Ace Hotels recently announced that it was pointing its Midas finger down to Panama, more specifically Casco Viejo, Panama City’s atmospheric old town.
The American Trade Hotel will open in the 1917 building above, later this year. I was in Panama for a few weeks almost a decade ago, when there wasn’t so much as a whisper of hipster-cool. But it had an appeal all of its own – a sort of Havana-meets-Miami-Vice vibe, all shiny skyscrapers, casinos, American bars and pockets of run-down colonialism.
We started the trip in Bocas del Toro, an “I-can’t-believe-nobody-knows-about-this” archipelago at that time only populated with locals, surf-dudes and a smattering of backpackers. We stayed at a little guesthouse called Tio Tom’s that stood over the water, a very rudimentary precursor to the stilted bliss that’s the mainstay of places like the Maldives where we went to sleep listening to the splish splash of water beneath us and woke to a cacophony of birdsong. From there, we trekked across Bastimentos island (there are no roads) to Red Frog Beach where there was just a single shack dispensing beers and soft drinks on the soft white sand. Now there’s the Palmar Tent Lodge, set back in the lush foliage where the strawberry- coloured amphibians who give the beach its name reside.
In Pedasi, we stayed in a dark room at the back of an old lady’s house then hitched a ride down to the beach where each day we’d see only fishermen. Today you can stay in rather more luxurious surroundings at Villa Camilla. Apparently Mick Jagger and Paris Hilton have been seen holidaying in Pedasi.
One place I wouldn’t have minded checking into, had it been open, would be the tropical-modernist vision of bliss that is El Otro Lado. Its sherbet colour-scheme, local artworks and mid-century styling seem to strike the perfect balance of luxury and place – crucially it lets Portobelo National Park do its thing without trying to interfere with vintage bike hire, beach clubs or branded spas.
There’s a lot going on in Panama at the moment – perhaps the next big thing will be direct flights from the UK – and it’s not surprising given everything that it has to offer: tropical beaches, culture, national parks, hot springs and Balboa beer (though probably not cuisine). Seeing it all take shape reminds me of the opening of the Go-Between: “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. It’ll be interesting to see whether Casco Viejo becomes Central America’s version of Williamsburg or Shoreditch.