When this year’s merciless New York City winter put my wanderlust at an all-time high, I turned to a recommendation from an old friend that I had filed away: to visit Panama—the Pearl Islands off the coast, in fact—for a surprising beach getaway. My friend’s aunt had lived in Panama for most of her adult life, and used to vacation on Isla San Jose at an eco-friendly hacienda only a short charter flight from Panama City. One of the few things I knew about these islands was that a season of Survivor had been filmed there.
Interestingly enough, when I arrived, I discovered that another shoot was taking place—the crew of Naked and Afraid was on the other side of Isla San Jose, filming the next season. Despite the love that reality TV has given this archipelago, the rugged little islands can be very hospitable. They were the beachy, jungle retreat I was looking for, and Panama City offered a great introduction to the country’s style and culture.
Here are a few things you can expect while traveling to this part of Panama (film crew not included).
1. You might consider the toucan a possible pet. Lucas, our resident toucan, hung around the pool house every day. The staff put out a water pitcher for him to dunk his beak into. He was so friendly: he’d hop onto tables, perch on your hammock, and even let you pet him. And if you had crackers, you became his newest best friend.
2. You’ll want to add rope swing into the ocean to your daily agenda from now on. Rope swings are everywhere here, from El Valle’s Canopy Lodge to attached to the prow of a boat. After testing them out, I’m hooked on this kind of ocean-plunge. Here’s how it would play out in my fantasy future: I’d lie on a beach chair in the sun each day, and my rope swinging wouldn’t be a matter of “if,” but “when” and even “how many times.”
3. The Panamanian currency, the balboa, isn’t a currency at all. It’s just the American dollar, and referred to as either the balboa or the dólar. The occasional quarter will roll through with a balboa stamp on it, but the value is all one and the same.
4. The historic downtown is pronounced “Cabo Viejo,” not “Casco Viejo” as it’s spelled. Pronouncing the “-sco” won’t get you ousted, but if you embrace that Panamanian Spanish when talking with a local, a cab driver, or anyone else visiting, you’ll definitely impress them.
5. The phrase “high-rise condominium” will take on a whole new meaning. Condominiums are so tall and soaring in Panama City—and most of them aren’t even home to businesses, just residences. The skyline is like a row of needles. Returning to my first-floor NYC walk up was a humbling experience.
6. Outposts of the Ace Hotel are just as awesome as Ace Hotels. I’m building a conservatory in my next adult home just so I can decorate it like the lobby of Panama City’s American Trade Hotel—patterned blue tile, sloping wicker chairs, grand piano, high ceilings, palm fronds and all.
7. The best way to drink a mojito involves coconut. I’m not sure why hadn’t recognized the genius of coconut and mint as a combination, but I’m really glad Tantalo Hotel figured it out. They also came up with the idea to create the best rooftop bar in Panama City’s historic district, so they’re definitely onto something big here. Coconut drinks and rooftop views are not a new vacation concept, but Tantalo renewed my appreciation for them.