Until recently, most visitors to Panama City were either business travelers or tourists pausing in the capital on their way to the beaches and rainforests of the isthmus. But the city is now evolving into a colorful destination, with activities and attractions worthy of a three- to four-night stay.
We decided to spend our first few days in the historic Casco Viejo quarter, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003. Bypassing the dense skyscrapers, our driver took the Corredor Sur along the Pacific coastline to “Old Town.” There, the restored colonial buildings have been converted into high-end restaurants, boutiques, artisanal markets and hotels. An emerging cultural hub for artists and designers, the neighborhood is currently a maze of construction sites. Fortunately, the government has imposed stringent regulations. Architects have free rein in the interiors of buildings, but they must restore frontages to their original styles.
Having read several positive reviews about Las Clementinas, a six-suite hideaway hotel with a gourmet restaurant on the edge of Casco Viejo, we were greatly looking forward to our stay. Alas, the experience failed completely to live up to expectations. Our driver stopped in front of a grand 1930s apartment building with an unremarkable door. Unsure whether we were at the wrong address or had come to a rear entrance, we walked into a small, dark room with concrete walls and a scratched-wood table covered in paperwork. Neither a doorman nor a receptionist greeted us. A few minutes later, a man appeared and, having reviewed our reservation with indifference, nonchalantly said that the hotel’s only restaurant — one of our primary reasons for our stay — was closed. There being no elevator, he gruffly agreed to help carry one of our bags to our room. The two flights of steep stone steps looked as though they hadn’t been mopped since the hotel’s debut in 2010.
Our suite proved to be pleasingly spacious, with a separate living room, high ceilings, dark polished wood floors and a fully equipped kitchen. The furnishings were rather sparse, but original artwork and vintage photographs helped to make the space seem less clinical. The bedroom was comfortable, and the bath had a nicely tiled shower. However, a concealed water heater reverberated like a portable generator. And views of colonial townhouses from New Orleans-style balconies, as advertised on the hotel’s website, turned out to be vistas of a derelict building and an unattractive barrio backstreet.
The receptionist did not seem especially surprised when we said we intended to depart the same day and offered no apologies for the closed restaurant or the nonexistence of the tour bookings we had arranged.
Spacious separate living room; vintage memorabilia.
Drab lobby; dusty furnishings; loud water heater in room.
Might be a viable option for a family looking for extra space and a kitchen; a new restaurant is expected on-site in the future.
We switched to the 50-room American Trade Hotel, which opened in fall 2013, housed within a 1917 historic building just a three-minute walk down the street. The airy lobby featured ornate columns, quatrefoil hand-painted tiles, rattan-backed rockers and tall windows. Charming staff members checked us in, scheduled a private canal and city excursion for the next day and provided a list of dining recommendations. We were escorted to our Panorama suite, which offered a 180-degree view of the neighborhood: the bay peppered with ships waiting for their turn to pass through the Panama Canal, Frank Gehry’s multihued Biomuseo and the high-rise-studded downtown in the distance. Its interior décor featured white wainscoting, floor-to-ceiling windows framed by ivory curtains and black trim, a small round table complemented by two leather chairs and hardwood floors made from logs reclaimed from the bottom of the canal. The bath had a marble vanity with limited counter space, Aesop toiletries and an oversize glass walk-in shower. There was no door separating the bath from the bedroom, so privacy was limited. The air-conditioning was effective, as were the high-speed ceiling fans.
Although our accommodations were very comfortable, noise from Plaza Herrera, which fronts the property, could sometimes be heard at night. Complimentary earplugs provided a solution. (Rooms on the other side of the hotel are close to the cathedral, whose bells chime throughout the day.)
The hotel, part of the Ace Hotel group, offers a variety of amenities, including a square pool with underwater lights flanked by a deck with chaises longues, plus a well-equipped fitness room. A central courtyard with tropical plants in cream pots is furnished with outdoor bistro tables, Bertoia wire-frame chairs and white-and-black-striped banquettes. A reading room with an Oriental rug, a low coffee table, brass lights and a palm-print couch is adjacent to the courtyard. The ground floor encompasses a bakery-café, a lounge area with a long communal table, a restaurant for Panamanian-Continental cuisine and a cocktail bar. We rarely saw guests dining at the restaurant, and there are many better options within walking distance. The hotel’s atmospheric Danilo’s Jazz Club has its own entrance and provides an entertaining way to spend an evening.
With its gracious staff and old-world charm, the American Trade Hotel seamlessly blends historic architecture with 20th-century conveniences. Despite minor shortcomings — towels at the pool seemed to be in limited supply, and toiletries in the room were not replaced every day — it is a delightful property that embodies the spirit of Casco Viejo.
Traditional design; modern amenities; gracious staff.
The calendar of complimentary activities offered by the hotel changes weekly.
The Waldorf Astoria Panama in downtown Panama City opened in 2013 in advance of the centennial celebrations of the Panama Canal in August 2014. As the first Waldorf Astoria property in Latin America, this 130-room hotel set in a 36-story tower near the central commercial and business district had my hopes high. The elegant lobby, replete with the Peacock Alley Bar, has comfortable seating, a gold-and-white color scheme and art deco accents. At check-in, we were upgraded from a Deluxe Room to a Condo Suite with city views. The latter featured an open-plan design, with a living room appointed with an L-shaped couch, a bedroom with a king-size bed and a small kitchen with a refrigerator and microwave. Though the neutral palette of the space was relaxing, the furnishings were worn. The vast stone-tiled bath came with a rainfall shower, but the water pressure was poor and the temperature never got hotter than lukewarm. The most peculiar characteristic was a long rectangular glass window above the bed that looked straight into the shower.
The property does offer a swimming pool with bar service, a deck with skyline views, a large fitness center and a spa with a wide array of treatments. Unfortunately, the pool looked as though it could use a good scrub, and the accumulation of leaves and dead bugs in the water was uninviting. While we were there, the sushi restaurant was closed, but BRIO Brasserie was an appealing option. (The lavish breakfast buffet is well worth the money.) The Waldorf is conveniently located (especially for those on business), and the staff are amiable, but overall the property is not up to the standards of the brand. When it first opened, the hotel looked out across the bay, but a high-rise built in 2015 has blocked the view. For leisure travelers, the American Trade Hotel is a much more appealing choice and provides a genuine sense of place.
Comfortable lobby-lounge; extensive breakfast buffet.
Poorly designed shower; dead bugs in pool.
The hotel is conveniently located just 25 minutes from the airport.