Destination of the Week: Panama City, Panama

by on April 20, 2012 · 12 comments

in Destination of the Week

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Panama City at dusk.

We’ve hit beach getaways and cities escapes already, but for this Destination of the Week, we settled on a place that combines the best of both: Panama City.

It might seem an odd choice, but Panama City is becoming a bigger and bigger destination by the day thanks to a beautiful, warm climate, a friendly relationship with the US, secure financial markets, a place of importance in the global economy because of the Canal, a huge American expatriate community, and plenty of cosmopolitan city charms plus beautiful beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Also, the US dollar is the currency, making things super easy for visitors from the States

We’ll just stick around Panama City and its environs, but if any of you have ventured farther afield in the country, please leave comments with your suggestions below.

Well, there’s the Panama Canal, of course, just a few miles from the city center. It’s known as the eighth wonder of the modern world, and is still considered one of man’s most ingenious engineering feats, liking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Tourists can visit the Miraflores locks to watch huge ships pass through and learn about the canal’s history and construction in the visitor center. The Museo del Canal Interoceanico also chronicles the history of the project and conducts free guided tours in English.

Tourists can visit locks along the Panama Canal.

Visitors also flock to the city’s historic center, the Casco Viejo, where travelers can take guided tours of sights dating back four hundred years. The Parque Natural Metropolitano is a city park that’s also a rainforest—with monkeys and over 200 species of birds, as well as hiking trails and a natural history museum—while San Jose Cathedral is one of the city’s oldest landmarks.

There’s also plenty of shopping at megamalls like the Multicentro complex, which has over 260 stores, the new MetroMall development and the Metroplaza.

The gorgeous, isolated stretches of Pacific beaches along the coast in Playa Bonita are just a 20-minute drive away from the city, and home to some of the country’s loveliest resorts, but even if you stay in the city, you’ll get plenty of sunshine, and most hotels have big pool areas for soaking up the rays.

The Plaza Francia in Panama City's Casco Viejo.

Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.

Copa is Panama's official airline.

In terms of flight times, Panama City is about 3 hours from Miami, 4 hours from Houston and Dallas, 5.5 hours from New York, and about 6.5 hours from Los Angeles. There are non-stop flights from Panama to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Ft. Lauderdale, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, Orlando, Washington DC, and Toronto.

American flies non-stop from Dallas and Miami. Delta flies non-stop to Atlanta. United flies non-stop from Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Newark.

Copa, a Star Alliance carrier, is Panama’s international carrier, and flies non-stop to Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, Orlando, Toronto and Washington DC. Because it was affiliated with Continental, its miles program is actually MileagePlus, making it easy to earn and redeem for the United flyers out there.

Tocumen International Airport is just about a 15-minute ride via a super highway from the city. The fare for an official private taxi is about $25, and shared vans run around $15. There is no bus service.

There are plenty of points-earning and redeemable hotels in Panama City from the major chains, and more in the works, so it’s only going to become a more attractive, accessible destination.

The Radisson's martini bar.

Club Carlson
Radisson Decapolis Hotel Panama City: Pretty much smack dab in the middle of the city near the Multicentro shopping center and Majestic Casino, this Radisson is in a huge glass tower and has all-modern rooms and public spaces decorated with local Panamanian art. The 240 guest rooms and suites are in a neutral black-white-taupe color scheme and have ocean and city views as well as small sitting areas and full granite bathrooms. The hotel also houses the Radisson Aqua Spa and Gym, a beauty salon and an outdoor pool deck. The hotel’s three restaurants include Luxor for group events, a Sushi Bar in the lobby, and Fusion, a gourmet restaurant next to the pool, while The Martini Bar anchors the lobby. Rates in April start at $149, or 44,000 points or 10,000 points + $84.90 Points + Cash since this is a Category 5 property.

There are also two Country Inn & Suites properties here, one in the city and one by the Canal.

The Hilton Panama is set to open in November 2012 at the corner of Balboa Avenida and Aquilino de la Guardia about 20 minutes from the airport in the city center. Guest rooms will start at nearly 500 square feet with views of Panama Bay, the Pacific and Balboa Avenue, as well as standard Hilton Serenity Beds,  42-inch flatscreen TV’s, high-speed WiFi, and laptop safes, as well as walk-in rain showers with separate handheld showerheads, separate bathtub, granite sink areas and a small make-up vanity with enhanced lighting. 52 deluxe rooms will also have expansive outdoor terraces. There will be a fitness room and pool, a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, a sports bar and lounge, and the Society Café for casual meals and coffee.

Hyatt had plans to build two new hotels in Panama including Latin America’s first Hyatt Place as of two years ago, but it doesn’t look like much progress has been made, and neither has opened yet. Stay tuned for updates.

Panama Marriott: This 20-story tower is has 366 rooms and 23 suites as well as tons of meeting space for business trips. Guest rooms are looking a little dated (especially the carpet), but have nice touches like wooden headboards, big work desks with ergonomic chairs, high-speed WiFi (for a fee), 2-line speakerphones, plus small sitting areas with a sofa and chair and 37-inch flatscreen LCD TV’s. They’re also spacious, starting at over 400 square feet. Executive Level rooms have access to the Executive Lounge for complimentary continental breakfast, midday snacks, hors d’oeuvres and dessert plus complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, and upgraded in-room amenities like Jacuzzi spas. There is also a small health club with a spa for basic treatments. The hotel has the Sabores coffee house, Champions SportsBar, and the Marriott Café for Mediterranean food. Rates here start at $169 in April, or 25,000 points (20,000 PointSavers) since this is a Category 5 hotel.

There’s also a Marriott Executive Apartments in Finisterre designed for longer-term business travelers, a Courtyard at the new MetroMall complex, and the Courtyard Panama Real Hotel in the Multiplaza shopping mall near the Torre las Americas.

Priority Club
Crowne Plaza Panama: This hotel is in the central financial district, but not too far from the Casco Viejo either. Rooms look a little plain, but serviceable, with pillowtop mattresses and thick duvets on the beds, 32-inch cable TV’s, and a little sleep kit amenity with soothing lavender spray. Standards also have armchairs with ottomans, a work desk and high-speed internet access for a fee. Executive Club rooms have access to the club lounge for continental breakfast cocktail hour, dinner snacks and complimentary beverages. The hotel has a Memories Sports Bar and La Galeria Restaurant for all-day fine dining. There’s also a pool and small fitness center. Rates in April start at $152 or 25,000-35,000 Priority Club points.

A guest room at the Intercontinental Miramar.

Intercontinental Miramar: This soaring 25-story glass tower is in the center of the financial district and near the Atlapa convention center and the old city as well, with views of the nearby Panama Canal. There are 186 rooms and 14 suites, which look spacious, though somewhat plain with a muted taupe color palette. The views look great. Club Level rooms come with access to Club InterCon for complimentary continental breakfast, snacks, light dinner canapés and drinks. There is also a health center and spa, as well as a small pool area for sunbathing, tennis courts, and a beauty salon, plus yachts in the nearby marina for hire for fishing and watersports.

The hotel’s Bay View Restaurant near the pool offers all-day buffets and a la carte dining at night, as well as a cocktail lounge. Rates in April start at $163 a night or 30,000 Priority Club points.

The Intercontinental Playa Bonita's infinity pool.

Intercontinental Playa Bonita: Located in the up-and-coming resort area of Playa Bonita, about 20 minutes south of Panama City, this is a secluded, sprawling resort with amenities like a 10,000-square-foot Sensory Spa Clarins and a beauty salon, five free-form pools, a private beach with water sports and activities, an oceanview health and fitness center, and children’s activities at the Kids Club. The resort’s Lighthouse restaurant serves gourmet continental meat and seafood for dinner, while the Pool Bar and Lobby Bar are good for more casual cocktails and meals. Rooms look bright and cheery with ocean and mountain views, tile floors, small sitting areas, double or king beds, work desks, and standard bathrooms with shower-tub combos except in the suites where there are separate soaking tubs. Rates in April start at $255 or 30,000 Priority Club points.

There’s also a Holiday Inn near the Panama Canal.

A guest room at Le Meridien.

Le Meridien Panama City: Right on the edge of the Bay of Panama between the old and new city, this hotel is a good business choice since it’s close to the financial district. The lobby space has a huge atrium and a multi-colored glass pyramid suspended from the ceiling. There are just 111 guest rooms and suites with a severe but chic red-white-black palette and standard amenities including marble bathrooms, 32-inch flat-panel TVs, pillowtop beds, and WiFi access for $15 per day. The hotel has an all-day lounge, and an upscale restaurant and bar called Latitudes as well as a terrace with a pool overlooking the city and a small four-room spa. Rates in April start at $179. This is an SPG Category 5 property requiring between 12,000-16,000 for a free-night redemption, 4,800 points + $90 for Cash & Points.

The Sheraton is adjacent to the Convention Center.

Sheraton Panama Hotel & Convention Center: This sprawling hotel is about 15 minutes from the airport, right next to the Atlapa Convention Center. The 361 guest rooms including 18 suites with 32- or 46-inch plasma TVs, Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Beds, Bliss bath amenities in the bathroom, and WiFi for $13 a day. Club rooms get free bottled water and fitness center access, as well as access to the Club Lounge for complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres and beverages. The hotel home to Crostini Italian restaurant, Cafe Bahia for all-day dining, Las Hadas for baked goods and desserts, and a Lounge Bar with a small bar menu, as well as S Rumba Bar for cocktails. It also has a small pool area, an Ygia Spa, a fitness center with a full range of equipment and classes, and the signature Link@Sheraton casual business center. Rates in April start at $140, or 7,000 Starpoints or 2,800 points + $45 since this is a Category 3 property.

The Westin Playa Bonita's beachfront.

Westin Playa Bonita: This resort property lies on the coast just about 20 minutes from Panama City, and only just opened back in December. Its rooms and suites look beach-chic with dark wood accents, tile floors, white linens, and a few pieces of wicker thrown in. They have 42-inch LCD TV’s, iPod docks, Westin Heavenly Beds, private terraces and Heavenly showers and separate soaking tubs in the bathrooms. The resort has eight restaurants including Asiana for Asian and Tierra Y Fuego for international cuisines on the high end, Oasis Bar for cocktails and snacks, and Oceanica for casual light fare. The resort also has free-form lagoon-style pools with lounge chairs fronting the beach and a Westin Kids Club to keep the little ones occupied. Rates in April start at $245. This is an SPG Category 5 property requiring between 12,000-16,000 for a free-night redemption, 4,800 points + $90 for Cash & Points.

There are a couple other Starwood properties in town, including the Four Points by Sheraton, an Aloft that will open in January 2013, and the all-inclusive Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort about 50 miles south of Panama City along the coast.

Trump Ocean Club's dramatic 70-story tower.

Those looking for a bit of luxury can opt for the swanky Trump Ocean Club, which opened about a year ago and is housed in a dramatic 70-story tower on the city’s Pacifica Peninsula with 369 rooms and suites, a stunning pool deck, four upscale restaurants and a Spa at Trump. On the other end of the spectrum is the French-style Hotel de Ville, with an ambiance of understated, historical elegance—but with modern amenities including broadband and WiFi and a gourmet Mediterranean restaurant—in a quiet central location.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Mike767

    I think these destination posts are great but it lacks activities. Theres no point of going on a vacation if focus is more on airlines and hotels. Please include double or triple the activities.

  • Michael

    If you go into town a bit, you can find the best Pisco Sours of your life (blended, frothy wonders). The taxis are one of the great bargains. You can go all over town for just a couple of bucks but the language barrier is a problem so have a good APP on your phone.

  • Mikey

    Have you heard anything about a Waldorf Astoria opening in Panama City?

  • Kathy K

    I stayed at the Radisson Decapolis when I was there – really beautiful – I highly recommend it.

  • Jimtimkim

    Because Copa is one of the major carriers down there, they also have a partnership with AirFrance / KLM and CM… although it has to be a flight marketed by one of the three and operated by Copa, redemption is easier, from my understanding. And you get benefits :D

  • Dwai

    Not to get all political on a points and miles blog, but that “friendly relationship with the U.S.” and “stable financial markets” glosses over quite a bit of shameful U.S. occupation,manipulation,meddling:

    The U.S. decided to build the canal in Panama, damn the natives’ interests, and occupied a 10 mile wide swath in the middle of a foreign country since the turn of the 20th century. Panamanians crossing from one side of the U.S. military occupied canal zone to the other had to show ID to the U.S. military to cross the zone in their OWN COUNTRY. I guess if you’re the type who proscribes to green zones in Baghdad, maybe none of this would bother you, but personally I find it instructive to not ignore the realities of the world if I’m going to travel it.

  • The Deal Mommy

    I did this trip two years ago using CO miles to fly on Copa and recommend it highly. The Country Inn and Suites has a stunning location at the entrance of the canal, but is a little far out for exploring the city. The Radisson is a great location, but didn’t see the rooms. I did have lunch there and used the Magestic casino quite a bit. It’s a fun place for non-serious gamblers as most Casinos in PC have $2 Blackjack and quarter roulette.

    As far as things to do…too many to list! In my 10 days there I flew on a daytrip to Contadora to see “Survivor” Beach, went hiking in the rainforest at El Valle, dozed in a hammock at the Intercontinental Playa Bonita, bought vintage movie posters in the market in Casco Viejo, watched the national Orchestra warm up in the concert hall, and chatted up some Kuna villagers who sold me fresh mango.

  • Richard

    Twice visited in the past two years for non business. Flew Continental Business Class the first visit and Delta Coach Class the second visit. Stayed at the Wyndham Garden Panama City both visited with an above average stay the first visit and an average stay the second visit. The hotel was new the first visit and is now showing its age. Panama is hot and humid and near the ocean so buildings age very quickly. The upscale mall is Multiplaza Pacific and should not be missed. Multicentro is a half empty dump of a mall and should be missed. Other large malls are of local interest and of local products. Panama is hot and humid. Spanish is the first and only language for much of Latin American including Panama. The US dollar is the currency but bills must be new and smaller denominations. Cashing a $50 or $100 bill requires close inspection of the bill, notations of the serial number and notation of your passport number so travel with $20s or smaller. Yes taxis are a bargain in Panama but I would highly recommend entering a taxi only if you are familiar with the destination and familiar with Spanish; otherwise, be placed in a taxi by security at the airport, the doorman at the hotel, the maître d’ at the restaurant, etc. Or better yet have the hotel coordinate a driver for the day! The canal is quite some distance from the city so hire a driver to and from. Taxis have no interest in a fare one way so will avoid trips of such distance. And yes Panama City is the financial capital of Latin America. The skyline is beyond imagination. The amount of construction is beyond imagination. The F&F / Revolution Tower is beyond imagination! Panama City is NOT a walking city but I did walk for hours and hours and hours and enjoyed every moment of the walking. Everywhere missing manhole covers, missing sidewalks, missing cross walks, etc… The locals walk or take the chicken bus. I do not recommend the chicken for anything beyond photos unless you are familiar with both the destination and the language. Complete the paperwork prior to immigration / customs. The airport and airport staff are very accommodating but do not forget you are in Latin American. The best food is a wonderful Lebanese restaurant Restaurante Al Basha. And do ask the hotel staff to note areas to avoid. As a rule, follow the crowds.

  • Kristina

    We spent a week in Panama a couple of years ago and enjoyed it.

    We flew down on Copa, spent a few nights in PC seeing the highlights (the canal, casco viejo), then off to Isla Contadora to snorkel, whale watch and relax. We also had one night at a bird watching sanctuary called Canopy Tower (VERY fun) and a few nights at the Sheraton near the convention center.

    We stayed at the Sheraton using cash plus points and I thought it was a great deal, though the hotel is a bit outside the center of things. My gold status got us access to the Lounge too, which has free wifi, drinks and snacks. My trip can be seen here;

    Last tip; one of my favorite things in PC was a visit to the Fish Market where we had lunch and a really good octopus ceviche from the same stall as the one featured on No Reservations.

  • Vj

    Panama is an amazing country. Spent a week there in 2010. Did many of the things mentioned already in panama city and then left for the western part of the country. Went up to the hill station town of boquete – beautiful hills, coffee plantations and a quaint town. Absolutely wonderful! Also spent a few days on a small island (isla boca brava) off the coast on the pacific side – so quite and tranquil. Overall a fantastic trip.

  • Cz4ever

    I grew up in Panama City, went to school in the Canal Zone, and still have a lot of family down there. I agree with Mike767 that you really should cover more activities, especially in a place like Panama City where there are so many things to do. Here are some that come to mind off the top of my head.

    1. Visit the Miraflores Locks to learn about the Canal and (if you go at the right times) watch ships in transit. Note that until the new locks are open, ships go one direction at a time, so you want to make sure to not be in Miraflores during the “switchover” time, when there is a big gap between when the ships going in one direction clear out and the ships coming from the other direction reach Miraflores. You can watch the ships/canal from a LOT of places, but the most built-up, tourist-ready option is Miraflores.

    2. Casco Viejo and environs: This part of town, which used to be a horrible, crime-ridden, falling-apart slum (much worse than you are thinking…) is now a World Heritage Site. It starts with the old stone fort walls along the coast line that were built in a attempt to keep out British pirates. It was completely ineffective at that task (Henry Morgan sacked Panama City twice), but is now beautifully restored with amazing views of the entrance to the canal and Thatcher Ferry Bridge (sorry, Bridge of the Americas now :-)). I’m not sure it’s still open, but if it is, partake in a meal, or at least a Cai pirinha in Las Bovedas, a restaurant built into the old dungeon inside the city walls (from which it gets its name).

    3. Gamboa Rainforest Resort and environs: Built at the site of what was a park and golf course in the most remote American outpost in the Canal Zone (Gamboa) is a very pretty resort hotel. More interesting than the hotel itself, where you can grab a meal overlooking the Chagres River – which feeds the Canal, is the tours that you can take from the hotel. One takes you on a small boat (think Disney Jungle Cruise) to several islands in the actual canal where you’ll see plenty of wildlife, including a pack of white-faced capucin who come bounded to the edge of the island for banana handouts. You’ll also likely see boats traversing the canal from close up. You can also visit their nice animal exhibits (butterflies, reptiles, etc.), take a tram up into the jungle canopy and then hike to the top of an observation tower with the best view of the canal that you can easily reach, or visit a local village with indigenous people.

    4. Summit Park (Parque Nacional Summit): This old park from the Canal Zone days is home to an amazing amount of plants and animals, including a nice little zoo. It’s near Gamboa, basically in the jungle, so you get to see creatures near their native habitat (or, if lucky, wild ones no in their enclosures). Lots of nice trails through the jungle if you want to get up close and personal with the tropics.

    5. Panama Viejo, aka Old Panama: The site of the original Panama City before the first time it was sacked and burned to the ground. Unlike Casco Viejo, Panam Viejo is mostly ruins that are preserved in a park setting. It’s interesting mostly from a historic standpoint — it was the Pacific end of the Spanish Las Cruces Trail for taking gold and silver from South America to Spain.

    6. Amador Causeway: If you’ve seen any of the fascinating History Channel (or similar) shows about the making of the Panama Canal (an amazing engineering feat, especially given the time frame), you probably never gave much thought to “Where the heck did they put all the material that they dug out to form the canal?” Well, the (one) answer is the Amador Causeway. It’s a man-made causeway leading from the mouth of the canal to a series of islands well out (several miles) into the Pacific. Back during the American period, it was very isolated and largely undeveloped (other than a nice beach mid-way out with a huge shark fence and some huge bunkers left over from WW2 at the tip of the causeway). Now it’s a bit of a yuppy shopping/eating locale (spending a couple of lazy hours sipping beer and eating ceviche while looking out over the ocean to the canal entrance miles away is awesome), plus a scientific laboratory and museum run by the Smithsonian Institute — it’s been there for decades. I doubt many visitors know about Amador, but it’s definitely something you should visit.

    Ok, enough for now. If you want to get out of town a bit, there are an insane number of amazing beaches within two hours along the Pacific coast, you could take a ride out to the island of Taboga (more beaches), El Valle (literally “The Valley”) up in the mountains near the beaches is quaint and cool with a couple fo awesome waterfalls, Boquete / Volca’n up near Costa Rica is serious mountains/coffee plantations, Bocas Del Toro (Caribbean side near Costa Rica) has become a huge US ex-pat area, …

    One more thing… probably the most amazing place to visit in Panama, if you have the time and willingness to not stay in 4-star fancy western hotels, but instead rough it and get away from it all… Kuna Yala (aka the San Blas Islands). I’ll let you google for details. It’s more developed than the hyper-primitive state I remember and love, but still a world class destination (just not if your idea of a vacation is nice hotel, shopping, fine dining, etc.!).

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