There’s a reason why Las Clementinas is at the top of every review site, see it for yourself.
Present day Casco Viejo has become a traveler’s favorite because of its complex history, which fumes into rustic vibes that ultimately define today’s cool factor. Furthermore, the gem within the gem of Casco Viejo is a cultish luxury boutique by the name of Las Clementinas.
If you haven’t noticed, the age of traveling is experiencing a major shift. It seems as if the homogeneity of a mainstream hotel chain has gotten stale, while today’s travelers are increasingly famished for something with a little more…personality, shall we say?
It’s been a long time coming that we, modern jetsetters, are looking for the perfect fusion of personal and personality in foreign (or familiar) cities. Back in the 1980s, boutique hotels merely existed in major downtown areas such as London, San Francisco, and Manhattan. Today, just about every capital hubs a great number of boutique hotels. So much so that the line between bed and breakfast boutique vs. luxury boutique has been evermore clearly drawn.
In the last five years, Panama has been experiencing a serious growth in tourism. Panamanian government continues to offer tax benefits to travelers, particularly retirees, incentivizing those who have money in their pockets to traverse to Panama, even if not to invest, but at least to take a look at the culturally lush lifestyle that a revamped Panama can provide.
Part of the revamp of a rustic yet artistic Panama lies in the ambiance of Casco Viejo – a World Heritage Site that also stands as a historic district within Panama City. Back in the 1600’s, Casco Viejo survived a near-total destruction and attacks by pirates. Strolling through ancient alleys hemmed by cracked Spanish colonial walls fencing semi-demolished houses is an experience on its own. Casco Viejo prefers to whisper stories of its sordid yet glorious past.
“A lot of hotels these days, you know, are skewing towards the modern. And that’s great: clean, bare, modern. There’s a niche for that, but that’s not us. We want you to experience the life, in all of it’s beauty and it’s grit. That’s everything.” Says Carolina Garcia-Navarro, General Manager of the quietly gorgeous boutique hotel.
Back in the 1930s, Las Clementinas originated as an apartment building owned by Clementina Herrera, who separated the building into two sections: her personal home and a private salon. When her daughter, Clementina Jaén also began living there, “Las Clementinas” (the names of both the mother and the daughter) rented the apartments out to people while the neighborhood of Casco Viejo grew vastly with local shops and busy restaurants. After the development of the Panama Canal and the emergence of Americans in Panama, wealthy folks began moving into a new part of the city, leaving behind Casco Viejo in squalor.
Most recently, K.C. Hardin, an American attorney living in Miami, visited Panama to surf the waves but fell harder for Casco Viejo instead. He met with Ramón Arias, who comes from one of the original and prominent families in Panama, to take Las Clementinas into their own hands.
“They go beyond being just developers.” Carolina explains, “They didn’t want to just maintain the integrity of all of this, but they also wanted to keep the human half of it. We hire people from the neighborhood and we take in at-risk women as well as out of work men. Everyone goes through a three-month course where the owners teach workers skills and confidence. So our housekeepers all come from this neighborhood. Three of the young men here (serving the dining room) were also former gang members who went through the program, and changed their lives around. One of them is sixteen years old, working in the kitchen as an apprentice. We wanted to get him off the street early.”
Maybe it’s such loving integrity that today’s travelers can sense climbing up the vintage stairs inside Las Clementinas Hotel, which boasts six beautifully decorated bedroom suites, each sleeping up to four people. Perfect for couples on the road, families, a single wanderlust or travelers with a small group.
Since Las Clemetinas first opened its doors in October 2010, the rooms have been constantly filled up. With six rooms and more to come (the hotel is currently expanding), the restaurant is another reason why even locals are drawn to Las Clementinas. Plantains, carimanolas, fresh mesclun salads, even a grilled lamb burrito will leave your taste buds flying.
“The menu that we have currently was done by one of the most celebrated Panamanian chefs who was probably seminal to Panamanian cuisine.” Carolina continues, “She’s Panamanian but left to work in New York for many years, and came back to bring new, modern sensibility in Panamanian cuisine. She (joined) last year with us, and we see food exactly the same way: fresh ingredients, keeping it local.”
Looking around, it appears as though people who choose to stay at Las Clementinas have the same profile: early 30’s to early 50’s, making good money with decent jobs, loving to wanderlust by quietly enjoying all the demure sparkles that traveling has to offer. These folks, well us…we travel to find the perfect balance of personal touch and personality. Las Clementinas has accomplished both to the finest degree by staying in touch with the Casco Viejo local community.
Carolina expresses her sentiment, “I love being a part of the Panama that is evolving right now. It is absolutely evolving and you can see it in a very immediate way, here, in the Old Town. You get that old right up against the new but they’re trying to do it in a very compassionate and sensitive way to everyone involved.” Even as my Jetset Times team and I tour around the construction of the Las Clementinas expansion, we can feel an endearing sensitivity that owners K.C. Hardin and Ramón Arias upholds. This is a family, everyone is a neighbor.
“The owners have very specific view of the kind of service and the kind of experience that they want to give guests here, you know? And that is embracing, loving, warm, come on in, we love you, we’re so happy you’re here, whatever we can do we will go out of our way to do,” Carolina gushes on. And it’s true. These are the reasons why Las Clementinas has remained as a cult favorite among travelers like you and I.
We are a part of this current shift in hospitality. We are the ones who prefer intimate one-offs over mass production, boutique over commercial chains, vintage apartments over high rises, local home-cooked meals over continental breakfasts. If you’re looking for everything you want the next time you’re in Panama City, you’ll know exactly where to look to find it.