It’s difficult to put a tag on Panama. It’s unlike any other place on earth, what with its profound retention of deep influences from various cultures inherited from millions who passed this way at one time or another. This cultural parade began after a Spanish explorer found out in 1513 that its slender isthmus is the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
But be aware, Panama is thoroughly Central American. Still, strong dashes of Europe, Asia, North America and Africa are evident everywhere, leftovers from when workers from all over the world settled here when dredging its famous canal.
Today, the mishmash of cultures these workers brought may be the most charming allure of the country that rightly calls itself “The Crossroads of the World,” with Panama City serving as its vibrant center.
What once was a steamy, brawny port on the Pacific side of the isthmus, is finally asserting itself as a legitimate tourist destination. It’s been a long time coming—especially for a city that’s been a nexus of world trade since the early-1500s when Spaniards built it as a convenient way station for pilfered Peruvian gold heading to Europe.
But it hasn’t been easy. Through the ages Panama City has been sacked by pirates, wracked by pestilence, razed by fire and exploited by occupiers. For years it didn’t register a blip on the Latin American tourist radar.
Indeed, believing that Panama City is nothing more than a stopping point to see the engineering miracle that the canal represents “is so last century.”
Today its skyline consists of sleek buildings full of high-voltage banking and shipping firms. On the ground, ultramodern shopping malls, freeways and fast food joints have prompted some wags to dub Panama City, “The Miami of Central America.” This inevitably leads to the follow-up: “Except that English is spoken more widely here than in Miami,” underlining the considerable sway that the U.S. had when it operated the canal during most of the last century.
Central American witticisms aside, Panama City has managed to absorb the best from those who passed this way. There are so many delightful touches that any visit to this sprawling coastal town of about 700,000 is bound to be memorable.
Panama is such a promising tourist destination that RIU Hotels and Resorts, the highly ranked Spanish hospitality firm, has strayed beyond its usual territory of beachfront luxury properties to open its first hotel in Panama City last October, a place customarily considered almost the exclusive territory of business hotels.
RIU Panama Plaza Resort is also banking on the fact that Panama City has always been a convenient destination for conferences and conventions since the canal put the country on the map as a crucial international financial center, with many multinational companies having a strong presence.
“We have seen in Panama City a good opportunity to make the move toward conferences and incentives for urban businesses,” says Luis Riu, RIU’s CEO. “We present…the best service and philosophy applied into the city. This is an exciting time for the company and also one of the most important challenges [for us].”
The Panama property reflects RIU’s more than 57 years of experience in operating first-class resorts. With this property, RIU has successfully blended the most appealing characteristics of its resorts with the amenities of modern business hotels and poured them into this modern, 35-story building of 645 rooms and suites. The hotel was built at a cost of more than $135 million and is as cosmopolitan as Panama City itself.
While there are superb business facilities—21 conference rooms capable of holding more than 1,300—leisure travelers will find that the hotel’s central location is also ideal for exploring Panama City and its environs.
The rooms are exquisitely decorated (double occupancy rates run anywhere from $300 to $350 for standard and executive rooms; $500 to $1,500 for suites; and $7,000 for a stunning penthouse considered the best in the country) and, although practically new, the hotel’s restaurants are already making local gastronomy critics sit up and take notice.
The hotel’s Arts and Prisma Restaurant is a luxurious retreat serving guests complimentary breakfast, while Tastes, the main restaurant, ladles out delicious fusion dishes combining Panamanian cuisine with international delights. An excellent sushi bar and the Studio 50 restaurant complement the wide range of cuisine served at RIU’s Panama property.