(Originally written in 2013. Scroll to the end for the unexpected twist about an American presence in Panama that became rather infamous several years later…)

Mention the word “ARCHITECTURE” in Panama City and the response is always in superlatives, like “ICONIC,” a word they love, or “it is the highest,” “the tallest,” “has the most rooms,” “the most expensive.” Hundreds and thousands don’t count for much here: millions and billions of dollars must be used when discussing buildings in Panama City.

I have to agree, the development and architecture in the downtown and financial district IS ICONIC and is on steroids in terms its scale.  For example, they are opening four new hotels a year — not little boutique hotels. I saw a Hilton, a W and Aloft under construction plus three new hotels at the Albrook Mall, and a huge extension to the luxury/designer wing of the Multicentro Mall, the most upscale mall in the whole of South America (so the Panamanians say).

Shopping is a serious past time here — it is a free port. but above that, there is not that much to do, so people go shopping or hang out at the mall.   Also, the rest of the Latin American shoppers who are not shopping in Miami are shopping in Panama City,


The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Towers is ICONIC.  Looking at it, it forms the outline of a sailing vessel with sails and can be seen from almost every angle of the city.  What incredible branding to be able to remind the public every day who you are — because everyone knows that building and the name “Trump.”  The Donald and his family had very little to do with the design as it was developed under license, but needed the Trump’s approval to use the Trump name and branding.

Local materials and artwork were used as much as possible and the effect is very calming.   This is a destination hotel, five-star luxury at its best with service and comfort to match.  Since its opening two years ago it has been acclaimed for its distinctive architecture and superior service.  I was fortunate to do a tour of this hotel with one of its employees and marveled at the planning and thought that went into it as well as the quality materials and construction.

The Architect Arias Serna Savaria S.A, was a Colombian who has since purchased the Building and is busy with another hotel project outside of the City. The interior designer is from Miami and they both did an exemplary job. The front of the building looks like the bow of a sailing ship and can be seen far and wide. It is a very contemporary design in keeping with the city.

The building rises seventy stories above Panama City with breathtaking views of both land and sea.  It has 650 Condos, 360 hotel suites, six pools including two infinity pools on the second level, one with city views and one with ocean views – depending on how you feel that day !!

They boast that the gym is the largest and most up to date in Latin America. There are six restaurants, ballrooms including one that accommodates over a thousand people. The hotel has a wellness program and will accommodate whichever diet you need,  from gluten-free to fat-free and everything in between — and will have your correctly-sized exercise clothes and shoes waiting in your room when you arrive if you advise them ahead of time.  The Donald, like Panamanians, likes superlatives and no superlatives can adequately describe this hotel that is in the finest taste catering to their clients most fastidious whims.  This represents a new benchmark for luxury hospitality in Latin America. A very comfortable way to visit a brash, developing City – if you can handle the dent it will make in your budget.



This city is making several otheraarchitectural statements. Tthe next building of note that I visited was Yoo Panama on Balboa Avenue, which also has extraordinary ocean and city views.

The tower is a multi-story condo development by the Philippe Stark Team working together with a local Panamanian developer/partner. Turns out, everyone knows Philippe Starck’s designs even if you think you don’t !!  This Creative Force has designed everything from toothbrushes to motorbikes  – he wears leather and is a biker –  plus several international homes, hotels, and condos across the world.  He is a super-genius, workaholic, totally eccentric, totally creative individual who has built a handpicked team of international designers. These include Jade Jagger (Mick’s daughter!) from the world of fashion as well as Marcel Wanders from the Netherlands — also a totally eccentric, workaholic, highly creative person, internationally known for his product and furniture design and very original art direction.

Yoo is named for the Philippe Starck brand and he has done several Yoo developments around the world in all the major cities: London, Berlin, Paris, Dubai, Istanbul, Tel Aviv and New York City among others.  He chose Panama City as he felt it was worthy of his brand and he wanted to be represented here.

To quote Yoo’s site: Their aim is to create truly extraordinary living spaces.

Yoo Panama has been a while in the making and is nearing completion — I was lucky to see it at this stage of construction.  It has TEN FLOORS of amenities (with condos above) including stores, specialty food stores, clothing boutiques, beauty shops (lots!) childcare, restaurants, coffee shops and whatever the luxury condo buyer could wish for to make life a little more interesting – or a little less boring !!

The pool on the tenth floor is 3,300 square feet in size with a lemon and white color scheme, The design of the lounging furniture, cabanas, and accessories are off the charts original.  The main common area  (also the library) also on the tenth floor – an ENORMOUS  space with a comprehensive collection of books.  The space is divided into design vignettes with the craziest assortment of furniture and color schemes.

The condos, each one with a sensational view, comes with a furnishing package designed by Starck – the furnishings are quirky and original and fit the style of the condos perfectly.  These units have been compared to collectible art of which there is a limited supply.  Once the building is fully developed and the inventory is sold out the resale prices are expected to rise — which is what happened to Yoo developments in the other cities.


There is another bold new architectural statement in development on the causeway which is a section of reclaimed land. It’s close to the Yacht Club, which is a hangout for people who want to have fun — here, there are numerous bars, restaurants and discos to accommodate them.  It is also a jogging path for people who want to keep fit at the same time as having fun, although maybe not in the same day…


Frank Gehry, our own California architect (although originally from Canada) worked for years in the States without recognition until he was selected to design and build the Balboa Guggenheim Museum in Balboa, Spain, which won international acclaim and put Balboa and Frank Gehry on the map.  Locally, we know him also for the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

It is called “The Museum of Bio-Diversity” and is associated with the Smithsonian.  Frank Gehry donated the design and plan t  Panama City and it is presently under construction to be completed by the end of the year.   The design may have been free,  but the cost of construction which has gone from an estimated $31,000,000 to $93,000,000has not! I was fortunate to be in Panama City in 2013 and 2014 and see it its original stages… both times, I have marveled at its brilliant design and show-stopping architecture.

The design is a departure from his better-known style and consists of a number of “chambers” with high ceilings and roofs of primary colors being juxtaposed in challenging angles against the skyline. It has already garnered a lot of favorable press and positive reaction and will certainly be a tourist magnet generating revenue that will help to pay off the cost of the building — once it opens!.  The Museum has great visibility both from land and from sea as vessels passing through the Panama canal sail very close to it.

Mr. and Mrs, Gehry have close ties to Panama, I was told by a driver who often drives them when they’re in town. Mrs. Gehry is  Panamanian and they have visited often over the years.

These developments are characteristic of the type of construction going on in this city, and it sometimes seem like overdevelopment and too much of a good thing.  I don’t know, but I can tell you it is refreshing to see such optimism and confidence in the future and so much positive energy in this country that recently had the Panama Canal returned to them by the United States. The Panamanians have made a huge success of operating the Panama Canal and it is the cash generated from the Panama Canal that is the incentive for much of this development.


Why Panama?  That was the question I was asked over and over again when I left on my travels.  Many, many reasons as I have tried to explain in these letters, but I will try and answer them more adequately in another letter that I wrote at the end of my stay in Panama.

Sidebar: Trump Tower

(UPDATE, November 2019)

This post was written in 2013.  When my website was redone, I re-read it wanted to add the below tidbit regarding The Donald.

Trump Tower, as mentioned above, was not owned by the Trump Family – it was built under license to them and they managed it. When I was being shown around the hotel, I asked how often they see the Trumps and was told they have phone calls to the head office once a week to go over the figures and the family had visited recently on the anniversary of its opening.

In March 2018, Orestes Fintiklis, a Cypriot businessman who had manage to buy a majority stake in the hotel-condo association, legally ousted the Trumps from the Board.  I learned of this listening to a news broadcast on CNN in March 2018.  There had been a twelve-day standoff between Finitlkis’s staffers and people loyal to Trump. A rowdy crowd gathered outside the hotel, and the police were called to deal with the opposing sides as there were at fisticuffs and shouting at one another. The fracas gained international attention, with news reports on TV and in the papers.

It was also reported that as a distraction (to guests and residents?), Oresetese Finitklis was at times playing piano inside the lobby of the hotel!!  Finally, a judge handed control of the hotel to Finitklis and the Trump hotel executives were booted.

There was a lot of publicity while the Trump signage was being removed from the front of the hotel and the wall was scraped clean as if the Trump hname had never been there.

There were a couple more ups and downs, one of which was an attempt by Donald Trump who contacted Martinelli, the Panamanian President, to intercept on his behalf to restore the licensing agreement.  Finally, in September 2018, the management and operation of the hotel were taken over by J.W. Marriot who have rebranded the hotel in their image.


the road less traveled