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A Cosmopolitan Vibe and Ancestral Pride Enrich Modern-Day Panamá City

by Brandon Schultz

Feb 8, 2024

PHOTO: © RODRIGO CUEL | DREAMSTIME.COM

February 2024

PHOTO: © IVANSABO | DREAMSTIME.COM

Consistently the wealthiest nation in Central America, Panamá owes much of its early economic stability to the service industries supported by the Panama Canal and to its use of the United States dollar as an official currency, supporting international business. But while the Canal may have started it all, it’s becoming something of an afterthought for both tourism and the future of business in the Panamanian capital today. For evidence of Panamá City’s economic prowess in the region, you need only observe its impressive line of coastal skyscrapers, the most of any city or country in Latin America, standing in mesmerizing contrast to its natural resources and the historical architecture of surrounding neighborhoods.

From hiking and watersports to visiting native populations, many of Panamá City’s top treasures are accessed through easy excursions outside the city itself. For the fullest experience of these diverse offerings, a stay of around 10 days is recommended, but you can certainly dive into a handful of highlights over a shorter vacation and even between meetings.

Despite the use of the U.S. dollar and the history of U.S. presence in Panamá City, many locals outside of the business community don’t speak English, and the Spanish here is not quite the one you may have learned with an American education. If language barriers give you pause, you may want to hire one of many private tour guides available for exploring neighborhoods, viewing top attractions or even for the duration of your stay. This is not to say you need one; Panamanians are welcoming, and the city is quite tourist- and business traveler-friendly.

CHECKING IN WITH FERNANDO FONDEVILA
CEO, PROMTUR Panamá

What are the most exciting changes underway in Panamá City culture right now?
Historically, Panamá has been a meeting point for people, businesses and ideas. Established thousands of years ago by ancient civilizations, the land that has become modern-day Panamá features an enriching mix of cultural diversity where indigenous roots merge with African heritage and Spanish influence. The abundance that results from the convergence of this cultural wealth makes Panamá an ideal destination for travelers seeking authentic and stimulating destinations. Particularly in Panamá City, we’ve seen an increase in modernity and an active cosmopolitan life over the past decade or so, but one that blends seamlessly with ancestral cultures and rich traditions, making for a unique travel experience.

© AURELIO TAMAYO | DREAMSTIME.COM

In what ways will visitors see that exemplified?
In Panamá City you can find the Casco Antiguo and Panamá Viejo neighborhoods, both labeled UNESCO Cultural World Heritage sites, blending beautifully with a modern skyline showcasing the booming business and cosmopolitan lifestyle of this Latin American hot spot. As a testament to the rich culture alive in Panamá City, it was recently declared a Creative City of Gastronomy for its rich multicultural heritage of flavors and inspiring creativity. Eating in Panamá City is like embarking on a trip around the world with your palate: Each dish and restaurant you find hidden in the streets of Panamá City is a result of the myriad cultures that have arrived and settled in the country for centuries.

What industries should we be watching in Panamá City?
An industry to watch in Panamá City is the conference and convention tourism that has exploded in the last few years. Our city stands out in the region for having a modern and adequate infrastructure to support convention- and conference-related tourism. We have the Panama Convention Center, a world-class convention center that has a capacity of 23,000 visitors. In addition, we have a large number and variety of hotels and restaurants guaranteeing visitors different options to choose from and a first-class stay, all while encouraging cultural immersion while on business.

How does the convention industry enhance tourism for Panamá City, outside of just bringing people in for a few days at a time?
Convention tourism is the perfect opportunity to encourage people to come and meet us in order to get a taste of what Panamá has to offer. A positive experience during the convention will motivate visitors to return to enjoy other facets of our country, ultimately contributing to sustainable tourism and continued economic growth. This phenomenon reinforces the importance of offering attractive experiences both in business events and in leisure activities tied to tourism.

As the skyscraper capital of Latin America, how does Panamá City focus on attracting international business?
Leveraged by these enormous competitive advantages, at PROMTUR Panamá we promote the establishment of an association center called Panama Association Hub. It’s a pioneering project in the region which seeks to attract international associations and organizations to establish their offices and operations in the country and is a result of the agreement that Panamá maintains as the only Latin American partner of the International Congress and Convention Association. With this initiative, Panamá became the headquarters of the first Association Center in Latin America and has positioned itself as the gateway for knowledge, innovation and meetings for Latin America, the Caribbean and beyond.

PHOTO: © GUALBERTO BECERRA | DREAMSTIME.COM

DIVERSIONS
Not visiting the Panama Canal would be nearly unconscionable, and the visitor center at Miraflores Locks provides the closest place to do so. It’s about 20 minutes from the city and easily reached by car, including Uber, or bus. Inside the city the Casco Viejo neighborhood provides all the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture you and your camera could hope for, while twisting skyscraper El Tornillo, in the business district, best represents the city’s modernity and forward- thinking outlook.

Panamá remains home to seven native groups, and a visit to an Emberá village provides cultural insights to the region’s most authentic heritage. Guided tours from the city often include performances, a group meal prepared by the community, and add-ons like river and waterfall tours by canoe with Emberá guides. These communities continue their ancestral traditions of government; housing; education; and culture, including masterful weaving, carving and other arts, plenty of which you can purchase for gifts or souvenirs.

LODGING
Hotel La Compañia
This Unbound Collection property in a landmark Casco Viejo building includes wings dating to the 17th century and oozes sophisticated design combining both the modern and historical.
Av. A y Calle 8, Panamá City
$$$$

The Santa Maria
For a resort stay away from city center, The Santa Maria is a Luxury Collection property complete with indulgent spa facilities and a Jack Nicklaus- designed golf course.
Calle 125 Este, Urbanizacion, Panamá City
$$$$

Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo
Inside a gorgeous, historical building in Casco Viejo, this fully modern Sofitel offers waterfront rooms with views of the city’s skyscrapers across the water.
Calle 1a Oeste, Panamá City
$$$$

DINING
Angel Restaurante
For seafood specialties with a heavy Spanish culinary influence, this upscale restaurant proves a hit for both leisure and business dining, with a private room available for groups.
XFQF + J72, Vía Argentina, Panamá City
$$$–$$$$

Gauchos Steak House
A favorite spot for a steak dinner of top quality without white tablecloths, the atmosphere is laid-back, but the beef is taken seriously. Plenty of options for the meat-averse, too.
Calle Uruguay esquina Calle 48, Panamá City
$$$

Restaurante Maito
Traditional inspiration and colorful, local ingredients combine to create modern-day masterpieces at this restaurant, regularly ranked on Latin America’s 50 Best list. This is Panamá City’s top fine-dining reservation.
Calle 50, Panamá City $$$

COMING AND GOING
U.S. citizens must have a passport valid for six months from arrival, proof of $500 in available assets (credit card generally accepted) and a return plane ticket departing Panamá.

OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Spanish

JUST THE FACTS
Time zone: GMT-5 (no Daylight Saving Time)
Phone code: Country Code: 507
Currency: Panamanian balboa and U.S. dollar
Key industries: Banking, insurance, container ports, tourism

INFO TO GO
Tocumen International Airport is the hub for Copa Airlines (Star Alliance) and, as the largest airport in Central America, serves more than 65 cities in the Americas and Europe. There are currently direct flights from 12 U.S. airports. Driving in Panamá City is manageable, and rentals are available at the airport. Ride- share and taxis are also plentiful at the airport and within the city; find pickup for both across the street from the Arrivals terminal, in the parking area.

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