Lately, when you peruse the travel magazine aisle most headlines are talking about Panama. For the past five years it has been on the horizon as “the next IT spot” to travel to. This influx of popularity is due mainly to the massive expansion project of the Panama Canal expected to be completed by 2014; this is a multi-billion dollar venture that has brought a flood of foreign investors, banks, and new construction to this tiny isthmus of a country. By 2014, the centennial anniversary of the original canal completion, Panama will control the majority of shipping in the world, creating almost a monopoly on all trade routes for goods coming from China to Europe. This anticipation of the new and improved canal, is causing excitement all over the country, and it is almost palpable in the energy that you feel there. Everywhere you look there is new construction causing an often surreal juxtaposition between the third and first world.
This is especially true in Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter), the old section of town that is now a protected heritage site under UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Casco Viejo is filled with churches and buildings that date back to the 1600s, yet overlooks the Panama City skyline that resembles a mini Dubai.
I had always been intrigued by Panama but never had the chance to visit until my longtime friend Adam Rosenburg called. He, along with Matthew Blesso of Blesso Properties, were completing construction and design on Panama City’s first luxury boutique hotel: Tantalo Hotel. Adam challenged me to come down and experience all that Panama has to offer, and I couldn’t say no.
I was shocked at the juxtaposition of abandoned and graffiti-tagged buildings with new, funky hotels and cafes. Yet, since it has been declared an UNESCO Heritage site, the original facades of all of the buildings have to remain unchanged; even though Casco Viejo has undergone impressive renovations, it still feels like you are back in time and that you are standing in what will be a bustling New Orleans in just a few years.
Casco Viejo was built and settled in 1673 after old Panama Viejo was attacked and almost completely destroyed by pirates. The new city of Casco Viejo was built on a peninsula surrounded and isolated by water and defensive walls. The city now is filled with energy, and once there you quickly get the idea that you are a part of something truly amazing. This makes it the perfect site for a hipster new boutique hotel like Tantalo. Each of the hotel’s twelve uniquely designed rooms incorporate artwork by emerging local artists, and each artist had the freedom to design the room through their own mediums and themes. My room had a very indigenous feel to it with tribal-looking drawings of native birds painted on the walls. Casco Viejo was just the beginning of my amazing travels in Panama—a country with more to offer than I ever could have known had I not gone to visit.