The hottest new thing in travel might be older than people think. Taking a bite out of a hotter-than-ever summer for Caribbean travel, Panama has finally caught a foothold with travelers — turning to its oldest monuments to draw new visitors to the capital city.
Often overlooked by travelers who turn to neighboring Costa Rica instead, Panama’s ambitious revitalization of monuments once left to crumble in the Casco Antiguo – one of the most historic neighborhoods of Panama City – gives travelers a new reason to visit.
Casco Antiguo: A Quarter Reborn
As the booming financial capital and one of the most important cities in Latin America, Panama City, Panama has long been a destination mostly known just to business travelers. Gleaming skyscrapers and upscale shopping malls have been the city’s main attractions for years, starkly contrasting with much of the region.
The strategy has brought wealth to the city – but few vacationers. With the post-pandemic business travel trends in constant flux, that is all starting to change.
Panama City’s modern monuments hide a storied past as an important colonial-era capital, steeped in pirate lore and tales of gold carted off by Henry Morgan. However, many colonial-era monuments and buildings in the “Casco Antiguo,” Panama City’s old quarter, were nearly abandoned and sat empty for decades as the city’s newer development stole the spotlight.
But it’s rescuing the city’s past that is turning it into a destination travelers are beginning to covet, with the value of historical ruins finally coming into focus.
“Over the past year, we have seen a surge in the number of visitors, both locals and tourists, who are drawn to the area’s unique charm and cultural offerings. Casco Antiguo has become a true culinary and nightlife destination,” says Fidel Reyes, General Manager of Casco Antiguo’s newest and buzziest destination, Hotel La Compañía.
Convent Turned Landmark Hotel
Hotel La Compañía is the best example of the transformation required to turn Panama City’s Casco Antiguo into a bonafide travel destination, breathing new life into its historic bones. Once the first Jesuit convent in the region, Hotel La Compañía, opened in 2022 after an extensive renovation and restoration. It is now one of the new hotels and luxe city resorts that are drawing visitors to the city in spades.
“We like to call Hotel La Compañía a ‘living museum,” says Reyes. “Our guests stay in an incredible building that shows the complex history of Panama City through three very important eras: French colonial, Spanish colonial, and American. Visitors can relive this stunning past through thoughtful design and engaging experiences that reimagine these moments in time.”
Museum to Must-Visit Destination
It’s more than just a transformation of one of the city’s historic landmarks: the restoration has brought significant buzz, making this neighborhood the new place to be. The five restaurants and two bars within the hotel’s historic bones instantly became some of the city’s best. They now host everyone from well-heeled business people in suits to sports stars and celebrities you’d undoubtedly recognize.
Following suit is the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo. Born from a historic facade built in 1917 as Panama’s Club Union, it opened to much fanfare in January 2023.
However, Panama City’s newest hotels aren’t the only engines spurring the revitalization of Casco Antiguo. “Similarly, San Felipe, ‘El Patrimonio de Santa Ana’ and the development of the Plaza in Casco have been some of the investments made to make Casco Antiguo a center of tourism,” says a representative of Panama Tourism.
Putting Panama on the Map
It’s a strategy that has worked for nearby travel destinations as well. The recent transformation of Cartagena, Colombia, into one of the region’s most sought-after sojourns has relied on its gorgeous historic quarter and modern amenities. If Cartagena’s travel boom offers a glimpse into Panama City’s future, there is plenty to be excited about.
Panama is uniquely positioned to step into a new role as a travel hotspot, especially for North American vacationers. Already a regional flight hub with a long history of welcoming business travelers from across the region, it’s easily accessible with numerous daily international flights. Safety, modernity, and convenience make it an easy sell for visitors.
Embracing its historic side has finally given it the unique and special touch that makes it worth adding to a travel itinerary. “With its rich history, vibrant cultural scene, and thriving food and entertainment offerings, Casco Antiguo has something to offer visitors of all ages and interests,” says Reyes.
“There is potential for further growth and development in the neighborhood as there are still many historic buildings and sites that could be restored and repurposed,” say Panama Tourism representatives. Hotel la Compañía, it seems, is just the beginning as the city’s next chapter unfurls upon its historical roots.
Carley Rojas Avila is an avid traveler, writer, and creator behind Home to Havana. Having traveled to twenty-five countries and spent years living abroad, she shares destination guides, travel tips, and hacks to help travelers and digital nomads feel at home when traveling off the beaten path, whether their travels take them to Havana or beyond.