RIU Panama

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The business center boasts the latest gadgetry for telecommunications, while the exquisite and ultra-modern Renova Spa is a soothing counterpoint to high-tension business sessions or after a day visiting sites around the city. The spa offers such exotic treatments as seaweed body wraps and a moisturizing treatment of hazelnut and almond creams.

Leisure travelers will delight in the many shopping centers, nightclubs reflecting Panama City’s vibrant nightlife and the city’s many cultural attractions being a mere stone’s throw away.

The country is easily accessible from the U.S. as several airlines, including American Airlines, Continental Airlines and Copa Airlines—the well-regarded national airline—offer direct service from Newark, Los Angeles and Miami. Visitors returning after a few years’ absence will find steel and glass buildings rising over a thoroughly modern skyline; colonial homes, once crumbling, derelict relics, have been transformed into artistic retreats; nearby rainforests will delight eco-tourists and the vibrancy of Central America’s premier city is evident at every corner. Most conveniently to North Americans, the U.S. dollar is the coinage of the realm.

Although the U.S. transferred full ownership of the canal to Panama in 1999, the country still feels the effects of having lost more than $500 million a year that the U.S. military once injected into its economy. There are numerous projects underway to offset that loss, including the construction of a third set of locks to accommodate larger cargo ships through the canal and an ambitious $10 million project to attract foreign tourists.

Foreigners will find a delightful town with a remarkable historic pedigree. Ruins of the original Panama founded in 1519 remain pretty much as Henry Morgan left them when he sacked and burned Panama City in 1671, prompting a new city to be moved a couple of miles away to what today is known as “El Casco Viejo” (The Old Shell), an enticing colonial jewel full of brightly colored buildings and cobblestone streets. This zone is a cross between Charleston in South Carolina and New Orleans’ French Quarter.

This colonial-era neighborhood is full of ice cream vendors and quaint shops. About six decades ago it was a slum which in recent years has been “discovered” by artists, musicians and returning expatriates who have turned it into one of the city’s most appealing and desirable areas. Attractions like the presidential palace, where herons graze on the lawn; the Interoceanic Canal Museum; and the golden altar in the San Jose Church, one of the few treasures not taken by Morgan, are all nearby.

No visit to Panama can be called complete without at least one visit to the canal and lunch at the Miraflores Locks Restaurant is almost mandatory.

The restaurant, a mere five miles from the city center, overlooks the southernmost of three locks that all ships must use while wending their way between oceans. It serves an excellent buffet (about $15 pp) of Panamanian food (similar to Cuban, except that it’s very heavy on seafood) from a third-floor terrace where diners can see the intricate operations involved in a canal crossing. The restaurant is also home to the Miraflores Visitor Center, a detailed museum explaining the history of the canal.

Those interested in nature and in the primitive lifestyle of native Panamanians would be remiss to skip Parara Puru, a native village peopled by Embera Indians who migrated from remote rainforests to a site on the banks of the Chagres River, less than two hours from Panama City, where visitors have the opportunity to see Embera culture at its best.

For approximately $110, indigenous guides will pick up guests at the hotel for a trip to their village where time seems to have stopped centuries ago. The last leg is on pirogues that cross a natural lake. They will be treated to native dances, a lunch served on banana leaves and explanations of culture and customs that will add a new dimension to a visit to Panama.

Magnificent woodwork and exquisite palm weavings are sold at ridiculously low prices.

Shoppers will also be surprised with Panama City’s duty-free prices. After all, this is a destination that boasts of offering everything from boa constrictors to bond issues in its various markets. It’s no wonder that the old port is turning into one of Latin America’s top destinations.