Finding Panama City's groove with Hard Rock

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Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood.
Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood. Photo Credit: Pamela Jacobs

"Music is in our DNA," Vince Koehle, marketing director of Hard Rock Hotels in the Americas, told me over dinner. It was my first evening at the Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis, and already this was evident.

I'd spent the afternoon toying with the Fender Telecaster guitar that was mine for the duration of my stay, and the early part of the evening on a music memorabilia tour led by the property's "Vibe Manager." After dinner, I watched that same manager sing alongside guests during live-band karaoke. 

Those with a music obsession will feel right at home at the 66-story tower, in the heart of Panama City. The rock-themed rooms and suites, customized playlists, Rock Shop and always-hopping nightclubs will meet the approval of the most musically inclined, and the Prince, John Lennon and Michael Jackson memorabilia will surely satisfy. But for those seeking more than just the property's sights and sounds — if it's Panama they want to see, hear and feel — they'll find that while music is in its DNA, Panama is in the Hard Rock's heart.

The Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis is located in a 66-floor tower in the heart of Panama City. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hard Rock Hotels & Casinos

The team at the Hard Rock realizes that its property is surrounded by some of the best culture, history and food — and plenty of local music — in all of Latin America, and they want guests to be completely immersed in it. Tour operator Discover Panama is situated right in the hotel's lobby, and through them a range of excursions can be booked, arranging personalized experiences for an in-depth look at the real Panama.

After all, you can't possibly stay in Panama City without seeing the Panama Canal. A tour booked through Discover Panama enables guests to learn about its incredible construction and then enjoy lunch directly on the canal; if the timing is right, they'll watch a ship pass by as they dine on Panamanian dishes and wonder how engineers in 1914 made it possible.

Through Discover Panama, one can also uncover the juxtaposition of modern and ancient history that is Panama City. While the Hard Rock is a skyscraper surrounded by other monoliths, it's a mere 10-minute drive from the property to Casco Viejo, a Spanish colonial town dating to the 1500s; it was actually the first city built and recognized by the Spanish crown in new America.

As a Unesco World Heritage Site, Casco Viejo retains plenty of remnants of Panama's colonial roots, including European-style plazas, renovated historical buildings and St. Joseph Church, with its magnificent gilded altar.

A tour of Casco Viejo provides a look at the origins of Panama City, as well as an opportunity to shop at dozens of small crafts stores and through indoor and outdoor markets during the day. At night, it becomes a hub of dining and nightlife. Caliope restaurant serves up handcrafted cocktails and sensational cuisine in a sexy space that epitomizes modern Panama City. From there, bar-hopping can include plenty of rooftop bars where the beautiful people flock.

The property’s Tauro restaurant, serving steaks and seafood. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hard Rock Hotels & Casinos

No one should leave Panama City without witnessing the beauty of traditional Panamanian music and dance. At Restaurante Tinajas, delicious Panamanian dishes are accompanied by a series of dances, complete with head-to-toe costumes and flowing dresses.

While dinner here provides a lovely look into the country's traditions, a visit to an indigenous community, arranged and led by Discover Panama, is a full dive into its heritage.

About an hour's drive through the countryside leads to the Embera-Wounan Community in the heart of the Chagres National Park.

After a short, scenic canoe ride (complete with sloth-spottings) and a refreshing swim in a crystal-clear stream and waterfall, the visit concludes with a warm welcome from the Parara Peru people, who sing and dance for guests, serve a delectable lunch and invite visitors to partake in henna tattoos, shopping for crafts and playtime with the children. It's an absolute must, a window into the colorful, loving and proud indigenous people of the country.

These are just some of the truly local experiences that can and should be booked. There are plenty of others: jungle and eco tours, beach and surfing outings and the inspired Frank Gehry-designed Biodiversity Museum, to name a few.

A room at the Rock Spa, which offers treatments such as the Synchronicity Massage Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hard Rock Hotels & Casinos

After a day of touring, the Hard Rock's roaming mojito cart, serving on-demand cocktails throughout the hotel, is a welcome sight. After that, there are exceptional dining choices, including the Peruvian-Japanese dishes at Soy and the signature steaks and fresh-from-the-ocean seafood at Tauro. In the morning, the sprawling breakfast buffet, complete with mimosa and bloody mary stations, is an ideal way to start the day.

And when guests have gotten their fill of cultural discovery, they can set aside a day to explore the art of relaxation at the hotel. Book a Synchronicity Massage at the Rock Spa, where the therapist moves her hands to the rhythm of ambient music that surrounds you on all sides, or spend the afternoon sipping Champagne at Float, the rooftop infinity pool with jaw-dropping city views.

It's this combination — indulging in the Hard Rock's music-inspired luxuries and exploring its surroundings — that enables travelers to fully enjoy Panama City. It's a destination with a fascinating mix of old and new, modern and memorable, and enjoying the Hard Rock Panama Megapolis, inside and out, showcases the best of all of its worlds.

Nightly rates begin at $138. Visit www.hrhpanamamegapolis.com.

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