I t’s shortly after 1:30 am. In a deep sleep cocooned inside cool crisp cotton sheets of RIU’s newest hotel in Panama’s Playa Blanca I thought I was dreaming when the bed swayed like an inflatable pool float then the emergency alarm blared. I shook my eyes open. Panama’s coast had just encountered a 6.8 magnitude earthquake.

And I’m here to tell all ... WOW was that a new experience!

At first I thought the property was testing alarms but then a visitor from California set the record straight. “We feel those tremors all the time, I knew immediately.”

That was Day One of my journey.

Welcome to Panama and welcome to RIU’s latest incarnation: RIU Playa Blanca.

Situated on a white sandy beach off the Pacific Coast in Cocle province about a two hour drive west from Panama’s Tocumen International Airport (PTY) airport, the five-star all-inclusive resort looks unlike its previous classic properties with the grandiose Spanish colonial inspired architecture. This 573 room resort with its fresh whitewashed facade and stark squared stature evokes a clean ultra-modern style with hints of classic Spanish pedigree.

Upon arrival we were greeted by a signature RIU style welcome. Chilled washcloths and a cold fruit cocktail were the refreshing antidote to our drive which took us past small communities and ribbons of verdant jungle flanking the roadside.

The all-inclusive opened on April 4 and is a perfect bookend to RIU’s already existing 644-room Hotel RIU Panama Plaza in Panama City. That hotel which opened four years ago was the company’s first city hotel and caters mostly to corporate types and international celebs like a US President and even J.Lo, Marc Anthony and the twins have stayed pre the big break-up.

Signature Vacations, RIU Hotels and Resorts’ exclusive partner, has combined a Panama City and beach package with transfers included between the two properties. Clients can sample both beach and city - or if it’s only beach they’re after - RIU Playa Blanca would be the answer.

Here’s a taste of Panama with a RIU twist:

Perks at the RIU Playa Blanca

For clients familiar with RIU they know the room’s mini bar and liquor dispenser are regularly refreshed, and, all non-motorized resort activities are complimentary. That means paddle board, snorkelling, kayaking, ping pong, poolside classes like exercise and dance plus you get a free introductory scuba diving lesson in the pool if you like.

Have the munchies post disco? No worries, the Sports Bar is open 24/7. Clients who frequent Spain’s renowned Pacha Nightclub will be happy to know RIU Playa Blanca has a Pacha Bar like its other properties across Latin America.

Guests get free Wi-Fi 90 minutes daily in the lobby. Some guests juggled Ipads, Iphones and Samsung devices simultaneously. The talk seemed strikingly similar. “Where are you?” “I’m at the lobby bar.”

Fitness buffs will smile at the new ultra-mod fitness centre located on the main floor. With frosted windowed doors leading to an air-conditioned den of standard fitness equipment, health nuts can lift weights by the massive windows.


Some clients get easily bored dining at the buffet restaurants. This property has one main buffet style restaurant the Balboa and a la cart dinners are offered at three other restaurant locations.

At Xian, the Asian eatery, I still stuck to the buffet which had a great selection of tempura, spring rolls, noodles, stir fries and sushi.


The resort’s four pools include the main one, a swim-up bar, a quiet adults-only pool, and a kiddie pool equipped with water slides and a massive white pail ready to dump H2O.


For rooms there’s a choice of standard rooms or suites and family rooms or family suites. The difference between the room and suites is basically the furnishings and the bathroom. Suites get a living area, spacious closets, and in the bathroom a make-up mirror, Jacuzzi and a shower.

The white interiors are consistent in all the categories but accent colours vary depending on the room type. Standard rooms are nicely appointed with bright cherry accent chairs, pillows and the bed throw, while suites offer a soothing aqua blue motif.

The Beach

The good news for clients who book with Signature Vacations, is that they will arrive on Sunwing Airlines’ additional Panama hub at the nearly opened Scarlett Martinez International Airport. The airport is only 10 minutes from the white sands of RIU Playa Blanca. Insiders there report the new airport should be ready by late fall.


For guests who wish to explore the countryside RIU Playa Blanca is nicely situated.

Only an hour away there’s the town of El Valle de Anton, considered the only town in the world built in a caldera of a dormant volcano. Imagine all the fun spin-offs associated with this and rainforest living. There are nature tours and cool roadside markets featuring local handicrafts like Panama hat weaving and artisans working magic in wood and soapstone.

Part of an ecological reserve the Chorro El Macho waterfalls is a Garden of Eden teeming in nature perfect for birders, botanists, and outdoor lovers. From the sounds, aromatic smells and the brilliant beauty, some writers have even associated the serene location as a sanctuary for meditation.

Home to the rare golden frog, the two-toed sloth and one of the largest butterflies in the world, the Blue Morpho, guests can experience the spectacular sights two ways via a marked hiking trail or a riveting zip-line tour with Canopy Adventure.

There are challenging zip-line platforms with the third one being the best since you literally plunge down the line with the falls not far away. Some daring types like to request a stop midway to stare directly at the cascading waters.

Ecological Reserve: Canopy Adventure

The zip-line’s park has a marked trail that leads visitors deeper into the jungle and at one stop there’s a totally rustic manmade pond. It’s there where I spotted the elusive toucan - what a beauty!

Its toucan mating season right now so chances are excellent for bird spotting. See more butterflies here in a minute than in Canada in a year. Strange dragonflies in vibrant hues resembling mini helicopter drones fly by then quickly disappear.

Now what’s holding you back from staying longer? Maybe it’s the tug of the city.

The City

It’s no secret city traffic is pure madness. That’s why clients will feel the instant stresses wash away as soon as they enter RIU Plaza Panama’s lobby. Another design stunner, art pieces are openly displayed by the hotel’s resident artist Martin Fernandez.

On my last visit to see the Hotel Riu Plaza Panama the skyline was already bedecked in skyscrapers. But now it’s taken on even more of that Hong Kong look with narrow spirals punctuating the sky.

The RIU Plaza Panama, for example, is situated in the financial district surrounded by a forest of banks. The bank with the biggest presence is the screw-shaped BBA building also known as the F&F Tower. You can’t help but smile at the ingenuity and daring from this local architectural firm.


The day I visited the Panama Canal hundreds of visitors stood shoulder-to-shoulder by the viewing platforms of the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre to witness the grand behemoths. One hundred years old this year the canal remains a huge tourist favourite.

Old Panama

The Casco Viejo District has been described as a Disneyworld for history buffs. The historic district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Spanish-colonial rich but also has a wonderful dash of Art Deco and Bauhaus undertones.

We popped into the Fish Market, a pop-up seafood restaurant and food truck on Calle 10 Oeste run by an affable lad from Manchester who had a penchant for Thai spices. Cheap and cheerful and totally alfresco, order the fish taco and wash it down with some Panama ale.


The other huge city advantage: cheap buys. While I didn’t have any luck on this trip some others managed to snag sandals for $6 and designer looking bags for $20. It also helps that the American dollar is warmly accepted despite the official currency known as the balboa.


For Frank Gehry fans and clients who love nature get ready to visit the soon-to-open BioMuseo.

Perched on the Amador Causeway at the canal entrance the museum’s facade is bric-a-brac of multihued sheaths at skewed angles. The building is whimsical and once opened (date currently is TBA) it will be home to eight galleries. It’s somewhat of a coup that Panama bagged Gehry for his first foray into Latin America.

The future

In the past, Panama’s always been a place of transit a temporary place you travel through to get from point A to point B. Forever dubbed “The Crossroads of the World” for the iconic canal this republic wedged between Columbia and Costa Rica is entering a new era.

Once here you’ll want to come back!

To Know

Sunwing Airlines has year-round Friday service from Toronto including Mondays between December 15-April 27, 2015. Other hubs: Montreal on Fridays Nov 14 April 10, 2015; Quebec City Fridays Dec 12 April 24, 2015; Bagotville Fridays Feb 6 April 24, 2015.


Riu Playa Blanca
Canopy adventure
The Panama Canal


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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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