SPOTLIGHT ON: PANAMA
A twin-centre trip combining the architectural wonders and rich heritage of Panama City: an engaging, cosmopolitan metropolis rich with old-world charm, where skyscrapers and a buzzing nightlife scene rub shoulders with Colonial-era landmarks and charming cobbled streets
Paired with unique expedition to a true ocean wilderness on Panama’s Pacific Coast: Islas Secas – relaunching December 2019 – for a thrilling marine adventure that is also pioneering the country’s sustainability efforts
Panama is perhaps one of the most interesting, yet undiscovered Central American travel destinations, with coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. Its strategic location on the bridge that connects Central and South America makes it one of the most important shipping routes in the world – until now, highly regarded predominantly by business travellers.
This is set to change. A place of growing global intrigue quickly rising on holiday-makers’ travel wish lists, sitting at the crossroads of two oceans and two continents, Panama is a narrow country packed with culture, tropical beaches, history, wildlife, and wild exploration for travellers seeking an adventurous holiday. With the Panama Canal historically hailed as one of the most famous feats of human engineering, and the lesser-trodden wild Pacific Coast awaiting exploration, Panama offers a captivating combination of rich colonial history, architecture and a thriving food scene, with breathtakingly beautiful rugged seascapes unlocking access to an entire archipelago of volcanic islands. Here are two of the country’s most exciting destinations to showcase the best of ‘land’ and ‘sea’…
BY LAND – PANAMA CITY
A union of history and modernity, where skyscrapers, casinos and nightclubs mingle with colonial buildings in the Casco Viejo and the rainforest of the Natural Metropolitan Park – Staying at: American Trade Hotel
The most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, Panama City is both a buzzing metropolis and the gateway to further-flung tropical escapes. The optimally located American Trade Hotel provides the ideal base to explore the city, combining old world elegance with contemporary, local design. It is positioned in the very desirable Casco Viejo neighbourhood – a UNESCO World Heritage site – offering the best sightseeing, dining and nightlife. The property occupies a beautifully restored building standing at the ecological and cultural crossroads of the Americas, deeply connected to both the historic Old Quarter and the blossoming new Panama City. With colourful colonial mansions, art galleries and a prospering culinary scene, Casco Viejo is one of the few areas where it is possible to just wander the narrow cobblestone streets and stumble across a number of interesting sites – the Metropolitan Cathedral, scenic churches, plazas and some of the most significant Spanish architectural landmarks of Panama. There is also the Interoceanic Canal Museum, where visitors can learn about the history of the construction of the Panama Canal. A collection of objects and materials reveal the technology and operation of this engineering marvel that is acclaimed as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. Another must-visit is Chef Mario Castrellon’s Maito restaurant – a pioneer of a ‘new wave’ of Panamanian cuisine with a modern vision – where Afro-Antillean, Creole and Asian influences create a unique dining experience that perfectly captures Panama’s multicultural gastronomic identity.
BY SEA – THE GULF OF CHIRIQUÍ
Offering endless marine adventure opportunities, an untouched, wild island landscape, ancient archaeology discoveries and access to Pacific surf breaks that rival Costa Rica – Staying at: Islas Secas
A few hours west of the city, the Gulf of Chiriquí lies along Panama’s Pacific coast, extending from the Costa Rican border to the west to the Azuero Peninsula on the east. The region is home to one of the largest coral reefs in the Pacific, one of the region’s richest mangrove forests and incredibly bio-diverse ecosystems. It has beautiful beaches and two vast, protected marine parks. In nearby waters, Islas Secas – which will relaunch as a full-service resort in December 2019 – unlocks access to an archipelago of 14 volcanic islands. With exceptional marine wildlife, thousands of species of wild fauna and flora and a little-touched, wonderfully rugged setting, this is one of Central America’s best kept secrets, far less explored than its Caribbean cousin. There are four individually-designed Casita sites, sleeping up to just 18 guests on one of the islands. Islas Secas is also powered by and in harmony with its surrounding environment: 100% of energy is solar-generated; 100% of food waste is recycled; 100% of waste water is re-used for irrigation; and 75% of the archipelago has been left untouched. The experiences offered are wide and varied, with everything from world-class fishing to diving, snorkelling, seasonal whale watching, naturalist tours, private beach picnics, wake and paddle boarding and sea bobbing. The 20 miles between Islas Secas and the coast of mainland Panama allow endless scope to roam fish-storied waters, creating a ‘marine playground’ for its guests. The sea life that calls these temperate waters home includes parrotfish, angelfish, blue tang and eagle rays; humpback whales, hammerhead sharks and dolphins; and even the critically endangered Green Olive Ridley and Loggerhead sea turtles. For travellers with more of a thirst for adventure, it is also a year-round surfers’ mecca with an fantastic combination of beach breaks, reef breaks and point breaks. Visitors can ride waves on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on the same day thanks to Panama’s narrow geography. Thirty minutes by boat from Islas Secas transports guests to Isla Silva de Afuera, where it is said the surf is better than in Costa Rica, and Islas Montuosa lies a little over an hour away with consistent deep-water waves reaching up to 25 feet on big swells.