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Where to Stay in Panama: Lodging Tips

SmarterTravel

Panama’s accommodations have as much variety as its landscapes. In Panama City, sleek new luxury hotels lure travelers into glistening skyscrapers that tower over the rest of the city. Smaller, boutique-chic properties are the “in” thing in Panama City’s historic center, while large chain resorts dominate some parts of the Pacific coast and independent mid-range hotels offer unique options throughout much of the rest of the country.

There’s pretty much something for everyone, but depending on your style and budget, you may do better in certain regions, cities and neighborhoods — so be sure to shop around for the right place to hang your hat.

Full-Service Hotels

Panama has experienced an unprecedented boom in new hotel openings in recent years, especially in Panama City. The nation’s growing economy has made Panama City a “must” for the portfolio of nearly every major international hotel brand.

The fact that there are thousands more hotel rooms today means that you’ll likely get better deals than before, at least in Panama City. Unlike most places in the world, here you can often book a room at the Waldorf Astoria (the first one in Latin America) for less than $250 a night. The same goes for the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower, which occupies part of a gigantic, sail-shaped skyscraper that is one of the city’s most eye-catching pieces of architecture. In short, Panama City is a great place to live it up at luxury hotels that may be out of your budget range in other destinations.

Other top upscale choices include the new Hilton Panama and the InterContinental Miramar Panama, both of which sit on the waterfront and offer spectacular ocean views.

With so many options, Panama City can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing a hotel. A good place to start is Bern Hotels & Resorts, one of the city’s biggest hoteliers; the company owns properties that fly the flags of InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Le Meridien, Holiday Inn and Westin. Bern also owns two noteworthy full-service, resort-style hotels that are just outside the capital: the Westin Playa Bonita and the InterContinental Playa Bonita, which sit adjacent to one another on a private beach area.

Farther away from the capital, one of the best internationally branded hotels is the JW Marriott Panama Golf & Beach Resort, in Rio Hato. This elegant property has a large spa, access to a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, and guestrooms with balconies and private gardens.

Price-conscious travelers who still want a full-service, name-brand hotel may want to check out Tryp by Wyndham. This brand has three well-placed properties in Panama: one in Panama City’s popular El Cangrejo neighborhood, another attached to the massive Albrook Mall (perfect for shopaholics) and a third, resort-style property in the beach town of Coronado.

Panama Hotel Resources:
BernHotelsPanama.com
Hilton.com
Marriott.com
StarwoodHotels.com
TrumpHotelCollection.com
TrypHotels.com
WaldorfAstoriaPanama.com

Boutique Hotels

The term “boutique hotel” is used loosely nowadays by the hospitality industry, but in Panama, the best of the bunch interpret the category as a stylish, small property with interesting decor and amenities.

The white-hot center of the local boutique hotel scene is in Panama City’s Casco Antiguo, the oldest still-inhabited section of town. Major investment has resulted in impressive renovations of many historic buildings here, and a few now operate as hotels. The property that gets the most attention is the American Trade Hotel, a formerly abandoned property that’s been stylishly renovated with help from the investors behind U.S.-based Ace Hotels. It’s home to a well-regarded restaurant and a pricey jazz club.

Also worth checking out is Las Clementinas, set in a handsomely restored 1930s apartment building. The lovely one-bedroom suites, complete with kitchenettes, will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time (although the modern amenities and contemporary art will help you realize that’s not the case).

The Caribbean beach destination of Bocas del Toro is also worthwhile for its range of boutique hotels, although some may be a bit more rustic than those in Panama City (which makes sense, since visitors head to Bocas del Toro to be close to nature). Upscale favorites in Bocas include Playa Tortuga, which has a fitness center, two restaurants, and guestrooms with private balconies and marble bathrooms, and Tropical Suites, which has a glass-bottomed Starfish Suite — perfect for enjoying views both above and below the water. Among the most picturesque hotel options here is Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge, a postcard-perfect island getaway where guests stay in cabins above the water along a mile-long coral reef.

Panama Boutique Hotel Resources:
AceHotel.com/panama
BocasTropical.com
HotelPlayaTortuga.com
LasClementinas.com
PuntaCaracol.com.pa

Vacation Rentals

With the overall boom in real estate construction, there are more condos and apartments than ever before in Panama’s most developed areas. You won’t find quite the variety of short-term rentals as you would in other larger countries like Mexico and Argentina, but some of the properties are truly stunning.

Short-term rental homes in Panama range from small apartments to giant condos and stand-alone homes, and vary greatly in terms of ambience and amenities, so be sure to shop around. Since there are a lot of vacation condos on the Pacific coast, that’s a good place to look for spacious condos with multiple bedrooms, kitchens and access to amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts and fitness centers.

Among the best sites for Panama home rentals are FlipKey, HomeAway and VRBO. Airbnb is just as likely to list hotel rooms as private rental homes in Panama, but it can still be worth checking out.

Panama Vacation Rental Resources:
Airbnb.com
FlipKey.com
HomeAway.com
VRBO.com

All-Inclusive Resort Hotels

The all-inclusive concept is relatively new to Panama and so not as prominent as it is in destinations like Mexico and Costa Rica. But you can still find some noteworthy choices, especially on the Pacific coast.

The largest number of all-inclusive, resort-style hotels are within an hour or two by car from Panama City, making them a popular choice for people who live in the capital and need a quick vacation getaway. One of the largest choices is the 852-room Royal Decameron in Playa Blanca, about 90 minutes from Panama City. The property has eight restaurants, 11 bars, a golf course and a nightclub, and its relatively reasonable prices make it a popular choice for families. Also in Playa Blanca is the 573-room Riu Playa Blanca, which opened in 2014. The Riu has a fitness center, numerous restaurants and pools, a children’s club and a nightclub, and decor is in the typically colorful Riu style.

On a smaller scale is the nearby 219-room Playa Blanca Beach Resort & Spa, which has a spa, a fitness center and nightly entertainment. Travelers looking for well-recognized international brands might consider the 211-room Wyndham Grand Playa Blanca, where rooms are well equipped with iPod docking stations, 32-inch televisions and laptop-friendly safes.

Also worth considering is the 293-room Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort, located in the Bijao complex in the Santa Clara region. Every room has either a balcony or a terrace (you’ll pay more for a view of the ocean, of course), and guests can customize their beds with selections from a pillow menu.

Panama All-Inclusive Resort Resources:
Decameron.com
PlayaBlancaResort.com
Riu.com
SheratonBijao.com
Wyndham.com

Hostels

Bargain-priced hostels are more common in Panama City than elsewhere in the nation, although the capital’s lodging scene is so competitive that you may do just as well to pay a few extra dollars and stay in a full-service hotel. That said, Panama’s hostels are undeniably a good deal and can also add a refreshing element of sociability to the travel experience.

Top-rated hostels in Panama City include Luna’s Castle, which is well located in the historic Casco Antiguo district with a choice of dorms and private rooms. All rates include a free pancake-and-banana breakfast, coffee, Wi-Fi, and bicycles and even guitars for guests to use. The hostel’s own small movie theater screens films for guests.

Also in the Casco Antiguo is the Magnolia Inn, set in a restored historical mansion. Private rooms with bathrooms are priced comparably to hotels, while dorms are also available. All rooms offer air conditioning and Wi-Fi.

Surf enthusiasts and swimmers looking for hostel-style accommodations should consider Villa Vento Surf, which operates two hostels in Panama. Villa Vento Surf Panama City, in the capital’s upscale Marbella neighborhood, differs from most hostels since it has a swimming pool, and its inexpensive, dorm-style accommodations are good for travelers who want to be close to Calle Uruguay, where several popular bars are located. Villa Vento Surf Morillo, meanwhile, is designed to be a surfer’s paradise, in the Veraguas region about five hours from Panama City, with easy access to the waves and accommodation options that include dorms and private rooms.

Panama Hostel Resources:
LunasCastleHostel.com
MagnoliaPanama.com
VillaVentoSurfHostels.com

Camping

Sleeping in the great outdoors can be a rewarding experience in a destination as naturally beautiful as Panama. While there aren’t many designated campgrounds, several regions offer unique and memorable places to spend a night under the stars.

In the semi-autonomous region of Guna Yala, you can sleep by yourself on a completely uninhabited Caribbean island, surrounded by nothing but swaying palm trees. You won’t find bathrooms or any other facilities on these tiny islands, so you probably won’t want to spend too much time there. Most people set up these brief camping adventures through nearby hotels, which can provide roundtrip transportation and supplies to and from the camping site. Among the best islands for camping here are Isla Porvenir, Isla Achutupu and Icotupu.

Several national parks in Panama also have camping areas, including Soberania National Park, which is only about 30 minutes from Panama City. This 55,000-acre rain forest park is graced with lots of wildlife, including countless bird species, making it an especially fun place for bird watching. La Amistad International Park, which spans the border between Panama and Costa Rica, also has a camping area.

Since Panama’s campgrounds don’t maintain a very detailed presence online, the easiest way to set up a camping trip is by checking with the tourist office or working with experienced outdoor tour operators like EcoCircuitos Panama, which organizes custom camping itineraries in the Coiba, Darien, Cope and Amistad national parks, as well as inside indigenous communities.

Panama Camping Resources:
EcoCircuitos.com
VisitPanama.com

— written by Mark Chesnut

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns FlipKey.com.

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