The New York Times, in placing Panama in its No. 1 slot of 45 places to go in 2012, suggested: “Go for the canal. Stay for everything else.” And nowadays that includes exploring national parks, kicking-back on pristine beaches, white-water rafting the Chiriqui highlands, and discovering historical sites dating to the age of the great discoverers: Columbus and Balboa. But everyone loves starting out their stay in Panama City, certainly the most interesting and lively capital in Central America. And there’s a lot going on. Panama City’s once dilapidated historic quarter, Casco Viejo, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, is being transformed. Its tangle of narrow streets, centuries-old houses and neo-colonial government buildings is now a trendy art district with galleries, coffee houses, street musicians and some of the city’s most stylish restaurants and boutique hotels. Other high-profile projects include three firsts: Panamera, the first Waldorf Astoria hotel in Latin America; the Trump Ocean Club, the region’s tallest building; and architect Frank Gehry’s BioMuseum, aka the Museum of Biodiversity, scheduled to open this year and focused on the story of Panama’s 12 distinct ecosystems. Gehry’s Crayola-colored museum sits on the Amador Causeway 10 minutes from the city-center and overlooks the Panama Canal. For those who want to see the waterway as it was originally designed (the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center offers a great viewpoint), now is the time for expansion is underway—widening and deepening, adding two locks, doubling the canal’s cargo capacity—and is expected to be completed for the canal’s 100th anniversary in 2014. The Canal Zone also shelters the Soberania National Park, whose Pipeline Road is a world-famous trail for avid birders.
From the capital, it’s an easy drive to many of Panama’s finest beaches along the Pacific coast, starting with Playa Bonita and Playa Blanca and running all the way to the Farallon beaches, where you find the all-inclusive Royal Decameron Beach Resort, and the super-luxe JW Marriott Buenaventura (previously of the Bristol Hotel group), which has completed its 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course. Across the Isthmus on a different coast, the Bocas del Toro archipelago offers all the trappings of a Caribbean fantasy: dreamy little beaches, thick rainforests, birds and fish in a rainbow of colors, snorkeling and scuba, and funky, lively Bocas Town with a laid-back lifestyle.
BEST TIME TO GO: Peak season (aka dry season) runs mid-December to mid-April; driest months on the Caribbean coast are February, March, September, October
FUN-FACT: The finest polleras, the elaborate national costume of Panama, are fashioned in the town of Las Tablas, Azuero Peninsula; in November, hundreds of Panamanian ladies parade in a fiesta of polleras
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta to Panama City
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport
CURRENCY: U.S. dollar
MUST-TRY FOOD: In Panama City, El Trapiche restaurant serves up only Panamanian fare, at low, low prices; house specialty—Panamanian Fiesta—features eight different dishes, such as ropa vieja, literally “old clothes” but in real life a slow-cooked beef dish
BEST BUYS: Easy shopping at the YMCA Handicrafts Market, stocked with wonderful baskets woven by the Embera people and the famous appliques called molas fashioned by the Kuna
INFORMATION PLEASE: Panama Tourism Bureau—visitpanama.com