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How to pass the time in historic Panama

How to pass the time in historic Panama

Panama is an underrated gem for travellers, which bridges the gap between North and South America. We find out which historic spots, cuisines and hotels to try

The famous isthmus connecting North and South America is beguilingly lithe and curvy, offering 1,786 miles of shoreline and 1,500 islands.

Shaped like the letter “S” in a suggestive reclining position, the country enjoys enviable views over both the Caribbean waters of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Pacific Ocean. Panama is also enriched by a cool cocktail of cultures including Indian, African, European and Asian.

With gorgeous beaches, culture and excellent food, it’s a wonder the country isn’t crowded with tourists. When thinking of Panama, the famous 50-mile Panama Canal quickly comes to mind, but there is so much more to this place.

Ready to explore? Bringing you just-opened features as well as old—but hovering under-the-radar for most travellers—here are the best reasons to visit Panama now.

Arrive in style at the upgraded airport 

Copa Airlines plane at Panama Tocumen International AirportCopa Airlines has been called “most punctual airline in the world”

Panama’s Tocumen International Airport marked the 75th anniversary of their signature airline, Copa Airlines, by unveiling a new terminal.

The open, airy Terminal 2 (T2) streams with natural light and the expanded airport infrastructure, with 20 additional gates and 200 spaces slated for shops and restaurants, makes it the largest in Central America.

KLM, Air France and United Airlines will soon commence operations out of T2 alongside Copa, which will maintain a heavy footprint in the new space, with dozens of additional counters and self-service kiosks.

This will allow the airline to add destinations to their current roster of 75 destinations in 32 countries and maintain their reputation as the “most punctual airline in the world.”

"Travellers can relax in the recently opened Copa Club in T2—the largest lounge in Central America"

Travellers can now also relax in the recently opened Copa Club in T2—the largest lounge in Central America.

The Latin American hacienda-inspired lounge overlooking the terminal was designed for those with VIP tastes—sure to improve any layover experience with amenities such as showers, entertainment area, workspace, children’s playroom and ample food and drink.

While the club recognises ConnectMiles and Star Alliance programmes, it also offers a fee-paying structure, which opens the door for others to access the lounge. 

Stay in a new luxury heritage hotel

After seven-plus years of renovation, the historic property Hotel La Compañia flung its doors open in 2022 and is ready to wow. In the heart of the old city Casco Viejo, the stunning hotel is Central America’s first Unbound Collection by Hyatt. 

Adjacent to a renowned church ruin, the elegant hotel has been painstakingly restored, emerging as a luxurious living museum, a perfectly blending past with present.

Choose to stay in the French wing (1739), the Spanish Colonial wing (1688) or the American wing (1905) in a Beaux-Arts styled room. Dining will be equally memorable, with five restaurants and two bars to choose from, each channelling the historic periods and corresponding stories of the past.

"The elegant hotel has been painstakingly restored, emerging as a luxurious living museum"

The leafy courtyard in the centre of the property’s square city-block footprint features a stunning 100+ year-old avocado tree, an endearing feature which symbolises the rebirth of this restored historic structure, and equally apropos for the entire old city.

It has risen out of neglect over the past decade to be the irresistible, buzzy district enjoyed today.  

Explore the old city and take in breathtaking views 

Building on Independence Square, PanamaIndependence Square is one of several photo-worthy architectural sights in Panama

Historical sights abound in the preserved 17th-century district, considered an UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site.

An area best appreciated on foot, wander the charming balcony-lined streets and have your camera ready, as you’ll frequently encounter outstanding architectural sights, including the Presidential Palace, Independence Square and Basilica Santa Maria, circa 1688.

Panama City’s largely underappreciated skyline is sure to impress. The downtown commercial district was built along the ocean with 60+ skyscrapers, earning it a place among the world’s skyscraper cities.

Don’t miss some of the very best panoramic views of the iconic skyline, captured along the water near the Presidential Palace or when strolling the Cinta Costera, the bypass which loops out over the water.

Visitors will also be hugely rewarded by venturing to the Amador Causeway or the Mirador del Pacifico, where you can photograph the famed Instagram-worthy Panama signs against the stunning cityscape.

Indulge in enticing eats & drinks 

Exploring new places naturally revs up the appetite, but food legitimately offers an excellent window into a culture. While meandering through the narrow streets of Casco Viejo, stop at the cosy corner coffeehouse Unido to experience the coffee culture and people watch.

At the trendy Japanese-inspired Salvaje, indulge in the sumptuous menu offering a raw bar, sushi and steak, and don’t miss their number-one cocktail, The Indiana Jones Cocktail.

Shamelessly feast on Latin American cuisine at the lively rooftop LAZOTEA, with views of the skyline. For the ultimate nightcap, head to the rooftop bar Capella at Hotel La Compañia where you’ll want to linger until close.

The Market Experience, with Hotel La Compañia Executive Chef Luis Artigas, creatively blends food and culture, affords insight into Panamanian gastronomical traditions.

Learn from Artigas while perusing market food stalls and selecting fresh foods to take back to the hotel, where he’ll present a fabulous evening dinner using the purchases from the day.

Get out of town 

Coffee plantation in Boquete, PanamaVisit Boquete for a closer look at where Panama grows its world-famous coffee beans

You won’t regret visiting destinations outside of the capital, such as the culturally-rich San Blas Islands in the Caribbean. Governed by the Guna indigenous people, the protected islands are prized for their untouched natural beauty.

Or, escape to San Jose Island at the boutique eco-hotel Hacienda Del Mar for some rejuvenating sunshine and rest.

"Discover the mountain town of Boquete, the mecca of Panama’s renowned coffee scene"

Near the border of Costa Rica, discover the mountain town of Boquete, the mecca of Panama’s renowned coffee scene uniquely famous for Geisha coffee, the world’s most expensive bean.

If chocolate is more your thing, experience the lush coastal area of Bocas del Toro, home to Panama’s chocolate tradition. Take a tour and get a peek into how cacao beans grow and are turned into decadent chocolate. 

Kathryn Streeter is a Washington, DC travel journalist. Her work can be found in publications including The Washington Post, USA Today, Condé Nast Traveler and Islands

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