I spent a night in Panama's richest neighborhood, often called a 'little Dubai' or the 'Miami of Latin America'

  • Punta Pacifica is Panama City's most expensive neighborhood.

  • The neighborhood has man-made islands, private marinas, and penthouses worth $5 million.

  • I stayed at the five-star JW Marriott Panama and experienced the neighborhood's luxury firsthand.

Duncan McGowan describes Panama City's Ocean Reef Islands as "perfection."

The landscaping is manicured flawlessly, never a leaf or branch out of place. You'd have to hunt to find trash anywhere on the islands, and instead, you're more likely to notice bird songs filling the air.

Looking one way, all you see is the endless ocean. Turn around, and there's a stunning cityscape behind you, McGowan, the president of Punta Pacifica Realty, told Business Insider.

The Ocean Reef Islands are part of Panama's Punta Pacifica neighborhood, and that perfection is exactly what Panama's wealthiest residents seek.

On a recent trip to the country, I saw the opulence that residents chase across Punta Pacifica, Panama's wealthiest neighborhood.

I landed in Panama City, snapped skyline pictures, and texted my friends that I had arrived. Immediately, one pointed out how the city resembled Miami.

Panama's Punta Pacifica skyline.
Panama's Punta Pacifica skyline.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

I spent my first night in Casco Viejo, Panama City's old town. From the coast, I could look out onto Punta Pacifica, where a grouping of tall buildings reached out to the clouds.

My friend's initial thoughts about Punta Pacifica aren't uncommon. McGowan said people always compare Punta Pacifica to dense cities like Miami, New York City, and Dubai. Central America Living refers to the neighborhood as a "mini-Dubai," and The New York Times said in 2014 that Punta Pacifica is "often called the Miami of Latin America."

The comparisons made sense. All three cities are home to impressive skyscrapers and coastlines. And since Punta Pacifica is home to the Ocean Reef Islands, which were man-made in the early 2000s, it's easy to see how it's grouped with Dubai.

But McGowan said that they are vastly different destinations.

"It resembles all of them, but it has its own flavor," McGowan said. "I think Panama City and Punta Pacifica have matured enough now that it doesn't have to be compared. It stands on its own."

The next day, I headed to Punta Pacifica.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
Condo and apartment buildings in Punta Pacifica, Panama. Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Three decades ago, Punta Pacifica didn't exist.

Created in the early 2000s, a company that built one of Panama City's major highways earned the rights to develop 86 acres of landfill and 73 acres of mainland along an area of the city's coast known today as Punta Pacifica.

McGowan, who has worked in Panama's real-estate market for nearly two decades, said it was designed as a luxury area from the start, and living in Punta Pacifica can come at a steep price.

The neighborhood is home to more than a dozen condominiums and apartment complexes, which can range in price. On the lower end, McGowan said residents can expect to pay around $2,200 a square meter, while prime real estate can cost $7,000 a square meter.

A quick search on Punta Pacifica Realty or Panama Realtor shows one-bedroom apartments for sale at $200,000 and luxury penthouses for as much as $5 million.

I spent a night in the neighborhood's famous TOC building.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
The TOC building in Panama's Punta Pacifica Neighborhood. Monica Humphries/Business Insider

One building stands out in Punta Pacifica's skyline with its sail-like shape: the TOC building.

Today, TOC stands for The Ocean Club, but ask anyone in Panama, and they know it by its former name, the Trump Ocean Club.

The Trump Organization wasn't the building developer; local developer Roger Khafif was. However, the Associated Press reported that the Trump name was licensed to the building to increase its credibility and notoriety.

It became Ivanka Trump's business project in 2006, according to NBC, and since its opening in 2011, the building's history has been riddled with scandals. An NBC and Reuters investigation found that many of the property's brokers, customers, and investors were tied to drug trafficking and international crime.

In 2015, the AP reported that "concerns about overspending and transparency" led the Trump management company to be forced out after a vote by condo owners and board members. However, the Trump Organization refused to accept the vote and claimed that it quit instead. Along with that announcement, the Trump Organization demanded a $5 million termination fee, according to the outlet.

In 2018, the AP reported that Marriott International took over management and renamed it The Ocean Club to keep its TOC branding.

Today, the 70-story building is one of the largest mixed-use buildings in Panama.

An aerial view of Punta Pacifica and the TOC building.
An aerial view of Punta Pacifica and the TOC building.Didier Marti/Getty Images

The building includes the JW Marriott Panama and its 369 hotel rooms, along with about 630 condos, McGowan said.

It's the neighborhood's only five-star hotel. In addition to the hotel rooms and condos, the building is home to a casino, a handful of restaurants, real-estate offices, a spa, a gym, and multiple salons.

I spent a night in an executive suite at the JW Marriott and experienced Punta Pacifica's opulence firsthand.

A view of the open concept bedroom and bathroom at the JW Marriott Panama.
A view of the open-concept bedroom and bathroom at the JW Marriott Panama.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

A night at the JW Marriott felt like the ideal way to experience Panama's richest neighborhood. So, at 4 p.m., I arrived at the skyscraper and headed to the hotel's lobby on floor 16.

I received a key to my suite and headed to floor 31. Golden light cast across the room as I stepped inside. The suite had an open concept, with a shower and bathtub looking to Panama City's skyline.

According to TripAdvisor, standard rooms typically cost between $193 and $290 for a night. BI received a media rate for the room.

The same views could be seen from the king-size bed.

The views from the author's hotel room.
The views from the author's hotel room.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

The suite was spacious, with two of the room's four walls lined with windows. A loveseat, table, and desk filled one area of the room. In another corner, a king-size bed called my name.

A balcony faced hundreds of condos and a sliver of ocean.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
A view from the author's balcony.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

While TOC might be the most recognizable building in Punta Pacifica, it's far from the only condominium in the neighborhood.

A large balcony in my hotel room was just a few hundred feet away from other balconies. Below me, I spotted a bright blue pool, a parking garage, and a playground for the neighborhood children.

Hotel guests have access to amenities like a gym and spa. Plus, they can access other parts of the building, like the casino on the top floors.

Cava 15 in the JW Marriott Panama.
Cava 15 in the JW Marriott Panama.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Before the sun sank below the horizon, Moises Muñoz, the international sales manager at the JW Marriott Panama, gave me a tour of the building.

He compared it to a cruise ship, where everything you need is in one place.

We explored the commercial area downstairs, where real-estate offices, restaurants, salons, and businesses are located.

Inside the hotel, there's a spa and gym, which both hotel and condo guests can use. The Marriott is also home to the restaurant Masi and a Cava 15, a bar designed in conjunction with Louis Vuitton, Muñoz said.

The most impressive part was the infinity pools with seamless views out onto the ocean.

The pool at the JW Marriott Panama.
The pool at the JW Marriott Panama.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

While luxury details such as a glass elevator and executive lounge heightened the stay, the most impressive part of the hotel was its two infinity pools.

Later that evening, I dined on fresh ceviche at the hotel's restaurant Masi.

A restaurant in the JW Panama.
A restaurant in the JW Panama.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

While it was tempting to order room service and dine on my meal from the luxury of my executive suite, the lush oasis at the hotel's Masi restaurant called my name.

The restaurant serves Panamanian and Latin American cuisine. I ordered a trio of different ceviches alongside a pumpkin dish. Each bite had the ideal balance of citrusy and fresh flavors.

Before I went to bed that night, I noticed that only a handful of the hundreds of condos had their lights on.

Only a handful of condo have lights on across from the author's hotel room.
Only a handful of condos have lights on across from the author's hotel room.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

McGowan explained that many of Punta Pacifica's condo owners don't live there year-round. Instead, it's a second, third, or even fourth home for the residents.

They might escape to Punta Pacifica during the winter or stay for a few weeks at a time. McGowan also added that most of Punta Pacifica's residents are foreigners.

McGowan said that even with its past, The Ocean Club is still one of the most luxurious condominium towers in the country.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
Panama City's former Trump Ocean Club.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

McGowan said the building remains one of Punta Pacifica's luxury staples, adding that owning a condo there is like living in a high-end hotel.

Later, I explored the rest of the neighborhood.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
A view of the Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City. Monica Humphries/Business Insider

Stepping outside the hotel, it was impossible to know the ocean was just a few hundred feet away. Instead, nearly every direction was filled with skyscrapers.

As I explored the small neighborhood, I spotted just a handful of stores and restaurants.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
Stores and restaurants in Punta Pacifica, Panama.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

I covered most of the neighborhood in less than an hour. Along the way, I spotted dog parks with designer pooches, pristine playgrounds for children, and lobbies with spiraling staircases and impressive chandeliers.

It was clear that the area oozed wealth.

McGowan said that while it's a dense area, it often feels like a quiet neighborhood.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
Condo buildings in Punta Pacifica. Monica Humphries/Business Insider

"I love this neighborhood," McGowan said. "I don't think I would move to another neighborhood in Panama City. This is the neighborhood I consider home."

Punta Pacifica has everything McGowan needs. There are stores, some of the city's top restaurants, and the ocean just around the corner. Everything is within walking distance, and McGowan has gotten to know his neighbors there.

"I bought myself a new car in August. I was driving it yesterday morning, and when I looked the car had 2,100 kilometers on it," he said.

And if he does need to drive, McGowan said Punta Pacifica is close to other popular areas in Panama. You're a short drive to Casco Viejo and other downtown parts of Panama City.

To wrap up my exploration, I headed to the most luxurious part of Punta Pacifica: the Ocean Reef Islands.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
The entrance to the Ocean Reef Islands.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

A short, narrow bridge leads to two small artificial islands, where the most expensive properties in Punta Pacifica are located.

"Ocean Reef Islands, today, is Panama's most expensive neighborhood in price per square meter," McGowan said, adding that the average price per square meter there is $7,000.

The man-made islands cater to Panama's ultrawealthy residents.

Ocean Reef Islands in Panama City.
Ocean Reef Islands in Panama City.Didier Marti/Getty Images

According to The New York Times, Empresas ICA announced plans to construct the two islands in 1998, around the same time the creation of Punta Pacifica was announced. Grupo Los Pueblos, a Panamanian company, was hired by Empresas ICA as the project's developer.

The project was largely completed in 2016, McGowan said.

"It is more expensive because they had to create the islands," McGowan said. "So the land itself has more value."

My walk was cut short; only residents and guests could enter the islands. McGowan painted a picture of the area for me.

The Punta Pacifica neighborhood in Panama City.
The entrance to the Ocean Reef Islands. Monica Humphries/Business Insider

He said the two islands have a slightly different feel because they're zoned differently.

One island is predominantly zoned for homes, while the second has more condominiums with taller buildings.

Currently, McGowan said the developers are in the last stage of the project, which is building the commercial component of Ocean Reef. This will include stores, restaurants, spas, and fitness centers.

These operations are catered to and supported by the island's residents since no one else can visit.

Between the islands is the yacht club and marina, which McGowan called the "jewel of the island." On a typical workday, the marina is teeming with yachts. Come Saturday, however, the island is deserted, with its yacht owners all out exploring nearby islands.

Ultimately, McGowan said the Ocean Reef Islands offer a tropical escape from Panama's bustling city life.

An aerial view of the manmade islands in Panama City.
An aerial view of the manmade islands in Panama City.Didier Marti/Getty Images

McGowan said stepping onto Ocean Reef Islands is peaceful. There's always a breeze, and bird songs fill the air.

"You really do feel like you're on a tropical island," McGowan said. "But you turn your head and look back to the city and see a massive skyline."

It's the best of both worlds, McGowan said.

Between yacht clubs and infinity pools, a night in Punta Pacifica highlighted how the city's wealthy live.

The author at the JW Marriott Panama.
The author at the JW Marriott Panama.Monica Humphries/Business Insider

After less than 24 hours in the neighborhood, I tasted fresh ceviche, swam in the most luxurious pool of my life, and saw impressive condos people spent years dreaming of.

It's easy to see how this neighborhood earned its reputation as the Miami of Panama, but just as McGowan said, the neighborhood is truly its own unique oasis.

And you have to visit to experience it.

Read the original article on Business Insider