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 don’t know much about this isthmus country, which rose from the ocean to connect the continents of South and North America about 2.8 million years ago, permanently changing currents, climate and biodiversity. I heard rumours of a burgeoning gourmet scene in Panama City, with innovative restaurants built inside restored colonial buildings, but it is 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 pique my interest.
My best friend and I start our adventure in Panama City by checking in to the American Trade Hotel, an elegant property with an enviable pool, a trendy coffee shop and the thriving Danilo’s Jazz Club. Set on Plaza Herrera in the heart of the Unesco-listed Casco Viejo (Spanish for “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, giving even Manhattan a run for its money.
Decorated with wood panelling and geometrical floor tiles, our spacious room features a giant bed draped in striped blankets, Frette towels and Aesop toiletries in the bathroom, as well as a leafy balcony overlooking the baroque façade of Iglesia de la Merced. On our first evening, we happen to witness a traditional Panamanian wedding, where the bride and groom lead a procession of their friends and family through the church doors and down the street, singing, dancing and twirling sparklers as they go. Later, we dine on ceviche at the hotel’s restaurant, which houses a striking macramé wall hanging by Los Angeles-based artist Tanya Aguiñiga.
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