(Travel Weekly) Construction cranes were a common sight during my visit to Panama, nearly as ubiquitous as the palm trees lining the country’s ever-growing number of highways or the cans of Balboa beer served at its restaurants and bars.
In terms of hotels alone, 16 properties totaling 2,809 rooms are in the country’s construction pipeline, according to research firm STR. That follows the building of hotels totaling 6,200 rooms across Panama from 2010 to 2012 and the opening of more than a dozen properties since 2013, according to Visit Panama, the country’s tourism promotion arm.
Staking its claim amid the boom is Riu Hotels and Resorts: The Spain-based hotelier opened the Riu Plaza Panama in Panama City in 2010 and last year debuted the Riu Playa Blanca, situated along the Pacific coast of the country’s Cocle province. I stayed at both properties during a press trip visit to Panama last spring.
Riu Playa Blanca
A former fishing community about 90 miles west of Panama City, Playa Blanca today is home to a growing number of beachfront resorts and condos. It’s about a two-hour ride from the city’s airport.
At the all-inclusive Riu Playa Blanca, guests will find a few nods to the local culture: A buffet station in the main dining room offers Panamanian staples such as chicken and rice and fried plantains, for instance, and nightly entertainment on the resort’s main stage incorporates folkloric dancing and the Latin-Caribbean rhythms that characterize the region’s music.
Otherwise, guests will find amenities common to Riu’s all-inclusive properties throughout the Caribbean and Mexico: a variety of dining options (including three specialty restaurants requiring reservations: a steakhouse, an Italian restaurant and a pan-Asian eatery), swimming pools (four, including one with a swim-up bar and one for kids), a gym (with weights and strength-training machines, three stationary bikes and three treadmills) and a children’s playground, to name a few.
Such brand consistency helped in introducing an unfamiliar destination to loyal Riu customers. According to Daniel Camponovo, regional operations director for Riu, one challenge in opening the property was “convincing Riu’s faithful guests that Panama was also a holiday destination. They love all Riu’s famous destinations like the Riviera Maya or Jamaica, but we wanted to show them that Panama was also a very beautiful and interesting country worth visiting.”
The property’s 573 units range from double rooms (some with ocean views) to two-bedroom suites equipped with hydrotherapy tubs. In-room WiFi is available for a fee; guests can also access lobby WiFi for up to 90 minutes a day. All rooms include a balcony or terrace and a four-bottle liquor dispenser whose bottles of gin, rum, vodka and brandy are replenished every other day.
Notably absent was Panama’s own seco, a clear liquor made from sugar cane, which with its neutral flavor more resembles vodka than rum. But it was on offer at the property’s four bars as well as the Pacha nightclub, which spins samba tunes and other Latin dance genres (its reasonable volume levels sparing passersby and slumbering guests in nearby rooms).
Riu Plaza Panama
A more boisterous nightlife could be found in the area surrounding the Riu Plaza Panama, where our group spent a night following our Playa Blanca stay.
Situated in Panama City’s Bella Vista area, the 644-room hotel is a five-minute walk from the Calle Uruguay neighborhood, where restaurants, bars and clubs were plenty crowded beginning early Thursday night and on through Friday’s wee hours.
Besides its proximity to a hub of Panama City nightlife, the hotel’s location appealed to Riu for other reasons. As the first Riu hotel in the country and the first of the company’s city hotels, Panama City was a logical choice for the company’s urban debut, given the city’s status as “a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis and the main shopping, banking and financial district in the Central American region,” according to Camponovo.
He said the property has become “one of the favorite hotels” in Panama City for meetings and conventions, with business-friendly amenities including complimentary in-room WiFi; a business center with photocopier, PC, printer and scanner; and 23 conference rooms totaling nearly 57,000 square feet.
Per-person rates at the Riu Playa Blanca begin at $87 per night; at the Riu Plaza Panama, $125 per night.
For Panama visitors seeking to combine beach relaxation and urban excitement in one trip, vacation packagers such as Vacation Express, Apple Vacations and other Riu partners offer discounts when combining stays at the two properties.