Even amidst local shitshow, Panama retains appeal from outside looking in.

Panama Tourism

https://nypost.com/2022/07/27/why-panama-is-becoming-central-americas-hottest-getaway/

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 his first name — which isn’t exactly uncommon in this part of the globe — and everyone instantly knows who you’re talking about. He’s kind of a big deal.

You wouldn’t know it by his humble lunching habits: This particular afternoon, fully business card-christened Fernando Cardoze GdeP is sitting at a picnic table by himself, so not to bother us or anyone else (not that he would’ve).

He’s straight going to town on some pineapple slices jam-packed in a Tupperware bowl, manically plastic fork-skewering them like a son of a gun.

We’ve just day-tripped to the Playa Cacique at the footsteps of the Mar y Oro hotel, one of only few lodging ops on the remote, sparsely populated (mostly those who have, have dough) Isla Contadora, the star of the Archipiélago de las Perlas, some 30 miles and change off the Pacific gulf coast of the Central American nation.

Exterior of the golf course at Santa Maria.
Canal plus: That little creek linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans is cute, but Panama’s Santa Maria resort is cuter.
The Santa Maria
Exterior of the pool at Santa Maria.
Things are going swimmingly at Santa Maria, Panama City’s only true resort.
The Santa Maria

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

The spry, cap-loving fiftysomething — who’s flown the likes of Melinda Gates and other VIPs to megayachts and other ridiculous places rich people have helipads — is the chief pilot and owner of Panama Air Adventures. He’s been privately piloting his big beautiful birds since 1996.

With a resting “at ease” posture the most manly military men manage to peacock at an “a-ten-hut,” Fernando is never without a smile, a joke, a hot Libertarian take about something or other and has nothing but praise for America and its denizens. “You guys love and respect freedom,” he fondly reminds us. He also talks about the Pentagon always having Panama’s back; us Yanks did skipper the Canal Zone from 1903 until 1979, picking up where the French flopped (womp, womp) and then handing the waterway into sole custody of the country in 1999.

An interior of Fernando's helicopter.
Flight of fancy: Take a chopper tour with Fernando all over Panama — it’s literally and figuratively a trip.
Fernando Cardoze GdeP

Fernando’s also an avid animal lover, always careful to steer clear of fellow fliers like ducks that his chopper’s blades would otherwise giddily prepare into a terrine of mousse foie gras.

He’s been entertaining us the entire day, taking us over and around Panama City, its bustling canal (supply chain shortage, be damned) and zig-zagging and snaking our way just mere feet above the Chagres River between rain forests and mountains like an X-wing through the Death Star’s trenches. All the while he’s chatting us up about this ship from China here, that native village over there, over our miked-up earphones (until he’s in “solitude mode” when he’s chatting with air traffic control — don’t even get him started on some of those guys/gals).

Fernando, as well as Copa Airlines — which is Latin America’s “most punctual airline” (every Panamanian likes to inform you of), eight years running — has teamed up with Panama City’s massive and exclusive Santa Maria country club, a quick nine miles from the airport.

Exterior of the Santa Maria.
Spray it, don’t say it: Pretty fountains greet you at the doors of the Marriott hotel.
The Santa Maria
Interior of a master suite at the resort.
King for a day: The master suite at the resort is a whopping 2,044 square feet.
The Santa Maria
Exterior of the AQVA Pool Bar.
Sounds fishy: Have a blast making ceviche at Santa Maria’s AQVA pool bar — even if you’re loathe to eat it!
The Santa Maria

Santa Maria is a sprawling, 700-acre affluent private community with million-dollar homes, a 72-par, 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course (you can even land a whirlybird on the fourth hole) and, of course, (considered separate from the community) the samely named 182-room Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort, a Marriott outpost.

Morgan tha God Freeman has even stayed and played here — and just as Andy told Red in “Shawshank:” “They say [the Pacific] has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.” If you’re not exactly a scratch golfer, warmth and amnesia are the perfect combo, hard wink!

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

A monkey in Panama.
Monkey business: Panama’s lush rain forests are home to our not-so-distant relatives.
Joshua Hall
A bird in Panama.
Stick your beak in: Don’t forget our feathered friends, this is a birder’s paradise, as well.
Joshua Hall

When us Medigans hear the words “Central America,” we — for justified reasons, check State Department/CIA alerts at your leisure — get the heebie-jeebies about certain goings on here in this inbetweener part of the western world. But in the last two decades, Costa Rica managed to transcend this unfairly universally applied phobia. And extremely safe Panama desperately wants to do so, as well. It makes sense as, geographically, it’s blessed, lying betwixt the North and South versions of the Amerigo Vespucci-named continents as it is, and having a deep kinship with the US.

In any event, Fernando has two rules for riding in his bird: (1) Don’t ever walk behind the chopper, whatever its I/O status; and (2), don’t even think about bringing aboard coffee or anything else that might dirty up his meticulously maintained clean machine. (And yes, there are barf bags if you must, but don’t.) And he gives a mandatory speech about the flotation fanny pack you have to wear (you did sign those death waivers, homie).

It didn’t take long before flying into a massive white-out nebula before he brings up Kobe Bryant and all that nastiness, and explains that sometimes it’s wiser to stay higher than lower in altitude when cloud-surfing. But, if you and your crew freak out, a simple turning off of the engine (which triggers a little nagging alarm, which is way freakier) can drop you instantly out of the puffscape to clear sky for everyone to regain calm. Kind of. It’s a trust fall — keep the faith!

The Panama Canal at night.
Panama’s beloved canal becomes even more so … after dark.
Joshua Hall

But when the weather turns rainy and wet (and it does get wet right quick in Panama), Fernando can kick it into an intense “Black Hawk Down” meets “Miss Saigon” gear when landing on flat terra firma, employing the use of a love-shove to keep disembarking passengers safely out of the chopper’s rotating blades. (You don’t even need to, but for psychological wellness or simply for the fun of it, just duck and run.)

Fernando didn’t reply to our request for a follow-up interview — but who can blame the dude when he’s busy chauffeuring some Illuminati luminaries by chopper to God knows where. Just try to remember to say Chris says hi when that luminary happens to be you.

Santa Maria’s $1,609 per night Stopover package includes three nights in an executive suite, breakfast, a heli tour over the Panama Canal and Pearl Islands and transfers. Valid for travel through Dec. 20. Use code ES7 to book.


Cool beans

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

Remember coffee? It’s like liquid Adderall but less heart-attacky (but not much less)?

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

Discover all the ins and outs of the caffeinated cure-all and most-excellent energizing elixir with a guided (and tasting, yes) tour at bird-rife Finca Lérida, just outside the way-western and often way-foggy city of Boquete, which is about a one-hour flight from Panama City.

Ask for Cesar (there may be more than one, aim for the bespectacled and goateed one) — he’s as hilarious as he is knowledgeable and he’ll dive deep, deep into the weeds, or rather the tomates de árbol (tree tomatoes), about all things coffee. He juggles those crazy sugary things after knocking them off their branches with a stick, it’s fun stuff.

You’ll learn fun facts like all coffee is, in a 23andMe biblical sense, Arabica coffee, so moving forward not to be fooled by that sneaky branding word.

Finca’s Geisha pour, the most hallowed and expensive in the world, is the belle of the ball. If you’re day-drinking the stuff, you’ll eventually crash: Try the on-site boutique indigenously named lodging (from $129 per night).

There’s also the nearby Panamonte Inn, just 25 minutes away (from $191 per night; its website’s a bit of a WIP). It’s cute, quaint and has a celebuchef-owner, Charlie Collins, who has a penchant for hanging bacon on mini clothes lines as one of his many dishes.

More importantly, his restaurant has a cozy fireplace which you’ll desperately lust for in the crisp, mountainous air around these nearly mile-high parts.

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