We spent seven months traveling across Panama. That’s a lot of nights in hotels. These are our top 12 hotels in Panama from floating finds to top choices for luxury lovers, birdwatchers, and travelers on a budget.
Top 12 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. Get more in our full review of Tantalo for iTraveliShop.
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. Update: this hotel is now called Gato Blanco.
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. Get more in our full review of Las Clementinas for iTraveliShop.
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 are rustic but comfortable. The food (the place is all-inclusive minus beverages) is simple but tasty. And you’ll get a chance to glimpse the proud culture of the largest indigenous group in Panama through guided visits to nearby Kuna villages and in conversation with Yandup’s Kuna staff.
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 also 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. 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 earplug 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 comfortable bargains but the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around birdbaths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence. Bring your binoculars to breakfast (included in rates) and enjoy some of the best lazy bird watching in Panama.
Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, near Las Lajas beach, has a handful of stylishly bohemian bungalows, 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 the city of 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 Wi-Fi) 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. 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.
Here’s more about travel in Panama