my final return to the capital.

My afternoon at the Bristol Hotel is crowned by swimming in a new lap pool that all but knifes into the skyline of downtown Panama City.

The culinary zenith of my entire Panama trip comes courtesy of the Bristol’s executive chef. Among Arias’ small bites, her wantons combine Chinese touches, Spanish chorizo and Panamanian mango-hibiscus sauce. Lobster medallions come bathed in a five-herb vinaigrette, while a piece of yellow-fin tuna is counterbalanced by a sweet sauce of roasted corn, coconut and passion fruit.

The menu describes them simply as “Panamanian desserts,” which is like calling the Taj Mahal a white building. Among the selections, I’m drawn to the trifle infused with the local Geisha coffee.

The following day, the only activity that could possibly continue the blissful experience of that new Panamanian cuisine meal is yet another massage, in the freshly opened top-floor spa of the Bristol Hotel. I opt for the “earth and fire” hot stone treatment where my masseuse applies gently heated, basalt stones to my legs and back while I listen to soft classical guitar music. The result is a rare “blissed out” experience where all neurotic thoughts melt away.

Andrew Marton now has a growing list of reasons to return to Panama.

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