Crossing the Bridge of the Americas on the way to the Westin Playa Bonita Panama, you see the two contrasting sides of Panama City. To the left are the gleaming futuristic towers of the modern city, a booming urban metropolis at the crossroads of Latin America; to the right, the unspoiled Spanish colonial architecture of the Casco Viejo, settled in 1673 and steeped in history.
Encouraging visitors to encounter the real Panama is a key component of the resort’s group programming as Herman Bern Jr., VP of Product Development of Bern Hotels & Resorts, explains: “We partner with Gamboa Tours, so groups can customize their experience to really go beyond the ballroom with excursions that encourage guests to travel deeper and experience Panama’s local culture.”
Aside from its enviable location with picturesque white sand beaches and views of the iconic Panama Canal, the hotel, with 611 guest rooms and 64 suites, recently unveiled the Casa Naga, a 25,000 sf mega villa that can be hired for private events.
“Casa Naga is a private residence that’s only available for select groups, thus offering a unique and exclusive experience. It can host intimate dinners of 12 to larger groups of up to 300, and contains a private collection of exquisite international artifacts, which are interwoven throughout the property,” says Herman Bern Jr. “It is one of the newest luxury event venues in Panama, going way beyond the traditional ballroom.”
We enjoyed a custom meal of beef fillet served with comfit pear and cream cheese, and stuffed chicken breast with portobello mushrooms, prepared in front of us by the villa’s executive chef.
This was the theme of our visit, showcasing Panama’s unique and sometimes overlooked cultural experiences. A 4×4 tour out to the Caribbean side of Panama and the town of Portobelo offered our first brush with the unexpected. Rich in history, Portobelo was founded by the Spanish in 1597 and is scattered with fortifications from the colonial period. One of the most interesting sites is the Church of El Cristo Negro, which houses an enigmatic statue of a black Christ dating from the 17th century, and to which several miracles and supernatural occurrences have been attributed.
A small fishing boat took our group to Isla Grande, a pretty beach on an island off Portobelo’s coast. Here we enjoyed a feast of baked sea bass caught fresh that morning, followed by an afternoon of swimming and snorkeling. After exploring the museum and observation deck at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, former members of the Ciudad de Dios street gang guided us through historic Casco Veijo. Walking narrow cobbled streets amid the colorful Spanish colonial architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is like taking a step back in time.
Our guides explained how a gang intervention and reintegration program has helped them make a living by escorting groups through their neighborhood. Along the way, we met with locals and heard real life stories of the area’s past and its residents’ hopes for the future, rounded off with a perfect mojito at their own street-corner bar. Our night took a final twist with dinner at ZAZA Restaurant & Lounge, a sophisticated venue in the historic district.