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Panama City: A Caribbean Gateway on the Pacific
Panama City is superbly cosmopolitan, a Latin American hub of culture, towering skyscrapers with more going up all the time, rich history and an exploding food scene. While it's set on the Panama's Pacific shore and not on the Caribbean coast, Panama City is a gateway to the Panama Canal and a frequent stopover for cruise ships transiting the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific. It's also the aviation hub for travelers heading to Panama's San Blas Islands and other Caribbean destinations.
Two great places to lay your head while exploring Panama City are the Bristol Panama and the American Trade Hotel; we booked our visit through Panama Vacations.Continue to 2 of 4 below.
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The Bristol Panama
The Bristol Panama, listed in the top 10 hotels in Latin America by Conde Nast Traveler, is set in an art-deco inspired high rise in the city’s financial district, a four-minute hike from the El Carmen metro station and a quick cab or bus ride to Panama Viejo, the remaining part of old Panama City.
The Five-Star hotel has 36 rooms, deluxe to executive suites, (rates from $239, according to the site), featuring Italian marble bathrooms with soaking tubs, minibars, tea and coffeemakers, flat-screen high-def TVs and iPod docks. Airy, upgraded rooms have added skyline views.
The hotel has a full-service spa and a pool, a long rectangle of cool water uniquely tucked into a space between two wings of the building. The upstairs bar, named 8’58 for its geographic location, is beautiful and roomy, but a best bet is the cozy outside lounge overlooking the city streets. Check out the Bristol Mule, but be aware it packs a potent kick.
Downstairs is Salsipuedes, the Bristol’s restaurant, named for one of the city’s most notorious streets from back in the day. Chef Luis E. Young’s menu reflects the city’s roots with a spicy menu that updates traditional regional fare with modern infusions of Panamanian ingredients, including appetizers such as cod fritters made smoky hot with habanero peppers, and giant prawns with sherry consommé cucumber, salmon roe, and passion fruit.
The crocodile rice soup, more of a stew, is thick with beans from the Chiriqui province. One night, the chef laid out seven kinds of ceviche on giant clamshells for us to sample. Main dishes include sea bass filet, roasted octopus with tangy green salsa, lobster with quinoa, braised veal cheeks and pork belly confit.
The Bristol Panama
Aquilino de la Guardia Ave.
Panama City, PanamaContinue to 3 of 4 below.
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The American Trade Hotel
The American Trade Hotel in the Casco Viejo section of the city opened in 2013, the original building going up in 1917. Booming when the Panama Canal was being built and for decades beyond, it fell into disrepair by the 1960s. The hotel has been renovated by a combined effort of Atelier Ace, Panama City-based Conservatorio, and Commune Design, and is set in an area far apart from the Bristol Panama’s urban core, located in the thick of the city’s historic district. At four stories it is the tallest in the neighborhood. When it was new 100 years ago, it was the tallest in the country.
The 50 rooms are all unique in design, with views of the narrow streets and nearby cathedral. My “super cuarto” room, was spacious and long, had white beadboard walls and contrasting dark trim, custom Suite Sleep mattress, Frette linens, a rain shower bathroom with Aespop toiletries, a robe of 100-percent Turkish cotton, free WiFi, minibar and plasma TV. The small balcony was a perfect place to watch the sunrise and the streets below come to life, sipping powerful Panamanian coffee from Café Unido downstairs.
Furniture is handcrafted in Panama from reclaimed wood, and if those floor planks look worn, they are: they’re made from old sunken logs salvaged from the Panama Canal.
There is a lovely indoor courtyard to lounge about in, as well as a small pool above, and a spacious bar and lobby on the first floor that sweep you back in time, with tastefully located antiques, handmade tiling, comfortable and stylish side chairs and couches, and towering floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the historic Plaza Herrera.
The menu at The Dining Room, the hotel’s restaurant, is local and seasonally driven, from starters like veal and lemongrass meatballs to entrees such as seared tuna, sea bass, and roasted duck breast. If you love jazz, check out Danilo’s Jazz Club, conceived by Grammy-winning Panamanian jazz pianist and composer Danilo Perez. The man has played with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Wynton Marsalis and aims to bring in musicians from around the world to the 50-seat club bearing his name, part of the proceeds from which enrich his Danilo Perez Foundation across the street, which provides musical education and hosts the annual Panama Jazz Festival.
American Trade Hotel
Casco Viejo, Panama City, PanamaContinue to 4 of 4 below.
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Panama: Visit Anytime!
There’s no bad time of year to visit Panama; the dry season runs December to March, making it appealing for those escaping colder climes. But even in the wet season the rest of the year, prices are lower, rain doesn’t last that long, and the city’s beauty and variety of things to do make it all worthwhile.