(This article first appeared in Flagstick in 2018. We’d like to showcase some destinations again so when it is safe to travel freely again, you have some places to check out.)
It’s been minutes since I left the confines of a plane that has taken me more than 4,000 km from my home. It’s dark. Our Uber is tiny, and the streets are narrow. Cobblestone rumbles under our wheels and outside the windows I struggle to comprehend what I am seeing. I’ve been told by people who I trust that Panama is a safe place to visit but the scenes in front of me seem to challenge that. Random faces look back at us, some standing around split oil barrels converted into open fire grills. In this strange world my mind races to ponder what they might be cooking. My imagination runs wild.
But it is for not.
A few streets away we disembark and here, in the heart of Panama City, Casco Viejo (the old city), we find an open-air bar brimming with travelers from around the world. All smiling; all safe; all embracing what I am to learn is one of the best places they have ever traveled.
Yes, our quick spin though El Chorrillo, a neighbourhood that was caught in the cross-fire of the U.S. invasion in 1989, was a startling introduction to the core of this city but, as I was soon to learn, it does not fairly represent the majority of what any traveler will find on this Central American nation. In fact, by the time I departed a week or so later I would be of the opinion that there were many parts of the modern world where I would feel more unsure of my environment.
The contrast of the scene in Panama City was likely enhanced because just ten days prior I was walking the floor of the Ottawa-Gatineau Golf Expo, avoiding the snowy weather outside with no thought of a southern jaunt.
I had never considered Panama as a golf destination. That was, of course, until I wrote a small piece on the region in 2017, relying on the details of those on the ground. But it just wasn’t enough. It simply teased me into what it was like to be there.
Then my phone lit up with a text from Brad Kozak, who works with the country on their golf marketing, while I was working at the industry trade show. “You interested in going down to Panama to check out the golf scene?”
“’When’ and ‘yes’” were my next two words.
So, on short notice I booked the best flight I could find at the last-minute and prepared to head for Central America. A literal 48-year-old babe in the woods, or jungle, in this case.
A Golf Destination?
Let’s get this out of the way. When it comes to golf Panama is not Myrtle Beach. While the country has a long history in the game (more on that shortly) this is not a place where hundreds of golf courses lurk behind every corner. That said, the ones that do exist are compelling enough to make the trip of interest for all levels of golfers. And when you wrap that into the deep and diverse culture and physical surrounds of this venerable nation, it is sure to hit a sweet spot for the golf traveler seeking something a little extra out of their excursion.
Home Base = Home Run
My week-long visit was divided into two portions, something I might recommend for those seeking to see a little more of what the country offers outside of a hotel or resort compound. We spent the greater portion hunkered down in the Hilton Panama City with expansive views of Panama Bay, while the last two nights found us two hours up the pacific coast at the Royal Decameron Resort. It was the best of both worlds. Visitors can choose a city locale with the depth of a place that dates to the 1600’s or kick their feet up at an ocean-side all-inclusive resort. Golf is at hand for both and if you want to miss in a city excursion from Royal Decameron you can get a small taste of what the capital city offers.
For those who choose the city route there are many familiar first world hotel brands in the capital – all much more affordable than what you would find in North America (average room rates at the Hilton are about $125 a night), and many have attached casinos, a popular haunt for visitors.
Being close to the equator, warmth is never an issue for a Panama visit but the year is broken into two seasons: wet and dry, with the latter taking place from May to December. As we were in country at the end of the dry season, temperatures were in the high 30’s Celsius each day with ocean breezes helping moderate the humidity. Rain, or any sign of it, was not in the cards.
The Golf..and The Food
From our nest on Avenida Balboa plenty of courses were in reach. As such, I was eager to go exploring. While the Panama Golf Association only recognizes 18-hole courses, there are also several nine-hole layouts throughout the country. They vary some in design and quality but given that the sport is largely a game played by those of the upper class in this nation of 4 million, you can expect most to satisfy your vacation needs.
During my stay I managed to tip it up at five courses and, along with Brad, visited two more to get a feel for their layouts.
They ranged from beach-side and urban properties to those deeper into the hills and jungles and each proved to be memorable.
First up was a visit out to Tucan Country Club. Tucan is billed as both a country club and resort. It also includes a growing housing development. Just twenty minutes outside of Panama City, you cross the famed Panama Canal on the Bridge of Americas to the Rousseau area. Most notable about the course is that even this close to the city you begin to appreciate the topography differences in this nation. The course, in some parts, boasts elevated tees that not only provide wide views of the course itself, but more impressively, to the infrastructure around the canal and of the modern skyline of Panama City.
It was a quick stop at Tucan but in it we found a course with a fine set of greens and a strong variety of holes. Add to that a fine accent of the flora that the country is known for and it made for a pretty sight in the morning sun. A course worth putting on the list for a future visit.
Our time was short at Tucan because the granddaddy of Panama Golf Clubs, the Club de Golf de Panama was on our agenda. There we met up with Jorge Loaiza Capriles, the President of the Panama Golf Association, our host for the day and trip, and spent time learning more about golf in the country. Of late there have been immense efforts to attract and accommodate traveling golfers through programs and marketing.
The club now plays on the third course in its history, dating back to 1922, four years after golf was first played in the country. The club has been a long-time host to PGA TOUR affiliated events and former PGA TOUR member Brad Fritsch describes it well when he says it can be a “hard place to make pars.” That mostly relates to the back tees with more forward ones being friendlier to the average golfer. For all tees you will find a course in top condition, undergoing constant improvements, and laid out over a property that tumbles up and down.
After a full day Brad Kozak and I saddled up with travel mates Nik Tolstoy and Blake Smith and headed back into the Old Quarter for dinner. Nazca 21, our destination, does not serve up local fare. It is a Peruvian restaurant, but it showcases what Panama has a bounty of, fresh seafood. With dual coasts, the country has a thriving seafood industry and you can’t go wrong with local octopus, lobster or shellfish. The local market is open each morning if you want it extra fresh, right off the boat. You can also eat there at several restaurants.
Summit Golf Club was our next playing stop. Adjoining a Radisson Hotel, the course actually has roots in the 1930’s. It was built for use of Panama Canal workers but was wholly reborn in 1999 with a lot of modern amenities added. While most of the course plays through open land, the closing group of holes works tightly through jungle surrounds. Several elevated tees provide both design intrigue and appealing views of the jungle canopy. A short course is also available, and the facility includes a complete on-site training centre, a rarity in the country. It’s a convenient place to combine hotel, restaurant options, golf, and resort amenities in one site in the middle of the country.
We found a more modern take on golf at the private/resort Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort the next day. The master-planned community is centred around a Jack Nicklaus design known for some of the best turf conditions in the country and a 182-room hotel (part of the Marriott Luxury Collection) with 18 suites that feature golf course views. Here Nicklaus made the most of a largely flat terrain with a backdrop of a skyline of Costa del Este, a commercial centre for the Panama City area. Prepare to play in a little more wind as you are close to the ocean and ensure you leave enough time for a meal on the back patio at the resort. Their tender and spicy alligator tacos were a big hit among our group.
It was time to leave the big city and on Easter Sunday we rolled out for the 120km, nearly 3-hour drive to Rio Hato and the Royal Decameron Resort for the remainder of our stay. It was Easter Sunday and it seemed like we were going in the opposite direction of entire populace who were returning to the capital. Be aware, while car rentals are super cheap in Panama, the driving will test your tolerance to mayhem. Stick to cabs, Uber, or a hired transport service if you can. It’s not costly and will keep your stress levels to a minimum.
Royal Decameron is found along Playa Farallón, a white sand beach that has become very popular. The resort was built in 2000 and as an all-inclusive, appeals to international travelers. A full-airstrip allows direct flights by charters that come in from around the world. Comfortable ocean-side accommodations are supported by entertainment options, multiple restaurants, and some of the best views in the country. Additional excursions also give you the chance to explore the country. A top choice for a complete and easy stay in Panama. Ideal for first time visitors and groups.
But before we arrived at the gates of Decameron we stopped in to check out a smaller, older resort in the form of the Blue Bay Coronado Golf & Beach Resort. Billed as a family resort, we did not get to check out many amenities besides the golf course, but the place seemed to be swarming with families. That’s about all I can vouch for on the resort end. The place looks like it needs a bit of updating and as “outside” golfers they were not very prepared to receive us. The Tom Fazio golf course certainly has potential which was hard to fully appreciate given it was the dry season and the fairways were plenty firm. It’s worth a look if you have the time but I’d take a pass on this place in favour of another round down the road at Beunaventura Golf & Resort or Mantarraya Golf Course where we headed to end the trip.
Mantarraya Golf Course is inside the gates at Royal Decameron and was established in 2000. It’s a challenging course with liberal use of a tumbling topography. The putting surfaces are well-kept, and the constant presence of large iguanas and other wildlife only add to the experience.
The golf course at Buenaventura is equally appealing with some of the best turf conditions you’ll find in the country. A burly (7300+ yards) Jack Nicklaus design that has hosted the Web.com Tour, it is the heart of a luxury beachside resort. This layout proved to be very popular within our group and deserves a replay. Being close to Playa Blanca beach, you also appreciate the cooling winds from the Pacific Ocean.
As we stood on the final green at Buenaventura, with the vibrant hues of the surroundings interspersed by the sounds of hundreds of birds it was a reminder of the diversity of Panama, it’s natural beauty, and all it has to offer.
The country is just in the infancy of being considered a golf destination, but it is well on its way. If you need a new golf adventure, it’s a stunning place to start.
Panama Golf Destination
Royal Decameron Resort
Tucan Golf & Country Club
Club de Golf de Panama
Summit Golf Club
Santa Maria Golf & Country Club
Blue Bay Coronado Beach & Golf Resort
Mantarayya Golf Club
Buenaventura Golf & Resort