Panama City is relatively small when compared with other major Latin American cities, and walking distances and cab rides, which cost just $1.25 to $2 (£65p-£1), are short. Most hotels are concentrated in El Cangrejo and the Area Bancaria (Financial District), home to banking institutions, commercial services, shopping malls, and many of the city's best restaurants. For charm, you can't beat the cobblestone streets and renovated antique homes in Casco Viejo, which has apartment-style lodging units with kitchens. Cab-hailing, however, can be arduous in this neighborhood, especially at night, when raining, or during holidays, and walking to El Cangrejo or Bella Vista from here is out of the question. If you're staying in Casco Viejo, have your hotel provide you with the number of a radio taxi.
Elsewhere, there are excellent hotels scattered about the city in the Marbella/Coastal area, on the slope of leafy Cerro Ancón hill, and near the Amador Causeway (specific information about these neighborhoods can be found in each lodging description). The neighborhoods La Exposición and Calidonia are home to mostly anonymous, divey hotels that seem better suited for a criminal hiding out from the feds than for a tourist seeing the sights. There are also quite a few "push-buttons." I've stayed at cheap hotels here (Hotel Montreal and Hotel Marparaíso come to mind), and I do not feel confident recommending these properties when there are solid, inexpensive lodging options available in better neighborhoods.
Lodging Tip: When booking a reservation at a local hotel (meaning not a chain hotel), always ask for the corporate rate, even if you're not on corporate business. A hotel may ask for the name of the company you work for, but most do not require any other identification or proof. Corporate rates are $20 to $30 (£10-£15) cheaper than rack rates. Also, hotels listed below as "expensive" offer much cheaper rates for travelers booking through their websites. All hotels recommended in this chapter have free parking and at least one computer with an Internet connection.
Push-Buttons & the Pit Stop -- Rent-by-the-hour hotels in Latin America are ubiquitous and largely patronized by young adults who still live with their parents, as well as by those carrying on the usual clandestine affairs. In Panama they're called "push-buttons." To admit to having patronized a push-button carries far less stigma here in Panama than it would in the U.S., but still, no one wants to be caught in flagrante delicto, and therein lies the origin of the name. Push-buttons are commonly found on the outskirts of towns and are clearly identifiable with cheesy names like "Lagoon of Love." Without getting out of the vehicle, a driver/client pushes an intercom button, and the gate opens. Each room has its own enclosed parking area and private entrance, and a small sliding partition that opens to the hallway means you can pay or order drinks without having to see or talk with anyone. Push-buttons come with all the romantic bells and whistles: heart-shaped tubs, mirrored ceilings, minibars -- the works. To leave, the process is reversed, only the intercom button and exit area are called the "pit stop" -- as the gate opens, the driver revs his engine, hits the gas, and quickly races to get out and avoid being seen.
Aparthotels -- Visitors on business, travelers on an extended stay in Panama City, or families with kids might consider renting an aparthotel, a self-catering unit with a kitchen that is rented nightly, weekly, or monthly (with rates based on length of stay). Aparthotels are high on function but low on style (they boast "luxury," but it's a stretch). A few have perks like gyms, swimming pools, and in-room laundry, but unfortunately, they charge up to $10 (£5) per day for an in-room Wi-Fi connection (it's sometimes cheaper to use their business center). The following aparthotels are located in El Cangrejo. Remember to ask for the corporate rate when booking, which could be cheaper than rack rates listed here.
Casco Viejo -- Despite its popularity as a major tourist draw in Panama City, there are few accommodations here, and even fewer recommendable lodging options. This will probably change as the Casco Viejo neighborhood continues to be renovated and revitalized, but for now, you're best sticking to the options below. Although Casco Viejo isn't ultra dangerous, it does get a bit sketchy at night and you'll want to take a taxi around here if you're traveling alone or in a small group.
What Casco Viejo does offer travelers are lovingly restored apartments that can be rented nightly or weekly by Arco Properties, Calle 2A Oeste, Galería San Felipe (tel. 211-2548; www.arcoproperties.com). Rental properties are on a space-available basis (most owners live outside Panama City and visit for short periods during the year), and they feature daily maid service but limited parking. The cost for a one- to two-bedroom apartment ranges, per night, from $100 to $200 (£50-£100) May to November, and $150 to $250 (£75-£125) December to April. Check out the Arco Properties website for photos (some rentals are fancier than others), or e-mail for availability at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Another option, Los Cuatro Tulipanes (tel. 211-0877; www.loscuatrotulipanes.com) offers four apartments housed in fully restored mansions and buildings scattered throughout Casco Viejo, and is a top-notch option in the old quarter for those seeking a memorable lodging experience.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.