Here in the U.S., economic “recovery” means we’ll hope to hit 2% growth this year. Last year Panama’s economy grew by 10.5%. Panama City has gone from being severely under capacity for hotel rooms five years ago to having a glut of them as developers rushed in to fill the void.
With a widened second section of the Panama Canal coming online next year, a new subway opening up, plus recognition of the country as the business center of Central America, look for the growth to continue. The main sound I associate with the capital is construction noise: every block seems to have a new skyscraper going up. Here are a few noteworthy hotels that have gone up recently, after the opening of the huge Trump Ocean Club Panama more than two years ago.
Waldorf Astoria Panama
This hotel had just opened when I visited it last week, with workers still putting the finishing touches on the spa and some of the rooms. This is the first Waldorf Astoria in Latin America and it’s a combination of traditional hotel with 248 rooms and larger condo suites that are in the rental pool.
The lobby is a chic center with lots of sitting areas in whites, creams, and browns, a small bar dispensing coffee and cordials at the end. A few floors up is an outdoor pool (pictured above) with a bar that’s welcome in this constant heat, plus a beauty salon and a spa with a full menu of treatments. The gym has a great array of new Life Cycle machines and weights. The main restaurant has great views of the city, while the Ginger restaurant is dinner-only, forming the upper deck area of a space shaped like a boat, with a lounge underneath.
Being brand new, rooms are tricked out with doors that open with a wave of the key, great lighting controls, MP3 player docks, and ample outlets in convenient places. There’s a mid-century modern nod in the decor, but it’s not overdone and feels fresh.
Current promotional rates start at $199 with breakfast and internet, but later will start at $179 before a whole slew of fees, including Wi-Fi and a service charge. See more at the Waldorf Astoria site or book online.
Hard Rock Panama Megapolis
This mega-hotel is the one that really tipped the scales on room availability. It’s an incredible 1,500 rooms, adding to what was already available at the Radisson Decapolis next door. Mega is right.
It’s got all the aspects you would expect: seven hot bars and night clubs, music memorabilia on display, a great pool scene, and customized music for your room. Where you sleep depends on whether you go for a standard room or step up to one of the rock star suites as big as an apartment. Even the smallest have 42-inch hi-def TVs, good music systems, robes, and well-stock bathrooms. The hotel is right across from a casino too if you really want to go all out.
Royal Sonesta Hotel Panama
This hotel actually has the word “Casino” in its name, but the casino wasn’t opened at the time this post went up. Or the swimming pool. This new Sonesta is in a prime location in the business district though and at 304 rooms is big without being mega big.
The interiors are surprisingly hip for a chain hotel, a nod to the stiff competition in this cosmopolitan city. Modern furniture, layered design elements, and lots of light leather create a subdued but visually arresting series of spaces. Rooms aren’t as hip as the public spaces, but have bold cushioned headboards and leather desk chairs. Avoid the smallest standards though as they’re less than 300 square feet. Rooms one step up are currently going for as little as $134 with breakfast in this “soft opening” period and you can snag a suite for less than $200. See more at the Sonesta Panama site or check prices online.
If you’re not in Panama City on business, you don’t really need to stay in the business district. A more interesting option is to kick back in the Casco Viejo area instead—the historic part of town. This is a pedestrian-friendly area with older architecture, with fun cafes, bars, and restaurants.
The latest addition to the scene there is Tantalo, a rooftop bar that has a hotel under it. Seriously, don’t come here if you’re a gray-haired light sleeper. The joint will be jumping until 2 or 3:00 in the morning upstairs. If you like visual stimulation and being surrounded by art, however, this 12-room hotel is heaven. Each room was decorated by a different artist and they go from the sublime to the completely wacky. The manager assured me this spiky panel you see above the bed to the left was securely fastened…
In the main area downstairs is a popular tapas restaurant with communal seating and a living wall by the bar that’s irrigated by drip hoses from rainwater.
To see more options in the city and outside of it, see these reviews of the best hotels in Panama.
Story by Tim Leffel, editor of Hotel Scoop and the Practical Travel Gear blog. He was recently in Panama researching a magazine story.