We spent two further nights in Panama City, in two vastly different areas and hotels: one night on our way to Bogota and another on our way back to Europe.
Villa Dumas, as the name suggest, is a private, architect-designed villa turned hotel, some 20 minutes from Tokumen airport.
Although parts of it are slightly dated, the rooms and garden largely make up for this. If you do visit, make sure you book the largest executive/presidential suite which has a balcony, two queen size beds, a dressing room and a spectacular green marble bathroom with two sets of washbasins and a huge bathtub.
Ran by a congenial multi-lingual manager, the villa has its own large kitchen that can be used by the guests and a lovely garden where you can enjoy your meals or drinks. It is air-conditioned and at $50 a night, it is the best quirky deal in town.
Grace Hotel Panama is part of a group owned by the Logothetis Greek shipping family. Its modern entrance announces a 5 star hotel and stepping inside, you are instantly crossing the bridge between the continent’s less salubrious aspects and ultra-high end hospitality.
Marble, marble, marble everywhere underscores the hotel’s opulence and the rooms have breathtaking views of this incredible city of skyscrapers through floor to ceiling windows.
We could catch a glimpse of the swimming pool area just on the floor below ours, gleaming in the sun and overlooking the glass buildings all the way to the bay.
The lofty reception area of Grace houses its main restaurant where we had both dinner and buffet style breakfast.
Dinner was seafood themed, with a grilled octopus salad, followed by tuna carpaccio with mustard, soya and sesame seeds dressing, grilled sea bass with mustard coating, while our guest Veronica Vallerino had a seafood ceviche with a glass of Argentinia Malbec. My travel companion had an outstanding Chilean white, while I indulged my passion for micheladas.
A nice touch at the Grace is the Greek-born manager stopping by to introduce himself and have a chat with the guests. A well-travelled man, with exhaustive first-hand knowledge of Central and South America, he would be your best one stop shop for any type of advice related to your tourist or business visit.
Breakfast at the Grace is, as you would expect, quite delicious, with a variety of fresh fruit juices and smoothies, smoked salmon and caper garnished cocktail spoons, local specialities and pastries, and of course great coffee.
If you are travelling across the continent, or even if you are in Panama for a short visit, it is quite the most civilised place to stay at and that’s saying a lot coming from a team that has had its share of indulgences.
This travelogue wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t reserve some space for the old Panama City town in full renovation throttle.
Our guide around Casco Viejo was a former Panamanian envoy to London, Veronica Vallarino, now owner of a concept store in Panama City.
Veronica is a very talented artist as well and her work can be seen at the store on request.
She took us to the boutique of her namesake, Gladys Vallarino, a heavenly place for all things crocodile skin.
Gladys has her own croc farm and designs and makes everything from hand and travel bags to boots and accessories such as Alice bands, cufflinks and bangles. Her inventory is vast and some of the bags, decorated with Inca motifs, quirky enough to be used on the global fashion walk circuit.
Casco Viejo proper is an area that has colonial architecture hotels and boutiques and countless history-rich churches with elaborate gilded altars. It is not cheap, but it is cosmopolitan, full of interesting characters and media types from all over the world, and generally hip.
Driving back into the modern town can be a nightmare, though, so pick your time wisely.
Central and South America are fascinating and accessible via most European and North American cities. Each country has its own strong identity and although there are cultural and gastronomic similarities, each merits a separate visit.
Panama is mostly uncharted, with the obvious exceptions of Panama City and Coronado. Parts of the country don’t have any infrastructure and are only accessible by boat. If you want to experience the jungle, do hire a sailboat and explore the many islands, mostly uninhabited, but at your own risk. Lack of fresh water, power supply and inclement weather join poisonous creatures, large cats and human predators to make this a somewhat uncomfortable, even dangerous adventure.
The above is a fair description of Bocas del Toro as well, with the notable exception of Red Frog Beach, the owners of which have invested a great deal of money to make it eminently enjoyable.
Costa Rica’s east coast and central part are best avoided altogether. As there are no marinas or any boat facilities, access is limited to roads. No fishing trade means no fresh fish on the menu.
It is overpriced, full of itself and quite unwelcoming at times. It is incredibly dirty too, with the notable exception of Cahuita and Kelly’s Creek.
Colombia is a must visit country for the friendliness of its people, the energy and sophistication of its cities, the awesome nature and the variety of wildlife, the food and the great vibe. We miss it already!