After almost 15 years of living in Panama, I have finally paused for a minute and looked around at what I love about this country. Australian by birth, well-traveled, and not blind to the problems of Panama, I can honestly say I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m constantly amazed at the luck of me putting down roots here.
Panamanian Coffee and French Pastry
There is nothing like waking up to a cup of Panama coffee because it is some of the best coffee in the world. Of course, we have shops such as Starbucks and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, but the unique climate conditions with wind channels from both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the rich soil of the Baru Volcano produces the most expensive and sought-after Geisha coffee, grown here in Panama. I’m never going to be looking for a $600 cup, but I love that Panama has local coffee shops that honor the families who have devoted their lives to cultivating the Geisha bean and that I can enjoy an extraordinary cup for under $4.
Along with my coffee, I often treat myself to a pastry from Petit Paris, or if I’m starting out in Costa del Este, St. Honore. These two French bakeries are always busy, but efficient and I can be in and out with an exquisite treat. I love mixing the smells and just taking a moment to appreciate having the ability to start my day with these treats. If I’m running late, St. Honore has a lovely tuna wrap I can grab for lunch.
Smelly Fish Not So Much
I love good food and there is plenty of it in Panama at reasonable prices. Panama has been ruled by so many different countries and imbued with different cultures that almost every type of cuisine can be found, but it is hard not to embrace the local fish Marlin, tuna, sea bass, grouper, wahoo, shrimp, salmon, snapper, crab, amberjack and lobster are only some of the over 50 kinds of fish harvested in Panamanian waters.
The Mercado de Marisco (fish market), located at the beginning of the Cinta Costera and across the entrance to Casco Viejo, is the center of the fish universe in Panama. Every morning boats bring in the catch from the night before and fresh fish is prepared for selling to the restaurants, individuals and people who come to the market for one of the vendors to cook their selection for lunch or dinner. Ceviche is sold for $1 a cup. I do not love the fish market, but I love what comes out of it.
Let’s face it, the market smells–like fish. It’s wet and giant buzzards fly overhead. People are everywhere–tourists taking photos and restaurateurs and fish buyers negotiating for the best pieces and prices. But, when I’m in a local restaurant or a specialty fish market, I know what I’m buying probably isn’t 24 hours from the Panamanian waters.
Cold Water vs. Warm Water Lobster
There is a wonderful restaurant I absolutely love, but their offerings are sometimes up for discussion and debate. The debate doesn’t mean very much to me, but I do find it interesting when people get so passionate about what is the best of the best. Like many things in Panama, my go-to dining option, Market, has embraced many things “American”–meaning from the United States as opposed to our neighbors to the south or even from Panama.
Market is a restaurant where you always feel welcome and easy. The menu is extensive–from pizza and sushi to dry-aged beef and lobster. For lunch, the Nicoise Salad cannot be beaten. I often promise to venture past it, but the freshly caught, lightly seared tuna always draws me in along with the hint of dressing and fresh local vegetables.
Market has very effective advertising and almost daily they send a notice to their mailing list about what is fresh and on special that day. Often they will extol the virtues of their “Maine Lobsters” or their exquisite dry-aged beef from the highly respected meat wholesaler in Chicago, Allen Brothers. While I am enjoying the finely curated wine list, I hear discussions of why not use lobsters from the San Blas Islands or meat from Argentina or Brazil, both normally ranked higher than anything from the United States. “Because Maine lobsters are sweeter and they have mits!”, I often hear, while feeling warm that this is a place “that always knows your name.”
Direct Flights And More
I love the ease of Tocumen International Airport and that Copa Airlines is hubbed there. With 87 different direct flights worldwide (hello Istanbul). I can be anywhere on the globe with ease, including a quick connection from Los Angeles to Sydney to visit my parents. I am always grateful for the domestic help I can quickly secure and am grateful for the $40 a day it costs. I love that Uber will quickly pick me up at Casa Bonita for less than $10 and get me to Casco Viejo for a night out with friends. I sleep well because I know the medical care I get in Panama is world-class including the plastic surgeon, Alberto Couple, MD with Pacifica Salud, who mended my friend’s face after a horrific accident and 150 stitches with almost no scarring.
When I first arrived in Panama, Costa Rica was making a hard run on attracting tourists. It seemed to me that Panama was asleep at the wheel and it frustrated me. We had better resorts, more beach shorelines, boutique eco-lodges, spectacular surfing curls, hundreds of great hiking trails, unsurpassed deep-sea fishing, incredible birding and, let’s face it, the Panama Canal.
However, it was almost exclusively Costa Rica as the Central American place to visit that was highlighted in the North American press. Now, I understand that countries should not be dependent on a single revenue stream–-even in the case of Panama, where the physical offerings are extraordinary.
Today, Panama is growing into its own in attracting tourists. Plenty of visitors fly on charters directly into the Rio Hato International Airport to enjoy the Pacific shore beaches and all-inclusive and five-star resorts, but that is only a small portion of our tourists. Panama City is alive with options from museums and day ecological trips to microbreweries overlooking the Canal. A twin cruise pier welcomes as many as 10,000 cruisers a day and a 20,000-person convention center is one of the largest in Latin America.
Even More Than Yoga and Chakras
While that is exciting, what I love about Panama is its commitment to embracing resorts that focus on wellness, self-care and mental health while honoring the natural beauty of the country.
Routinely, US publications such as Conde Nast and Travel and Leisure, highlight incredible Panamanian resorts that recognize Panama’s biodiversity, planet Earth and the need for wellness. Islas Secas, located on Panama’s Pacific coast, was just named the best resort in Central America for 2022 by Conde Nast travelers.
My absolute choice however is the recently opened, Alaya Wellness Hotel and Retreat. It’s luxury glamping, embracing the natural beauty of Panama while providing three healthy gourmet meals prepared only from freshly caught fish, beef and locally grown vegetables.
There are also opportunities for surfing, chilling by the infinity pool, horseback riding, boat trips, spa/healing treatments and outings to greet the locals–Howler monkeys. When you pause from taking care of yourself, stargaze for a while from the catamaran deck, lounge in one of the private rest areas or walk along the shore.
There are seven domes, representing the Chakras. Two have private pools, all have private luxury bathrooms and recognizing not everyone can afford such luxury, three additional Dorm Domes with shared bathroom and open accommodations are also offered.
Of course dome living is a special treat. I am thrilled each evening I can share a wine with a friend or just by myself while overlooking the Panama Canal watching the sun set and as the boats queue up for transit. It doesn’t matter if there is a slight breeze or a full-on rainstorm, the view is breathtaking.
Of course, I have lots of properties I can tempt you with, from those near the Domes in Boquete or ones in the heart of the bustling suburb of Costa del Este. Drop me a line if I can answer questions or help you better understand why I am so grateful for Panama.
In the meantime, take a moment to smell the roses!