The Four Faces of Panama City’s Tántalo

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Opened on March 15, 2012, in the heart of Panama City’s resurgent Casco Viejo, Tántalo is a property with a distinctly–and happily–split personality. Located in an old apartment complex built in the 1970s that’s been, as Project Manager Adam Rosenberg explained, “reinforced, but not reconstructed”, Tántalo was imagined less as a hotel than it was a multi-faceted cultural center.

Yes, you can sleep there. Tántalo’s 12 spacious rooms offer all the amenities one would expect at a trendy boutique hotel, including super-soft queen-sized beds, 42-inch flatscreen TVs, iPod docks, rain showers, and free Wi-Fi, along with thoughtful extras like complimentary bike rental and a massage (the latter with three-night minimum stays).

We experienced a few minor hiccups during our one-night stay in “Love.Ouch!” (more on the room, below), like spotty Wi-Fi on the second floor, no hot water in the shower, and no safe in the room yet. To put the time of our stay in some perspective, however, Tántalo had just opened a week or so before we arrived and still felt somewhat like a work in progress; a hotel-scented version of  “New Car Smell” practically wafted through the air. I think they’re working on it, and in the end, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives and that  guests will enjoy a memorable stay.

Yes, you can party there. Tántalo’s Encima is the first rooftop bar to open in Casco Viejo. During the week we had no trouble staking out a love seat to enjoy amazing views of downtown Panama City over a few glasses of Malbec. Once the weekend arrives, however, Rosenberg says Encima usually get packed to or near its 250-person capacity. Expect DJs, dancing, maybe even a street performer twirling fire sticks. “When you travel, you want to be entertained, and at Tántalo you will definitely be entertained,” says Rosenberg.

Yes, you can eat there. Under the direction of Executive Chef Pierre De Janon, Tántalo Kitchen offers reasonably priced “plates to share” and a diverse wine list in a relaxed, communal-oriented setting on the first floor. My wife and I found the menu to be a bit hit and miss, but she raved about the juicy, medium-rare hangar steak, served on a sizzling black skillet and nicely complimented by a flavorful house chimichurri sauce, while I loved the simple, perfectly crisped golden sea bass cakes, which are topped with dollops of caper mayonnaise.

Yes, you can check out modern art there. Each of Tántalo’s 12 guest rooms are uniquely designed and decorated by different artists who utilized a variety of mediums, with room themes ranging from bondage to Bukowski. Though the rooms are not open to the public for security reasons, a revolving display of works from other local artists can be found throughout the property. The first-floor lounge area, for example, faces a large mural depicting the story of  Tántalo,  a mythological Greek king whom the property is obviously named after. (All photos appearing in this piece were taken in the rooms.)

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“Each artist tells a different story and turns the basic room layout into their own world,” says visual artist Mariery Young, who serves as Tántalo’s art curator. “Their multi-discipline backgrounds result in an art collective where each room has its own beat, a play of layers created by different elements and a blend of colors.”

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“My favorite room (below) is by a local artist named Sarah Tyler, who selected four personalities in Casco Viejo, took pictures of them, and brought them to life in the guest room,” says Rosenberg. “The faces of these people are so rich and full of life and uniqueness. The walls are covered in a beautiful, muted yellow tone, and images of hand puppets are scattered around the room. I just love how she brought the people who live in and around the hotel’s neighborhood into the guest’s life in such a creative and gritty manner.”

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The “hotel as art gallery” concept is further deepened by the fact that all art hung within the rooms, from paintings to digital photography prints, can be purchased. Free postcards depicting the room’s most iconic imagery are also available in each room.

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I stayed in Tántalo’s “raciest” room, which graphic artist Gladys Turner has appropriately dubbed “Love.Ouch!” Bondage is the prevalent theme here, with murals of whips and chains and thigh-high boots, as well as boards lined with metal spikes suspended over the bed, serving as lascivious conversation pieces.

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“Seeing everything completed and perfected is amazing, but for me it’s all about the process,” says Young. “Being with 11 artists who are working long hours at the site, sharing their creative processes and methods, is the best part. All of those behind-the-scenes moments are the most rewarding. That is what all artists seek: a way to share a point of view, an idea, a message.”

Tántalo is located at the corner of Calle 8a Este and Avenida B in Casco Viejo. 507 262 4030. As of April 2012, rooms range from US$190 – US$280/night. For reservations, email [email protected], or visit their website.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, Perceptive Travel believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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