Plaza Herrera, Casco Viejo, Panama City
The hotel, like the city itself, reflects a crossroad of the Americas, of past and present and a mad mix of cultures and commerce that continue to influence and pass through today.
True to its name, The American Trade Hotel was once a hub for retail and trade for American and foreign merchants. Built in 1917, the structure, which was once four buildings, fell into disrepair and into the wrong hands in later years. Sadly, it was a home and a hub for several gangs who took their own respective corners and floors of the four-story building for two decades.
2006 seemed to be the peak of gang activity in the city. Both the city and the gang members themselves were desperately ready for a change on both fronts.
Thanks to a few impassioned expats and locals who became ambassadors of the area, new life and businesses were brought in to revitalize Panama's oldest neighborhood, Casco Viejo. Nowhere is that change better celebrated or seen than at The American Trade Hotel.
Before you even walk through the doors you can see and feel both the past and the present of Panama. In the square right in front of the hotel sits Plaza Herrera. In its early days the plaza was a place for bull fights. Modern day bulls replaced the four legged fighters. They too experienced their share of fights in the plaza. Today it is where Fortaleza peacefully begins their tours of the old city.
Fortaleza Tours is led by rehabilitated gang members who know every crack and crevice of the city and of the American Trade Hotel as well. They take pride in the tour and in the hotel, they once called home.
Other rehabilitated gang members are seen working throughout the hotel as bartenders, maids, and servers. The hotel is as local and as Panamanian as you can get while staying in the old city.
The quintessential captains of cool, The Ace Hotel team together with LA-based Commune design and Panamanian-based Conservatorio created a joint venture to restore the beautiful building back to its early 20th century grandeur.
It was no easy feat as the creative team had to adhere to the Panamanian historical preservation laws as well as guidelines from the UNESCO World Heritage protection and conservation team since the building sat on the edge of the UNESCO designated historic district.
Opened in the fall of 2013, the building and the city's history seem to be reflected in every inch of the hotel. The original American Trade tiles remain in the lobby floor, while the wood floors seen in the hotel are the result of wood salvaged from trees submerged by the canal. Furniture is made from Nicaraguan wood and the design itself has hints of Havana, plus a nod to New Orleans and a few midcentury moments thrown in throughout.
What you see indoors is what you see outdoors on the streets as there were several eras and influences that have left their mark on this charming colonial corner of the city.
There are 50 rooms on three of the four floors. This is anything but cookie-cutter as no two rooms are exactly alike. Views vary from quaint colonial cobblestone streets, to sea views, to boats docked at the canal awaiting their turn, and of course the expanse of the now peaceful plaza below.
The rooms range in size starting with the efficient Cuarto Chico to Cuarto and Super Cuarto, with the final ranging between 355-430 square feet. It's a subtle luxury seen throughout with their custom sleep mattresses, Frette sheets, Panamanian furniture designed with reclaimed wood, handwoven coverlets made in Mexico, 32" TV's, bathrobes made with Turkish cotton, and free Wi-Fi throughout. All rooms come with bath products by Aesop and most rooms come with rain showers.
On a more luxe level, The Panorama offers floor-to-ceiling windows and a 180-degree view of Casco Viejo below. Jardin opens up to a private and tranquil garden with chaise loungers and hammocks. Esquina offers a pair of balcony views to the iconic below. The Super Cuarto Doble comes with a vaulted ceiling, a dining room, plantation-style reading chairs, and two queen beds. Their suites pair two large rooms with expansive views of the Plaza or the Gulf of Panama.
Cafe Unido is a hip cafe in house that you would typically see in SOHO or Seattle, only this is more authentic. Unido celebrates the local growers, all roasted in small batches and served in a pour over, as a cold brew, or as an espresso.
© Karen Loftus
Famous Latin American Chef Clara Icaza sits at the helm of the hotel's premier dining destination, The Dining Room. The restaurant is abuzz day into night with hotel guests and local patrons alike. Chef Icaza also oversees The Lobby Cafe and Bar where the focus is on artisanal ingredients and the cocktails are classically driven. Food and beverage aside, it is a great place to people watch and soak in the ambiance, characters, and culture day or night.
The intimate 50-seat Danilo's Jazz Club is the vision of Grammy-winning and internationally known Panamanian jazz pianist and composer who packs the house with local and international talent. Perez is UNESCO Artist for peace.
There is a small pool that is more about the lounging and the sun than it is the swim or the dip.
There is enough happening in house you almost don't need to venture out. The ambiance is as local and raw and celebrates the outside and surrounding area making it as much of a draw to stay as it is to go out and play.
Casco Viejo is a small and walkable city though. You can safely and easily venture in and out of the area on your own or with an ex-gang member at the helm. If in need of inspiration or guidance but not up for an official tour, The Ace Hotel's Engineers of Culture can lean in as much as you want to point you in the right direction and or arrange tours or transport for you.
If looking for big brand, predictable plug and play experience, I suggest you look elsewhere. If looking for an authentic Panamanian experience rich in history however, with a bit of an edge and the potential element of sexy surprise and wonder, then look no further than The American Trade Hotel.
Web Address: www.acehotel.com
Total Number of Rooms: 50
Published rates: $359 — $780 plus taxes
Review by Karen Loftus, photos courtesy of the hotel except where indicated.