Beyond the Canal, There's Plenty More to Find in Romantic Panama

by Brandon Schultz

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday May 15, 2022
Originally published on May 7, 2022

The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort
The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort  (Source:Brandon Schultz)

You know it as the home of the Panama Canal and, even though just about every visitor to Panama does take a look at the famous locks, they're hardly the most interesting attraction in the country. In fact, the canal itself doesn't even consider tourism to be terribly relevant to its operation; it's a business that brings in roughly $3 billion in entrance fees from ships annually—far more than gawkers can cough up—and that remains their focus.

It is worth taking a peek at the Canal when you make your way to Panama, but it's time to stop considering this Central American country as the home of the locks, and recognize its inherent beauty as the real reason to arrive. Whether you're looking for city culture or beachside paradise, here's how to plan an easy getaway for two to Panama, with plenty of special moments for couples tucked around every turn.

Panama City

Panama City
Panama City  (Source: Getty Images)

From most points of origin, you'll arrive in Panama via Panama City, and you'll want to spend a couple of nights here to take in some of the capital's offerings. You'll notice the skyline as soon as you arrive, and for good reason: This is the skyscraper capital of Central and South America, with more than half of Latin America's tallest buildings standing guard along the city's waterfront, where the 65-strong collection of official skyscrapers tops many world capitals, including London, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing. At the opposite end of the city, Casco Viejo is the historical quarter, now a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site preserving the city's architecture and heritage from as far back as the 17th-century.

It's here you'll find vibrant buildings overflowing with cascading flowers, picturesque plazas, and the vine-covered tunnel of love (Tunel de Amor). The open-air "tunnel" follows the coastline just above the Plaza de Francia and is filled with local vendors selling art and other souvenirs, all with impressive views of the modern skyline across the water. Snag a free walking tour with El Trip de Jenny for a light historical and cultural introduction to the neighborhood, or consider booking a more curated, private journey to explore local culinary flavors (you can't leave the city without tasting geisha, the champagne of coffees), indigenous arts at MUMO, and whatever else appeals to your personal interests.

Bristol Panama

Bristol Panama
Bristol Panama  (Source: Brandon Schultz)

Just 15 minutes from the airport, book a stay at Bristol Panama for convenient access to the city's top sights in relaxed style. Whether you opt for the classic or executive tower, you'll find modern rooms and suites along with a full-service spa, fitness center, outdoor pool, and one of the largest collections of modern Latin American art outside of a museum in the country. Be sure to dine at Salsipuedes, where Panamanian tradition meets contemporary creativity with city views through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Embera Village

Bonita Falls
Bonita Falls  (Source: Brandon Schultz)

Revisit your new friends at El Trip de Jenny for a journey to an Embera village, where you'll be welcomed with traditional music and dance, and learn the history and modern culture of the tribe as a typical meal is prepared. To reach the village, you'll take a scenic canoe ride up the Chagres River, stopping for an easy hike to Bonita Falls.

You'll want footwear that can get wet and muddy for this, and wear a bathing suit if you want to swim in the clear waters below the cascade, or even just pose for a romantic photo in front of the falls.

Traditional weaving and beadwork are still practiced here, and you'll likely want to pick up a few finds, so bring cash on this journey (pro tip: US dollars are accepted throughout most of Panama, including Embera villages, at a 1:1 conversion). You can stay a second night in Panama City after this visit for a more relaxed schedule, or head directly onward to your next destination from here.

Riviera Pacifica

Head to the country's Riviera Pacifica region to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital in true Panamanian style. This is where the country's business crowd keeps their holiday homes, and it's not uncommon to find them here most weekends, too. Make your way an hour and a half outside the city to The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort, where you'll find 114 luxury rooms and 4 private villas nestled within the 940-acre community of private homes and world-class amenities.

You'll certainly encounter all the standard resort fare you expect, from glittering swimming pools to spa and fitness facilities, but this property is loaded with extras that will impress everyone from singles and friends to couples and families. In addition to one of only 2 Jack Nicklaus golf courses in the country, the sports complex of Buenaventura includes tennis courts, soccer fields, volleyball, basketball and an additional Olympic size swimming pool; there's 52-slip marina where you'll find fishing charters, sunset tours, and water sports; an amphitheater for outdoor concerts; horse stables; a farm; and a surprisingly large rescue zoo with primates, wild cats, aviaries, reptile houses, crocodiles, and much more.

Around the 11 outdoor pools, several of which lead up to quiet Buenaventura Beach, feel free to grab a personal cabana any time for a chic touch of privacy. There's no charge for these, and there are more than enough to accommodate most guests. In fact, while the resort can hold up to 200 guests at maximum occupancy, you'll rarely find a crowd in this enormous property of winding paths and secluded spaces that create an aura of exclusivity around the clock. For something special to try together without straying far, ask about cocktail classes at the palapa, a barbecue by the beach, or chocolate making at the Cacao Experimental Bar inside one of the property's 7 restaurants. There's plenty of international fare on menus across the resort, but look for regional and house specialties like chicharron de pulpo, pixbae fruit, and not just tres leches, but cuatro and even cinco leches desserts. At the end of your vacation, you can head straight to the airport from here; alternatively, venture back to the city a night early and post up back at Bristol Panama, close to the airport, for less morning stress and a later sleep. You can't go wrong either way.

Brandon Schultz is the author of 6 travel and lifestyle books, and his work regularly appears in Forbes, Fodor's, Global Traveler, and Thrillist, with contributions to dozens of others including OUT, Out Traveler, and The Advocate. He lives in New York City.