4 min

Panama City

‘Dubai of Latin America’ is a hotspot for excitement

Credit: Mark Chesnut

The first thing you’ll probably notice about Panama City is the skyline. When you’re approaching the Panamanian capital from its international airport, the skyscrapers seem to rise up endlessly. Indeed, this fast-growing Central American metropolis has enjoyed such a massive growth spurt in recent years that some people have dubbed the destination the Dubai of Latin America. But look beyond the shiny, fast-growing towers and you’ll find an increasingly gay-friendly destination with a cultured, modern vibe.

Historic and hip
The hippest heart of Panama City also happens to be one of its oldest neighbourhoods. The Casco Antiguo (sometimes called the Casco Viejo) isn’t where Panama City was first founded back in 1519, but after the original colonial settlement — now known as Panama La Vieja, a set of ruins that’s a popular tourist site — was destroyed by fire and a pirate attack in 1671, the founders moved to what is now known as the Casco. And after decades of neglect, the Casco Antiguo — a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its rich mix of eclectic architecture that ranges from Colonial to Art Deco — has become one of the city’s most exciting places to be, with architectural renovations and the debut of an array of stylish boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and bars.

You can easily spend a couple of days wandering the narrow streets of the Casco Antiguo, exploring attractions like the Catedral Metropolitana, which took more than 100 years to build, and the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, which highlights not only the history of Panama’s most famous tourism and transportation site, but also the nation itself.

The Panama Canal, of course, is one of the best-known feats of engineering of the 20th century, and today it’s undergoing a massive expansion that will double capacity in some areas. For the best views, head to the Miraflores Locks, where a well-equipped visitors’ centre provides details about its history and expansion, as well as an excellent vantage point for watching giant freighters move through the locks. You can also join tours operated by the gay-friendly EcoCircuitos, which offers Panama Canal transits through the locks as well as kayaking in nearby Gatun Lake. At the mouth of the Panama Canal in Panama City, meanwhile, a stunning new attraction is slated to open in 2014: the Biomuseo, a colourful piece of architecture designed by architect Frank Gehry that will house a museum dedicated to natural history.

Gay nightlife
Panama City has a lively gay nightlife scene, although it’s active mostly on weekends and is spread out among several neighbourhoods. Gay bars and clubs in Panama City are targeted more at the local population than foreign visitors, and the lack of exact street addresses can be a bit daunting to first-time visitors who don’t speak Spanish (instead of using street numbers, most addresses for bars simply mention the street along with the nearest local landmark). So make friends before or during your trip or ask the hotel to help you get reliable taxi drivers and you’ll be fine.

Probably the most conveniently located gay club for visitors is Distinción, located in the upscale Punta Paitilla neighbourhood, near several hotels. It’s a compact but popular club with a dancefloor and live DJs. The largest dance club, Icon, is open Thursday through Sunday and packs in large crowds of men, women and straight people who appreciate good music. Xscape Bar is another good choice; it’s a small, two-storey bar that hosts drag shows and male strippers. Recently moved to a new location is Lips, a dance club with drag shows that’s now located where a long-running gay club called BLG used to be (a helpful piece of information to share with taxi drivers). Trendy LGBT types, meanwhile, are just as likely to head to the Casco Antiguo, where specifically gay nightlife has yet to take root (aside from a tiny, rather unattractive little bar called La Madrid), but the cool rooftop bars at the Tantalo hotel and the Panamericana Hostel attract a very mixed, well-dressed crowd.

More hotels than ever
With thousands of brand-new hotel rooms being added to Panama’s tourism inventory over the course of just a few years, there are fresh choices every year in the nation’s capital. In the Casco Antiguo, the boutique-style Canal House, where Daniel Craig stayed during the filming of Quantum of Solace, and Las Clementinas, set in a former apartment building that dates to the 1930s, are among the most stylish hotel options.

To enjoy one of the city’s best hotel swimming pools — as well as one of its most striking architectural statements — check into the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower, set in a sail-shaped, 70-storey skyscraper. The hotel is part of Preferred Pride, Preferred Hotel Group’s LGBT-targeted marketing group.

Fans of mid-century modern architecture should consider the El Panama, which is also part of Preferred Hotel Group. In 1946, investors commissioned famed architect Edward Durell Stone, known for his work on Radio City Music Hall, the Museum of Modern Art and the Kennedy Center, to design this hotel as a modern urban oasis — the interior design has since been updated many times, of course, and the large pool is still a great place to relax and sip a cocktail.

Other top luxury hotel choices include the Bristol Panama, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, which offers superb service and apartment-like suites, and the Waldorf Astoria Panama, which opened this year, marking the brand’s debut in Central America. Nearby, Le Meridien Panama delivers sleek upscale style, while the Miramar InterContinental offers some of the best views of the Pacific Ocean. If beach time is a priority, you’ll need to leave the city; the closest options are the Westin Playa Bonita and InterContinental Playa Bonita resorts, both of which are about 15 minutes outside of town, just across the Panama Canal.

For value prices with plenty of amenities, consider the TRYP by Wyndham brand, which operates two hotels in Panama City: one in the bustling El Cangrejo district and the brand-new TRYP by Wyndham Panama Albrook Mall, attached to one of the city’s largest shopping centres.

For general travel information about Panama, visit the nation’s official tourism website