Panama City is famous for its modern skyline and breathtaking views. Few cities offer such an enjoyable combination of realistic scenarios, excellent location, and modern infrastructure.
Still, Panama City hides a well-kept secret: you can drink the best specialty coffee in the world there. While working as a management consultant a few years ago, I found out this while dealing with the typical challenges of working abroad from home.
Later on, when I started learning about specialty coffee, it was surprising to learn about the fine quality of regular coffee in Panama, where the country had some of the best and priciest coffees in the world.
Most of the coffee you drink in Panama is good. From a delicious cup of drip coffee at an American-style dinner, espresso bars, and fine cafés at beautiful Casco Antiguo.
Keep reading to find out more about this special spot in the world of coffee.
Espresso & Shopping
Panama City skyline combined with such a view makes it a fantastic spot. Photo by Yosi Bitran on Unsplash
I traveled to Panama City for the first time in 2013 as a management consultant. Batch brewers were everywhere in the office, and I drank around 6 to 8 cups of coffee every day. It wasn’t only because of the demanding projects I had to deal with, but also because the coffee was delicious.
One of the most exciting aspects of coffee in Panama is how the enthusiasm for espresso drinks quickly grew. A couple of decades ago, most people in Panama had coffee at home and humble fondas. As the country’s economy boomed in the 2000s and 2010s, it attracted investors, migrants, and tourists from all over the world.
Malls started to pop up everywhere, and inside, it became possible to enjoy espresso drinks. Now, you can find Starbucks, Juan Valdez, and Duran Coffee Shops in the city. But before that was possible, they were only available inside malls. The main reason was straightforward: the scorching and humid weather in Panama City.
Even at the earliest morning hours, it isn’t enjoyable for many people to have a warm drink in a hot place. That discouraged many people from drinking coffee outdoors in Panama. But, air-conditioning at scale worked its magic in favor of small espresso bars inside malls. Shopping is widespread in Panama, not only for tourists but also for locals.
As these vast malls became popular spots to enjoy a fresh walk, cafés started to open inside them. First were the large brands, both local and international. After Duran, the largest coffee company, opened its coffee shops, other companies followed, like Athanasiou.
Premium coffee outside the malls
Panama City Casco Viejo (Old Square) is a magnet for tourists. Photo by Ángel López on Unsplash
Serendipity made something special for Panama’s coffee. A true revolution was going on with coffee production almost simultaneously, far away from the noise and city buzz.
For centuries, coffee was just a commodity for Panama, as anywhere else. However, Panama as a country has many conditions to thrive as a coffee producer. Away from the city, it has a rich biodiversity, many microclimates, and a high mountain range with volcanic soil.
Having such conditions for great coffee didn’t go unnoticed when specialty coffee started to grow again in the past few decades.
Although the most valued coffee variety arrived in Panama in the 1960s, it was only till the late 1990s that specialty coffee gained a following when the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama started working.
In just a couple of years, in 2001, the Best of Panama coffee auction opened for the first time. And by 2004, Panama coffee started to break one record after another, as the priciest in the world sold at an auction.
At the same time, significantly boosted by international notoriety, cafés started to open in the city. And it didn’t stop there. Between 2012 and 2019, 6 out of 8 World Brewers Cup winners served Panama’s Geshas -from Ninety Plus Coffee.
Several cafés found their place at Casco Viejo, the most attractive spot for tourists. Others targeted the financial center and affluent neighborhoods to attract and engage with clients for a longer time.
Via Argentina, El Cangrejo, Marbella, and San Francisco summed to the specialty cafés’ favorite locations, starting at Casco Viejo slightly earlier.
Bajareque Coffee House is one of my personal favorites and one of the first coffee shops with Gesha available from Elida Estate, one of the most highly regarded specialty coffee producers in Panama and the world, for that matter.
Recently, Café Unido has been opening several coffee shops in the city, boosting the local coffee culture, and other roasters and cafés like Mentiritas Blancas, Buho Café, and Ernesto Trillos, among others. Simultaneously, several Authorized Specialty Coffee Trainers are working in Panama, enriching the local coffee culture through education.
As a small and bustling city, Panama offers a jaw-dropping skyline next to the Pacific Ocean coast, surrounded by dense wild forests. The Balboa Avenue and the Coastal Beltway connect the modern city with the Casco Viejo (Old Square).
The coffee culture has been knitting itself through diversity in a limited space while the local infrastructure improves. Increasingly connected through the subway system, the chaotic traffic jams are becoming less of an issue, particularly now that it’s easier to get to the best spots for good coffee. Additionally, recent urban developments like the Coastal Beltway are a pleasure to walk.
We are all waiting for a better time for traveling. For those who can pay a visit to Panama, it is worth spending some time at its cafés. You would be surprised by the fantastic quality and richness that you can find. In any case, as unique as drinking espresso in a mall or tasting a V60 service of the finest Geshas on the planet, Panama City has a special offer for coffee lovers worth trying.