Why Panama Is Becoming Central America’s Hottest Getaway

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His name is Fernando and he is the most interesting man in the world.

Well, maybe just in Panama, but still, the mere mention of your first name – which isn’t exactly uncommon in this part of the globe – and everyone instantly knows who you’re talking about. It’s a big problem.

You wouldn’t know it from his humble lunchtime habits: On that particular afternoon, Fernando Cardoze GdeP, fully dubbed carte de visite, is sitting at a picnic table by himself, so as not to disturb us or anyone else. other (not that he would have).

He goes straight to town with packed pineapple slices in a Tupperware bowl, skewering them with a fork like a son of a gun.

We just did a day trip to Playa Cacique in the footsteps of Hotel Mar y Oro, one of the few accommodations on Isla Contadora, the star of the Archipelago de las Perlas, about 30 miles and change off the Pacific Gulf Coast of the Central American nation.

Canal plus: This little cove connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans is cute, but the resort town of Santa Maria in Panama is even cuter.
The Holy Mary
Exterior of the Santa Maria swimming pool.
Things are going wonderfully in Santa Maria, Panama City‘s only true beach resort.
The Holy Mary

Oh, and by the way, he flew our group of four here on his R66 Turbine Marine helicopter.

The snappy, cap-loving 50-year-old – who has ferried the likes of Melinda Gates and other VIPs to megayachts and other ridiculous places where the rich have helipads – is the chief pilot and owner of Panama Aerial Adventures. He has been piloting his beautiful big birds privately since 1996.

With a “comfortable” resting posture, the manliest military manage to peacock in an “a-ten-hut”, Fernando is never without a smile, a joke, a hot libertarian take on something or other and has nothing but praise for America and its people. “You love and respect freedom,” he fondly reminds us. He also talks about the Pentagon which still has Panama’s back; American Yanks skippered the Canal Zone from 1903 to 1979, picking up where the French fell apart (womp, womp), then handing the waterway over to the nation’s sole custody in 1999.

An interior of Fernando's helicopter.
Flight of Fantasy: Take a helicopter ride with Fernando all over Panama – it’s literally and figuratively a trip.
Fernando Cardoze GdeP

Fernando is also an animal lover, always careful to avoid flying companions like the ducks that the blades of his chopper would otherwise prepare into a terrine of foie gras mousse.

It kept us entertained all day, taking us over and around Panama City, its bustling canal (supply chain shortage, be damned) and zigzagging and meandering a few feet above the Chagres River between the rainforests and mountains as an X-fly through the trenches of the Death Star. All the while, he talks to us about that ship from China here, about that hometown there, in our headphones with mic (until he’s in “loneliness mode” when he talks to the control of the air traffic – don’t even throw it at some of those guys/girls).

Fernando, as well as Copa Airlines — which is Latin America’s “most punctual airline” (every Panamanian loves to let you know), eight years in a row — has partnered with the massive and exclusive Santa Maria country club in Panama City, a short fifteen kilometers from the airport.

Exterior of the Santa Maria.
Spray, don’t tell: Pretty fountains greet you at the gates of the Marriott Hotel.
The Holy Mary
Interior of a master suite at the resort.
King for a day: The resort’s master suite is 2,044 square feet.
The Holy Mary
AQVA pool bar exterior.
Sounds fishy: Have fun making ceviche at Santa Maria’s AQVA pool bar, even if you hate eating it!
The Holy Mary

Santa Maria is a sprawling 700-acre private community with million-dollar homes, a Jack Nicklaus-designed 72- and 18-hole golf course (you can even land a whirling bird on the fourth hole) and, well, safe, (considered separate from the community) the same name of 182 rooms Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resorta Marriott outpost.

Morgan tha God Freeman even stayed and played here – and just as Andy told Red in “Shawshank”: “They say [the Pacific] has no memory. This is where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place without memory. If you’re not exactly a beginner golfer, heat and amnesia are the perfect combo, wink!

Santa Maria is the only true resort located in the heart of Panama City and pretty much the opposite, both in spirit and style, to any more urban hotel you’ll find downtown (Panama City, Panama, looks more like Miami than Panama City, Florida does, just for reference). Oh, and sadly, a dead whale washed ashore and, despite the delight of the town’s beloved wildcats, the smell wasn’t great. So stick to the “sticks”.

A monkey in Panama.
Monkey Trade: Panama’s lush rainforests are home to our not-so-distant relatives.
Joshua Room
A bird in Panama.
Put your beak in: Don’t forget our feathered friends, it’s also a paradise for birdwatchers.
Joshua Room

When we Medigans hear the words “Central America“, we – for justified reasons, check State Department/CIA alerts at will – get the heebie-jeebies of certain happenings here in this middle part of the western world . But over the past two decades, Costa Rica has managed to transcend this unfairly universally applied phobia. And the extremely safe Panama desperately wants to do it too. It makes sense because geographically it is blessed, located between the northern and southern versions of the continents named by Amerigo Vespucci, and having a deep kinship with the United States.

Either way, Fernando has two rules for getting into his bird: (1) Never walk behind the helicopter, regardless of its I/O status; and (2), don’t even think about bringing coffee on board or anything else that might mess up his clean, meticulously maintained machine. (And yes, there are vomit bags if you have to, but don’t.) And he gives a mandatory speech about which flotation fanny pack you have to wear (you signed those death waivers, my pal).

It wasn’t long before he was flying through a huge white nebula before he brought up Kobe Bryant and all that naughtiness, and explained that sometimes it’s wiser to stay higher than lower in altitude when surfing. in the clouds. But, if you and your crew panic, a simple engine shutdown (which triggers a nagging little alarm, which is far scarier) can knock you instantly out of the puffscape to clear the skies for everyone to calm down. Type of. It’s a loss of trust — keep the faith!

The Panama Canal at night.
The beloved Panama Canal becomes even more so…after dark.
Joshua Room

But when the weather turns rainy and humid (and it gets wet very quickly in Panama), Fernando can throw him into an intense “Black Hawk Down” encounter “Miss Saigon” upon landing on dry land, using a love -thrust to keep disembarking passengers safely out of the helicopter’s rotating blades. (You don’t even need it, but for your psychological well-being or just for fun, get down and run.)

Fernando didn’t respond to our request for a follow-up interview — but who can blame the dude when he’s busy flying Illuminati luminaries in helicopters to God knows where. Just try to remember to say Chris says hello when that light fixture happens to be you.

Santa Maria’s $1,609-per-night stopover package includes three nights in an executive suite, breakfast, a helicopter ride over the Panama Canal and Pearl Islands, and transfers. Valid for travel until December 20. Use code ES7 to book.


Fresh broad beans

Interior shot of Finca Lérida employees and its beans.
Millionaire Joe: Finca Lérida offers the most expensive coffee in the world.
Finca Lerida

Do you remember coffee? It’s like liquid Adderall but less cardiac (but not a lot less)?

You happen to be – no offense, Jamaica – the tropical country in our region that does it best.

Discover all the ins and outs of the caffeinated panacea and the most excellent energizing elixir with a guided tour (and tasting, yes) at bird-rife Finca Leridajust outside the western and often foggy town of Boquete, which is about an hour’s flight from Panama City.

Ask Caesar (there may be more than one, aim for the one with glasses and a goatee) – he’s as hilarious as he is knowledgeable and he’ll dive deep, deep into the weeds, or rather the tree tomatoes (tree tomatoes), about all things coffee. He juggles these crazy sweet things after knocking them off their branches with a stick, it’s fun.

You’ll learn fun facts like all coffee is, in a biblical 23andMe sense, Arabica coffee, so go ahead and don’t be fooled by that sneaky brand word.

The Geisha for Finca, the most sacred and expensive in the world, is the most beautiful of the ball. If you drink this stuff during the day, you’ll end up crashing: try the locally-named on-site shop (from $129 a night).

There is also proximity panama hosteljust 25 minutes away (from $191 per night; its website is a bit of a WIP). It’s cute, quaint and has a famous owner, Charlie Collins, who has a fondness for bacon slung on mini clotheslines as one of his many dishes.

Most importantly, his restaurant has a cozy fireplace that you’ll desperately covet in the cool, mountainous air that surrounds these nearly mile-high parts.

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