Why Panama is the ultimate holiday destination

Lucy Halfhead
·7-min read
Photo credit: Islas Secas
Photo credit: Islas Secas

From Town & Country

Panama sits at a crossroads – the only place in the world where you can watch the sun rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic on the same day. Apart from its eponymous canal, I didn’t know much about this isthmus country, which rose from the ocean to connect the continent of South and North America about 2.8 million years ago, permanently changing currents, climate and biodiversity. I had heard rumours of a burgeoning gourmet scene in Panama City, with innovative restaurants built inside restored colonial buildings, but it was the opening of a new luxury eco-hotel on a cluster of remote islands, with white-sand beaches and coral reefs teeming with wildlife, that really piqued my interest.

Photo credit: Nik West
Photo credit: Nik West

My best friend and I started our adventure in Panama City by checking in to the American Trade Hotel – an elegant property with an enviable pool, trendy coffee shop and thriving jazz club, Danilo’s. Set on Plaza Herrera in the heart of the Unesco-listed Casco Viejo (Old Quarter), it is surrounded by restaurants, cafés and shops, and lies within striking distance of the dramatic fortifications built during the 17th and 18th centuries, when Panama was part of the Spanish Empire. Today, these historic structures vie for attention with the towering skyscrapers of the city’s Central Business District, which give even Manhattan a run for its money.

Decorated with wood panelling and geometrical floor tiles, our spacious room featured a giant bed draped in thick, striped blankets, Frette towels and Aesop toiletries in the bathroom, and a leafy balcony overlooking the beautiful baroque façade of the Iglesia de La Merced. On our first evening, we happened to witness a traditional Panamanian wedding, where the bride and groom led a procession of their friends and family through the church doors and down the street, singing, dancing and twirling sparklers as they went. Later, we dined on ceviche at the hotel’s restaurant, which houses a striking macramé wall hanging by the Los Angeles-based artist Tanya Aguiñiga.

The next day, we laced up our comfiest shoes and wandered through the picturesque cobblestone streets without a plan, pausing along the way to take photographs of crumbling ruins, pastel-hued doors, wrought-iron balconies adorned with bright flowers and vibrant graffiti. In the heat of the day, we stopped for lunch at Tacos la Neta, a charming rooftop spot serving a wide variety of delicious soft-corn wraps – from crispy sea-bass to sweet pulled pork – drizzled with homemade hot sauces. A few cold beers later, we decided that no trip to Panama would be complete without buying a namesake hat; our enquiries led us to Victor’s boutique, where, despite being tempted by shades of lime green and hot pink, we left 20 minutes later with classic cream models that set us back £25 each. After several hours of sightseeing, we restored ourselves with sunset cocktails on the roof at Casa Casco, just across the square from the hotel, before turning in early.

Photo credit: Islas Secas
Photo credit: Islas Secas

Our third day saw us hand over the reins to one of the city’s best tour operators, Truly Panama, whose owner Jonathan was on hand to lead our urban expedition. We started with an early lunch at Fonda Lo Que Hay, where we sat at the bar to watch the hipster chefs conjure up tuna tostadas, pots of zingy pickles and stacks of patacones (fried green plantain). Then, Richard drove us over to the Biomuseo, the first museum in the world dedicated to biodiversity, whose sculptural, multicoloured exterior was designed by the internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry. After browsing exhibits that spotlight the country’s extraordinary variety of species, from giant anteaters to jaguars, we were on the road again for a close-up look at the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks. Here, Richard had specially arranged for us to bypass the crowds on the viewing platform and walk right to the edge. We stood mesmerised as vast cargo ships – some 400 metres long, the equivalent of the distance around an Olympic running track – were guided through by two small trains on either side of the canal. Back in town, we enjoyed a last supper at the newly relaunched Donde José, where we feasted on delicately presented Panamanian staples – from ñandu black beans to ñame (an indigenous tuber) – before indulging in a digestif of añejo (a premium aged tequila) under the fairy lights in the lively outdoor courtyard.

Despite the wealth of cultural spots, superb food and generous hospitality we’d encountered in Panama City, it was time to leave this vibrant metropolis and head to our second destination, Islas Secas. The rather circuitous route of a domestic flight to David, the capital city of the Chiriquí province in the west, followed by a drive and then a 90-minute boat ride, all passed without a hitch – and even had it been twice as long, it would have been worth it.

The philanthropist Louis Bacon originally conceived Islas Secas as a conservation project and marine sanctuary; as such, there is a commitment to build only on one small plot on the 14-island archipelago, while leaving the other islets completely as they are. Low-impact private casitas are spaced out across the main island, Isla Cavada, each offering a different view of the sea and of the lush, green surroundings. Inside, we found double-height ceilings, all-natural materials – from woven carpets to smart wooden plantation shutters – four-poster beds draped with sheer white curtains, chic leather stools, and huge bathrooms with indoor and outdoor showers. (There’s even a selection of essential oils by the basin so that you can blend your own creams.) Each morning, we would slide back the glass doors and admire the panorama, as geckos scuttled past and hummingbirds hovered to take sips from the hanging water feeders.

Photo credit: Jesse Weinberg
Photo credit: Jesse Weinberg

With an alfresco dining area, plunge pool, beanbags and a daybed, we could easily have hunkered down here for the rest of the week. There was, however, plenty to tempt us beyond our casita – starting with a relaxing ritual in the beautiful tented spa, where skilled therapists massaged all the knots and tension from my back, before leaving me to soak in a copper egg-shaped bath. At night, we sipped Negronis on the linen sofas of the Hemingway-inspired bar, before dining on Pacific lobster and thin-crust pizzas under the vast bamboo canopy of the Terraza restaurant. We loved its signature dish, guacho, a rice-based recipe with tomatoes and seafood, as well as the breakfasts of fresh fruit and homemade pastries.

Photo credit: Islas Secas
Photo credit: Islas Secas

But it was undoubtedly in the sparkling turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean – home to migrating humpback whales, huge flocks of seabirds, parrot fish, needlefish, dolphins, turtles and stingray – that we giddily spent most of our days, having equipped ourselves with the necessary gear at Islas Secas’ impressive water-sports centre. We tried fishing for the first time, rising hazily at dawn and returning before breakfast with a healthy haul of amberjack that was then cooked up for our lunch, and spent hours gliding around on paddleboards. On our last day, we decided to kayak over to the neighbouring Isla Pargo – a feat no guest had apparently ever attempted. Spurred on by the promise of a beach barbecue, with pork, chicken, fish and vegetables cooked over a charcoal grill, we landed successfully an hour or so later, salty, sun-soaked and buzzing with adrenalin. As we lay on a huge stretch of powdery sand that we had all to ourselves, marvelling at the beauty of the unspoilt nature surrounding us, we felt that this was, truly, the closest we had ever come to paradise.

Scott Dunn (www.scottdunn.com) offers a six-night trip to Panama, including flights, one night B&B at the American Trade Hotel and five nights full board at Islas Secas from £5,385 a person, based on two people sharing. For more information on Truly Panama, visit www.trulypanama.com.