There are two miraculous reasons to travel to Guadalajara de Buga. One involves a crucifix. The other involves craft beer.
The miraculous crucifix of Buga
Guadalajara de Buga (usually simply called Buga) is just 45 miles (70 km) from Cali, but the tranquility of this colonial town, whose architecture and living tradition earned it a place on Colombia’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio, makes Buga feel a world away from the big city.
Founded in 1555, Buga is one of the oldest cities in Colombia and its main claim to fame is a story that’s nearly as old. As the legend goes, an indigenous washer woman was trying to save money to buy a crucifix. She finally washed enough clothes in the local river to save the money needed to buy a simple crucifix. However, as she was on her way to make the purchase she saw a neighbor being hauled off to jail because of unpaid debts.
Instead of buying the crucifix, the woman paid off her neighbor’s debts. When she returned to work in the river she noticed something shiny in the water and discovered a small crucifix floating by. She grabbed it and brought it home where the crucifix continued to grow and grow.
Today, the legend of the indigenous washer woman and her miraculously growing crucifix is marked by The Lord of the Miracles, a distinct dark-skinned Christ on the cross, which is housed in the Basilica del Senor de los Milagros in Buga. Every year millions of pilgrims visit the pink church.
The miraculous craft beer of Buga
If you worship at the house of hops, you’re in luck as well.
Brew master Stefan Schnur with some of his Holy Water Ale beers made in Buga, Colombia.
When German Stefan Schnur arrived in Buga he did not intend to create the only bed & beer hostel in Colombia, but that’s what he did when he opened the Buga Hostel in 2011.
The hostel is affordable with standard hostel accommodation. The Holy Water Ale brew pub and cafe attached to the hostel, however, is a craft beer miracle with nine different beers brewed by Stefan at a small, nearby brewery. There’s also an inventive menu including homemade bread and legit pizzas with locally made sausage and other great toppings on homemade crust. Don’t miss happy hour.
The Holy Water brew pub, part of the Buga Hostel in Colombia.
Salento is not a secret. Lots of travelers to Colombia visit the mountain town above the gorgeous Cocora Valley every year. Locals love it too. After spending weeks in Salento over four separate trips, we’ve got your insider’s travel guide to paradise including a great new hotel, the smartest days to visit and where and how to see the best of the area’s famous wax palms (it’s not where you think).
Traditional architecture and a laid back vibe bring many travelers–foreign and Colombian–to the mountain town of Salento.
Salento, a Colombian paradise
Salento was founded in 1850 and proudly wears its badge as one of the oldest towns in Quindio province. The more charming parts of town take you back in time with cobble stone streets, meticulous traditional paint jobs on original adobe buildings with terracotta roof tiles and fire-engine-red geraniums everywhere. In 2011 UNESCO named a large swath of Quindio province, including Salento, as a “Coffee Cultural Landscape”.
The main plaza and church in Salento, Colombia.
Salento is like a smaller, more tranquil version of the town of Jardin except on weekends when Salento bursts at the seams as Colombian visitors descend on town creating traffic jams in the main plaza, filling hotels (some charge higher rates on weekends) and jamming the pedestrian street lined with shops selling everything from coffee to hats. On weekdays the town slips back into a sleepy pace, so our first Salento travel tip is: avoid weekends if you want a more peaceful experience.
The road into the Cocora Valley from the town of Salento, and it just gets more and more gorgeous from here.
Finding the (best) wax palms in Salento
There are plenty of things to do in Salento including hiking, biking, horseback riding, shopping, coffee touring and tasting, playing an explosive (literally) Colombian bar game called tejo and there’s even a zip line now. But the real reason you’re there is to see the famous wax palms of Salento, right?
Wax palms in the Cocora Valley below Salento.
Wax palms are a distinct species found only in the Andes in parts of Colombia and Peru. They are the tallest palm in the world and most grow to about 150 feet (45 meters) but some shoot up to 200 feet (60 meters). They’re also the national tree of Colombia.
The Cocora Valley unfurls below Salento.
Salento sits on a ridge above the Cocora Valley which is home to some of the few remaining stands of wax palms. Most visitors take a shared jeep taxi from town down into the picture perfect valley a few miles away: green pastures, rolling hills, an ambling narrow road, babbling brooks, historic haciendas – it’s got it all. See what we’re talking about in our drone travel footage of the Cocora Valley, below.
At the head of the Cocora Valley there’s a five hour loop trail which winds through small stands of the palms. It’s picturesque and the palms are stunningly tall, like the giraffes of the palm world, but these most famous wax palms are not the best examples on offer.
Wax palms in the Cocora Valley.
It wasn’t until our second or third visit to Salento that we learned that the Cocora Valley wax palms are nothing compared to the even more amazing palms that exist in a neighboring valley on and around a finca called La Carbonera. How do we know this? Because we’ve been adopted by a magical Colombian auntie (Hi B! We miss you!) and her family owns La Carbonera.
Classic Willys Jeeps are used as taxis in Salento.
She took us to La Carbonera, which is located about about 1.5 hours from Salento on a road that includes parts of the Camino Real which Latin revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar traveled along between Ecuador and Nicaragua. So here’s our next Salento travel tip: hire a jeep taxi and driver in the main square to take you to La Carbonera. Be ready for a bumpy, dusty ride, but it’s worth it (150,000 COP or about US$50 round trip for the whole jeep which will seat 5 people in addition to the driver).
Travel tip: the wax palms on the road to a finca called La Carbonera are much denser and more impressive than those in the Cocora Valley and we can tell you how to get there.
Right from the road to La Carbonera you will see thousands of wax palms clumped in large, swaying stands which blow the palms in the Cocora Valley out of the water.
What to eat and drink in Salento
Small trout farms are abundant in the area and many restaurants sell trout in various forms. Another Salento travel tip: you will see trucha al ajillo (trout with garlic) on menus everywhere. Be aware that this dish is not simply trout cooked in garlic. Your fish will come smothered in a milky, mildly garlicy sauce. Just so you know.
Fried trout on a platter-sized patacon is a common (and delicious) dish in Salento.
Dairy products are also huge in Salento thanks to sprawling cattle farms. Get some local cheese, then head to the small supermarket on the main square, walk to the back near the produce section and look for baskets of small baguettes made daily by a local woman. Yep, that’s another tip.
Many diary products are produced in and around Salento and some are sold at this creative road side stand on the way into town.
Whatever you do, don’t leave town until you’ve tried a patacon. Usually, patacones are thick discs of boiled, pressed, then fried plantain which come as a common side dish. In Salento, a patacon is a very thin, crispy version the size of a dinner plate which is topped with cheese, chicken, trout, etc. and garnished with rich hogao which is a common Colombian sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables. You won’t find this delicious dish in many other parts of Colombia and we still crave it from time to time.
Don’t leave Salento without trying a thin, crispy patacon topped with meat, cheese and hogao.
Salento is in the so-called “coffee triangle” so there are lots of area coffee producers (some offering tours of their farms and facilities) and many cafes in town. We liked Cafe Bernabe Gourmet because the coffee was good and so was the art on the walls. Another solid place to caffeine up is Cafe Jesus Martin. We liked their coffee so much that we bought a few bags of beans to keep with us in the truck for future use in our beloved Bonjour insulated French Press.
Excellent coffee at the Jesus Martin cafe in Salento.
On weekends, open air bars open around the square under tents and they’re a great place to grab a beer and watch Colombian families. Speaking of beer, if you’ve been looking for an opportunity to play tejo, Colombia’s beloved bar game, you can do it in Salento. Here’s where to play tejo in Salento.
On the weekends enterprising locals push Colombian kids around the main plaza while their parents relax in the casual restaurants and bars around the square.
Where to sleep in Salento
There are more than 70 hostels and hotels in little tiny Salento, so choice is not the problem. During our very first visit we stayed at the stylish and peaceful Hostel Tralala, just off the main square, which has a dorm, two lovely shared kitchens which include free coffee, there’s a casita off the garden and a handful of and private rooms (70,000 COP or about US$24 for a private double with bathroom/60,000 COP or about US$20 with shared bathroom).
We also spent a few days in a one room apartment outside of town which is rented by Maria Clara who also bakes those baguettes we recommended above. It’s sunny, clean and comfortable with a large porch with a hammock. It’s a great option for families or those staying longer term, but her current rates are a bit steep for us at 120,000 COP or about US$40 per night, contact Maria Clara at claragarciamar AT hotmail DOT com or call 3133717249, she speaks English).
We also stayed at La Floresta Hostel which has a parking lot and basic but fairly clean rooms and a pretty filthy shared kitchen (55,000 COP or about US$17 per night for a private double with bathroom, there’s also a camping area and dorms).
Reserva El Cairo Hotel is a lovely new addition just a few miles from town in the Cocora Valley.
During our most recent visit to Salento we were delighted to tour the new seven room Reserva El Cairo Hotel. Located two miles (3 km) outside of town in the Cocora Valley (taxis are common and cheap), this hotel is peaceful and combines sustainability with traditional architecture. The restored building, formerly a private house, is more than 100 years old and rooms now have modern bathrooms and good beds plus a basket full of locally-made snacks. Staff members speak English and they’re passionate about service. They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables and produce their own milk, butter, eggs and chickens on their 100 acres (40 hectares) of land.
Despite the importance of Salento and the Cocora Valley as a tourist destination, the area’s UNESCO site status, and it’s standing as home to the country’s rare national tree, there’s a new plan afoot that would allow open pit mining for gold in the region. There is local backlash, so stay tuned.
Welcome to Part 3 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 3 is our guide to the Best Hotels we stayed at during the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including where to sleep in Mick Jagger’s bed in Peru, the most dramatic check-in in Ecuador and the best Bed & Beer in Colombia. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2015, Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.
In 2015 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and we drove 7,210 miles (11,603 km) doing it. Want more geeky road trip numbers like how much money we’ve spent on gas and how many borders we’ve driven over? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page on our website.
And now, in no particular order, here’s our travel guide to the best hotels in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru of 2015.
Best Hotels Guide for 2015
Best bohemichic hotel: The indigenous quechua word “kenti” means “hummingbird”. The Quechua word “tambo” means inn. The Kentitambo Hotel, just outside Leymebamba in Peru, lives up to the name with a hummingbird filled garden surrounding its two large suites. Cobblestone paths wind through the lush flowers. Owner Adriana Von Hagen has created two relaxed and stylish suites, one upstairs (pictured above) and one downstairs, which feature vibrant textiles, lots of sunlight, a porch with a hammock, small deer antlers used as towel hooks and gleaming wood floors. Right across the street is the excellent Museo Leymebamba which houses a collection of artifacts, including 200 mummies.
Best new mid range hotel in Quito:Hotel Zen Suites, opened in late 2015, is conveniently located between the La Floresta and Mariscal neighborhoods of Quito, Ecuador just 10 minutes by (very affordable) taxi to the city’s colonial center which was part of the very first group of cities inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1978. Most of the 47 rooms at the hotel feature great views of the city skyline and surrounding Andes mountains from a wall of floor to ceiling windows and some rooms have private patios. All rooms have plush bedding, rain shower heads and mini fridges. Rooms on the 8th floor have small balconies.There’s also a small but effective gym and a business center. Coffee and tea are available all day and the staff speaks English (not always a given in Ecuador). Rates, from US$97 per night, include a full breakfast buffet, which is much cheaper than similarly appointed hotels in the area.
Best view from bed: The 2,531 foot (771 meter) high Gocta Waterfall, in the town of Cocachimba in northern Peru, has the fifth longest free-falling waterfall drop in the world, which is to say it’s an impressive sight. Make the most of it by booking a room at the sleek and stylish Gocta Lodge where all 10 rooms afford views of the cascade right from bed. Get a room on the second floor for more privacy so you can keep your curtains open all the time.
Best bed and beer: The town of Buga, Colombia is most famous as the site of what some perceive as a miracle. Pilgrims come to the church in Buga regularly. Those who worship good beer should visit as well because Buga is home to Buga Hostal and the Holy Water Ale Cafe, Colombia’s only Bed & Beer. The hostal is affordable and fine. The brew pub attached to the hostal is great, offering a range of delicious beers on tap made by German owner and brew master Stefan Schnur. Bonus: the pizza is legit too.
Best curtains: The 22 rooms at Masphi Eco Lodge, the most luxurious way to stay in the rain forest in Ecuador, each have a different, vibrantly colored, massive remote-control operated curtain over a wall of windows. Upon check in, the curtain is raised to reveal a stunning view of the rain forest (and its inhabitants) just outside your room (pictured above). Your stay just gets more stunning from there.
Best place to sleep in Mick Jagger’s bed: Actors, crew and director Werner Herzog descended on the Peruvian Amazon to film the movie “Fitzcarraldo” which tells the crazy real life tale of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald who moved a 320 ton ship over a mountain to reach a different Amazon tributary. Shooting in the jungle took years. Cast members, including Mick Jagger, came and went. Somehow, the movie was made (if you haven’t seen it you should fix that). Through it all, cast and crew used a sprawling house in Iquitos, Peru as their base. Today, the executive producer of the movie, Walter Saxer, runs the house as La Casa Fitzcarraldo hotel. You can sleep in Mick Jagger’s room (above) or in the bungalow where Werner Herzog and his wife lived and fought. Don’t miss the chance to chat with Walter to gain even more incredible insights into the making of the movie.
Best new hotel in Colombia:Reserva El Cairo Hotel (above) brings the right mix of modern sustainability and Colombian traditional architecture (the restored and converted house is more than 100 years old) to the Salento area of central Colombia. Nestled in the Cocora Valley, a few miles away from the fray in the picturesque town of Salento, the hotel is surrounded by the storybook beauty of this valley which is home to stands of wax palms which are Colombia’s national tree and the tallest palm on the planet.
Best headboard: The awesome graphics of tucans perched on urban power lines behind the luxe beds at Tucan Suites (above) in Tarapoto, Peru are arresting, playful and the perfect embodiment of this super-chic retreat in the gateway to Peru’s northern Amazon which is a haven for tucans and tourists alike.
Best floating luxury hotel: There are many ways to float down the Amazon river but nothing reaches the level of luxury, cuisine and service offered by Aqua Expeditions which operates the Aqua Amazon River Boat and the Aria Amazon River Boat. We spent four days on the Aria which is, essentially, a floating world-class boutique hotel (above). Suites are elegantly designed. Staff members are polished and English-speaking. The food is fantastic with a cuisine program lead by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima. The on-board experience is so good that you almost don’t want to leave the mother ship for guided excursions into the Amazon. Almost.
Best love motel: A love motel is a discreet place, often on the edge of big cities, where lovers (covert or not) can shack up by the hour. They’re ubiquitous, popular and largely without stigma in Latin America were it’s common for couples to live at home where privacy is at a premium. You can pull into a love motel, park your vehicle in a garage so no one can see your plates, enter your room and register all without ever being face to face with another human. Room service is delivered via a revolving lazy Susan in the wall to retain anonymity. Guests are often supplied with condoms and the better love motels have porn on the TV, Jacuzzis, condoms and even sex toys. The best love motel of 2015, by far, were the Geisha Love Motels in Cali, Colombia with their random, Japanese theme, sex chairs in the rooms which “accommodate 3” plus available “medical assistance” all for 60,000 cop (about US$20) for eight hours. For your convenience, there are two locations in Cali, one north of the city and one south of the city.
Best budget hotel with a random Egypt obsession: Rates at Hostal El Aribalo in Catacoas, Peru are a big draw – at just 70 soles (about US$20) for a private room with WiFi, fan, TV, hot water bathroom and an enormous parking lot it’s a bargain. The other draw is the unique decor. Never mind that the street out front is noisy and there was no mirror in our bathroom (only a huge one in front of the bed…) and the shower didn’t work properly and they’re using a bed skirt as a top sheet…We had King Tut in front of our door and a 14 foot tall sphinx looking over our truck in the parking lot (above). Why, pray tell, are the grounds, halls and rooms at this Peruvian hostal full of Egypt motifs? We have no idea. Frankly, we were a bit scared to ask.
Best cold weather bathrobe: Guests in the massive Extreme Wow Suite at the W Bogotá Hotel in Colombia’s capital are treated to robes designed by Bogotá –born fashion designer Estaban Cortazar who was head designer at Ungaro before famously storming out after Lindsey Lohan was brought on board as a consultant (who wouldn’t?). The lush hooded robes, unveiled in August of 2015, are emerald green with gold accents and come with a slim hook-and-clasp belt as well as the usual sash belt (ours are pictured, above) for those of us not quite as svelte as the designer is.
Best hot weather bathrobe: The light, high quality cotton robes on board the Aria Amazon River Boat (see above) come in a chic shade of river stone grey, fit like a dream and aren’t too hot to wear in the Amazon.
Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.
Best budget hotels in Central America
San Jose, Costa Rica:Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.
El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.
Panama City, Panama:Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.
Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.
Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We calledHotel & Restaurant Guancascoshome while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.
San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.
Bocas del Toro, Panama:Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.
Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).
León, Nicaragua: Harvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.
We didn’t know it at the time, but our very first destination in Colombia turned out to be Colombia’s sexiest city. Cartagena has drawn us back again and again with its languid Caribbean vibe, intense history and gorgeous restored Colonial architecture in a sprawling historic center which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. Cartagena is also home to most of the best hotels in Colombia, from budget to boutique. All that choice can be overwhelming, but we’re here to help. After spending more than a month exploring Cartagena we’ve put together this hotel guide so you can make the right choices about sleeping in Colombia’s sexiest city.
Restored Colonial architecture like this is part of the reason Cartagena, Colombia was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hotels in Cartagena
Here are our stand-out stays after spending more than a month in Cartagena.
Cartagena is full of hotels crafted in the renovated remains of very, very old buildings. Casa Pestagua, in a mansion built in the 17th century, is not the fanciest or slickest of them but it is the most authentic, full of antiques, elaborate frescoes and original carved wooden ceilings. There are only eleven guest rooms, all of which are set around a double interior courtyard and garden with a reflecting fountain, a recently renovated al fresco restaurant, an outdoor bar, small spa and a large swimming pool shaded by a massive mango tree. The free 15 minute foot massage is a brilliant touch in a city that requires so much walking on cobblestones.
One of the antique-filled rooms at spacious, serene and authentic Hotel Casa Pestagua in Cartagena, Colombia.
We have never felt as welcome as we did when we checked into Hotel LM thanks to a flawlessly hospitable staff (Spanish only) and a private home feeling. Room #2 is the winner with a small patio that is the perfect photographic vantage point for capturing Cartagena’s famous Colonial architecture spooling out along the street below.
The view of gorgeous Colonial architecture from the balcony of room #2 at Hotel LM in Cartagena, Colombia.
Though the decor was not our style (a bit like a prom dress exploded in every room), we did appreciate the lovely daily breakfast and the dehumidifiers in each room. And the suite at Tcherassi Hotel & Spa, created by Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi, is a stunner with multiple levels of space, private patios and even a private plunge pool. In the works now is a brand new project around the corner from the hotel which will add 42 rooms, two restaurants and a boutique. Those additional elements are currently set to open in 2016.
The decor at Tcherassi Hotel & Spa in Cartagena wasn’t our style but the hotel has much else to recommend it.
No hotel in Cartagena does a better job of combining architectural heritage with modern design than Casa Pombo. Five incredibly large, thoroughly sleek and modern apartments have been accommodated within the walls of one of the oldest buildings in Cartagena. Parts of the foundation date back to 1533 and teams of restorers spent months carefully revealing and preserving original frescoes and other treasures. There’s no sign for Casa Pombo and the atmosphere is private and casual, like being at home only much, much swankier. The entry way features one of the most breathtaking decorative lobby pools we’ve ever seen.
Casa Pombo in Cartagena, Colombia where foundations that date back to 1533 meet sleek, modern design.
Best on a budget
Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena (not to be confused with its nearby, slightly pricier sister the Casa Villa Colonial) does not have dorm rooms but its prices for clean, comfortable private rooms (doubles or triples) with A/C are the same or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. The helpful host, Martha, has a delightful “Glenda the Good Witch” personality and optimism that’s free of charge.
Plaza Trinidad is the heart and soul of the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena and just a few steps away from Hotel Villa Colonial, a true budget find.
Hotel Casa San Agustin opened in 2012 after a 15 month renovation which turned 14 luxury apartments in three adjoining 17th Century buildings into one stunning boutique hotel. Frette sheets, remarkably fast Wi-Fi, iPads, gourmet mini-bars, lovingly restored architecture (including original frescoes and tiles and remnants of a 400 year old aqueduct that now forms part of the hotel’s commanding ground floor pool), elegant furnishings, marble bathrooms that redefine the word spacious, fresh-cut flowers, streaming sunlight, impeccable staff…you get the picture. Since you’re splurging anyway, go for one of the premium rooms which have private jetted plunge pools on spacious private patios.
The lap of luxury in a guest room at Hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena.
The commanding pool, built around massive original walls, at Hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena.
There are solid rumors that a Four Seasons will be opening in Cartagena soon…
We had high hopes for a recently opened hostel called The Roof. Then we checked in and got locked inside the hostel when the staff mysteriously disappeared leaving us stranded and discovered that the shared bathroom was pretty much always out of toilet paper and often occupied by a staff member who liked to bring his tablet in which him…
Beauty is everywhere you look in the historic center of Cartagena.
We spent seven months traveling across Panama. That’s a lot of nights in hotels. While Panama has seen a recent rush of international chain hotels, including the only Trump Hotel in Latin America and many of the other top end business chains in Panama City, we are not interested in those. As usual, we sought out the best locally owned accommodations, including hostels, houseboats and hip hangouts and these are our 12 top hotels in Panama.
Jungle Land Panama is Panama’s only houseboat hotel. It’s located in a secluded section of Lake Gatún which forms a crucial part of the Panama Canal. It’s the creation of Captain Carl, an expat from the US who has connected two houseboats (below), crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake for wildlife watching and fishing. The food is terrific and Carl’s stories are entertaining but the best part is sleeping in a totally wild and peaceful arm of the lake just a short distance from the world’s busiest shipping channel. In 2012, Travis Pastrana, the stunt man/motocross/X-Games/Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports icon, gathered some of his equally amped up friends and opened Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort in Punta Chame near Panama City. With world class wakeboarding, kiteboarding and BMXing facilities, champion instructors plus a luxury hotel, Nitro is a unique adventure resort. We learned to wakeboard and SUP here and made ample use of our deck jacuzzi to nurse sore muscles. Nascar fans should not miss the Miller Lite theme room (below). We wish the food was better, but you’ll be so hungry from your daily dose of extreme sports that you’ll be ready to eat anything.
Al Natural Resort, on Bastimentos Island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, offers stand-alone, water-front, wood and bamboo bungalows on stilts which were built using techniques and materials that the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades. Bungalows (below) are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut if you must. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets, cooling fans inside the nets (why doesn’t everybody do it this way?), plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights. Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food is amazing–from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. All meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with the gregarious Belgian owner at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.
The hippest of the hip hotels in Panama is Tantalo Hotel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. There’s a living wall next to the lobby bar. Art installations (below) change on a regular basis. The rooftop bar is one of THE places to hang out. Each room was decorated by a different artist. They even have an on staff creative director and it shows. The lobby restaurant is surprisingly nicely priced and you can linger and soak up the cool for as long as you like. Read our full review of Tantalo for iTraveliShop for more.
If you want hip but in a more budget friendly price point, check out Casa Nuratti. Also in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood, this place was built as an inn in the 19th century and the building was restored into a 14 room, design-centric, mid-range bargain (doubles from US$100). Furniture was made using wood from the original building. There’s a small but appealing roof bar with a long, narrow pool (there for sex appeal, not swimming) and a club-like bar and small plates restaurant in the lobby where a DJ sometimes spins.
Walk into Las Clementinas Chambers & Cafe in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood and you might forget, just for a minute, that you’re in Panama. The ground floor cafe looks straight out of Paris and the rooms-aptly called chambers–are full apartments that channel the style of Manhattan but with far, far more space (below). Both the atmosphere and the square footage are true luxuries in the city. Read our full review of Las Clementinas for iTraveliShop for more reasons to stay.
Yandup Island Lodge is not your average island getaway. For starters, it’s located on one of the 350+ islands in a chain known as the Kuna Yala or San Blas archipelago because the region belongs to Panama’s autonomous Kuna (aka Guna) indigenous group. It’s Kuna owned and Kuna run and the luxuries here are silence, free time and views not swim up bars and beach loungers. The raised, waterfront bungalows (below) are rustic but comfortable. The food (the place is all-inclusive minus beverages) is simple but tasty. The biggest luxury at Yandup is the chance to get a glimpse into the proud culture of the largest indigenous group in Panama through guided visits to nearby Kuna villages (also on their own islands) and in conversation with Yandup’s Kuna staff. To reach the lodge you have to take a flight from Panama City to the “airport” at Playon Chico on a 6-seater Air Panama plane and that’s an adventure in and of itself given the short runway and its orientation to the nearby coastal hills. See for yourself in our scary landing in this video.
We spent around 50 nights in Hostal Amador Familiar during multiple trips through Panama City. Conveniently located in a renovated house in the city’s “American Zone”, the Amador is spotlessly clean thanks to the best housekeeper we’ve seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a big, semi-outdoor, also-spotless shared kitchen. Breakfast is included. There’s a large and secure parking area. Laundry is US$1 per load (to wash and dry). And room rates are cheap by Panamanian standards with dorm beds from US$15 per person per night and private rooms with a fan for US$30 for two people. Rooms with A/C are just US$5 more and worth it.
In the late ’90s a decommissioned US Air Force radar tower on the banks of the Panama Canal was renovated into a distinctive round hotel called Canopy Tower (below). Located within the Soberanía National Park, in which more than 500 species of birds have been identified, Canopy Tower has become a magnet for bird watchers. We spent a lot of time gawking at toucans, tanagers and tityras as well as small groups of mantled howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s tamarins, sloths and a bunch of stuff we’re not smart enough to identify right from the window-filled public spaces, rooftop deck (where you can also see the nearby Panama Canal) and even from the huge window in the shower in our room at Canopy Tower which was simple and comfortable with fans and good screens to keep critters out. Electric towel heaters and clothes drying areas help keep the jungle damp at bay. There’s an ear plug dispenser because the all-metal structure can creak and groan but you’re more likely to hear frogs and owls in the night.
The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn in Boquete, Panama are a comfortable bargain but the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence (below). Bring your binoculars to breakfast (included in rates) and enjoy some of the best lazy bird watching in Panama.
Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened near Las Lajas beach in 2013, has a handful of stylishly bohemian bungalows (below), a small pool and a great open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage. Naturalmente makes a great break journey for anyone making the long haul on the Pan-American Highway between David and Panama City.
Playa Venao, on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, has a perfect crescent of a beach and some of Panama’s most enticing surfing breaks (below). It also has a new beachfront hotel option. Opened in 2013 by Italian owners, the 14 room Beachbreak Surf Camp (from US$77 private double including A/C and WiFi) is sparkling clean, located right on the beach and guests can use the pool and a large and well-appointed kitchen (a good thing since dining options on this beach are limited). Surf school packages are also available.
The ones that got away: Even after seven months in Panama there were two enticing hotels that we never made it to. The first is The Resort at Isla Palenque which seems to have come enticingly close to truly marrying “eco” and “luxury”. The second is the American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo which was still under construction when we were there but was shaping up to be another cool option in that ‘hood. It’s now open and being run by the very cool Ace Hotel group, so our hopes remain high. If you’ve stayed at either (or both!) of those places let us know your opinion in the comments section below. If we’ve somehow left your favorite hotel in Panama off this list, let us know that too.