Every spring, I try to manage my pre-summer restlessness with a quick trip to Mexico or a weekend at the pool. May is the time of year when I’m always longing for summer with a restless specificity; aching for the freedom that season breeds — the feeling of endless possibility and days with too much light.
This is what Panama City feels like: Optimism; swift, vivid heat; sun for miles. The heat is overbearing, but intoxicating nonetheless — like another person walking too closely next to you, asking for more intimacy than you want to give. This heat has plans for you.
Upon stepping out of the airport, everyone I encounter wears the sheen of sweat — a uniform that we all share, even if we can’t communicate. This language barrier is on me: I’m in Central America and I don’t know Spanish, but the heat is it’s own language. Something that everyone can relate to.
There is only one cure for heat like this: Water. The good news is that water is as omnipresent in Panama as the sun. There’s the multi-billion dollar Panama Canal; the series of interconnected, blue-tiled pools at my hotel; and the cases of bottled water that are present on every tour. The water is bottled and sealed, of course, but it still somehow tastes different — a reminder that I am a visitor here.
This visit to Panama marks my first time in a rainforest. Our tour rattles up a mountain in a tram, where we climb an even taller tower to get a clear view of the Gamboa jungle. Along the way, a local guide points out various flora and fauna.
“Those are the leaves that sloths eat!”
“There are termite tunnels dug into tree bark!”
“This is a web that once held a bulbous, jet black queen spider.”
Luckily, the spider is nowhere to be found, and neither is her mate, who, the guide informs us, she probably ate. Instead of scaring me, this makes me want to go deeper into the jungle.
After the tour, we head to an animal rescue center that my resort helps fund. It gives treatment to animals who have been harmed by poaching. I pet a sloth who barely notices my fawning and learn the difference between the two-toed and three-toed species. Quick primer: three-toed is the cuter of the two — an oft-memed internet star. The two-toed is kind of boring.
The main attraction at the rescue is an orphaned teenage jaguar who is about to be shipped to a zoo in Florida for breeding. Jaguars are dangerously close to extinction, this female’s brothers and sisters were killed by the poachers. It’s a community in peril.
I lock eyes with the jaguar. My reaction is stronger than I expected. Suddenly, I’m craving a drink.
The most luxurious way to drink a tequila soda is to swim up to a bar in a black string bikini and be given one for free. There’s no single better way to order that drink in the world. So, if you’re planning a trip to Panama, yes there are a host of hotels in the middle of the city you could stay at — specifically in the historic neighborhood of Casco Viejo, where I’d recommend the American Trade Hotel — but to stay anywhere that isn’t right on the water seems a fool’s errand.
I submit that the perfect place to stay is the Westin Playa Bonita, where you can swim up to a bar in a black bikini and order tequila soda all day. No one will bat an eye, or imply you’ve had too many, or ask why you’re there, drinking alone. You are allowed to just be a creature of desire, thanks to the Westin’s ingenious all-inclusive package, which allows you to wear a simple plastic wristband and eat or drink to your heart’s content at the restaurants and bars on the hotel’s grounds.
I like not constantly having to grab for my wallet every time I want another drink, instead I simply ask and receive. This is the kind of freedom that elevates a vacation from merely relaxing to legitimately fantastic. The rooms themselves were ideal too — especially if you’re looking for privacy, with enormous balconies and stand alone tubs.
As the name itself suggests, this hotel is literally steps from the ocean, and the hotel’s pool complex — and it is a complex — is butted up against an easily accessible, private beach that guests can drift over too throughout the course of a lazy afternoon of sunning and swimming. But the pools are really the thing; there are multiple pools with previously mentioned swim up bars, an adults-only areas (sadly, I visited Panama alone), bridges to swim under and enormous, floating lounge chairs. This is hands down the biggest draw to the hotel, after all location is everything, and a newly-built pool deck makes it perfect for parties or small intimate gatherings if you’re traveling with a group.
Hanging out around the pool leaves me with the exact feeling of freedom and escape I’d been craving. When immersed in water, the heat feels familiar and easy to live with. Later, I head down to the hotel’s spa for a simple massage. It’s the sort day I need from time to time… and the sort of day that makes me feel like a night out is in order.
Of course, there are plenty of bars and restaurants scattered close to the Westin. Many of them are also perched right on the beach — like Karimar in Playa Venao, where you can eat local fish prepared the traditional Panamanian style. For a more elegant dinner, head away from the beaches (at least for now) to explore that historic neighborhood Casco Viejo, where you can grab a pre-dinner cocktail at the glimmering Casa Casco rooftop bar and then walk over to the intimate formality of Ocho Y Medio.
The food is delicious, but it’s the cocktails that really steal the show. My favorite is the extremely tropical Eres Tu [Translation: It’s You]: Campari, passion fruit, lime, grapefruit, pineapple, honey.
While in Panama, I felt like it was essential for me to visit one of the modern wonders of the world, the Panama Canal. Personally, I’ve been fascinated by this marvel and wanting to visit it since I first read about it at the tender age of eight. The whole story behind the canal itself is pretty phenomenal, and you can learn more about it at the museum that’s located in the canal’s facility. You can’t go into the locks, or get close really, aside from a viewing deck that lets visitors watch ships pass through them, but the museum gives you background on just how deeply this series of locks influenced Panama as a country, and how difficult it was to build back in the early 1900s.
Another nearby museum, the Biomuseum, gets into the evolutionary significance of Panama’s location on the isthmus between North and South American. It’s the only museum I’ve ever been to that’s half outdoors, and I recommend getting the guided headset tour to fully understand the evolutionary significance of the joining of the two continents. Discovery: Balancing poolside cocktails with science and history is my favorite way to vacation.
After a couple of days, I get used to the heat, accustomed to my extra layer of skin, the film of sweat, and began to imagine what a life spent in Panama would really be like. Wandering through the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood on my last day, I encounter a pamphlet for yoga classes nearby, and drink a cappuccino that would’ve been up to snuff for even my coffee snob, barista brother back home.
Thinking of my brother, I realize how much I miss not only him, but the rest of my LA community. For all my spring restlessness, my trip led me to realize how much I dig how Los Angeles carries itself, even on the boring days. That is the truth of travel — leaving a place is what helps you see its beauty, and after a weekend away, I miss both the people and the golden ease of the Los Angeles spring. The sun may be weaker than it is down in Panama, but moderation can be just as appealing as excess, especially when it means going home.
Stepping back into my Silver Lake apartment after a few hours of flying from Panama City, I pour myself a tall glass of water. It tastes crisp and clean; like the feeling of endless possibility and too much light.