The Caribbean’s new frontier of romance, the sinuous and sensual nation of Panama, literally bridges the gap between South and Central America. In days gone by, the only reason to venture down Panama way was to see the famed canal. But over the past decade, the tropical paradise has blossomed into a top-notch destination. Beaches and bodegas blend with pristine rainforest, wildlife and Spanish colonial historic attractions. Rates are still reasonable and it’s easy to reach from most major cities in North America.
Overwater structures are popular in this Centeral American country. (Photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Panama).
The main reason Panama is on the radar these days is the Bocas area, a collection of pristine, white-sand Caribbean islands. Here, residents are relaxed, and travel is easy, thanks to sophisticated infrastructure and the use of American dollars. Popa Paradise Beach Resort, a secluded 16-room boutique with rooms in the main lodge and private casitas, located on Isla Popa, is a breezy beach hideaway. In addition to the pool and two white-sand strands, Popa guests can swim with the dolphins, surf, kayak or take daytrips to uninhabited desert islands (room rates start at $160 a night; popaparadisebeachresort.com).
The relaxing view outside the Popa Paradise Beach Resort.
A breezy room at Popa Paradise Beach Resort. (Photos Courtesy of Popa Paradise Beach Resort).
It's The Tops
They may have been invented in Ecuador, but Panama hats are also available in the place they’re named after. The sturdy straw sombreros (sometimes called the “Rolls Royce of the hat world”) are both a fashion statement and a way to keep the noonday sun off your face. Kuna Indian molas (woven) bags, shirts and wall hangings are also popular items, as is gold jewelry bearing pre- Columbian designs known as huacas. Panama City offers the widest array of craftsy shops and markets.
Located 30 minutes from the canal, the wild Chagres River and Soberania National Park, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is the ideal jungle retreat. Guest rooms are located in a modern high-rise and in 1930s villas. Either way, the vibe is distinctly tropical (wicker furniture, indoor palms, balcony hammocks). Explore the rainforest on jungle cruises or night safaris, play a round of 18 at Summit Golf Course or unwind at the full-service spa, which boasts indoor and outdoor treatment areas (room rates start at $140 a night: gamboaresort.com).
Monkeys lurk around hotels in search of food.
The pool at Gamboa Rainforest Resort. (Photos Courtesy of Gamboa Rainforest Resort).
Discovered by Columbus in 1502, the Bocas del Toro archipelago, on the Caribbean side of Panama, includes nine main islands and hundreds of smaller ones. The bay area boasts a marine national park, where the scuba and snorkeling are primo, and a spectacular mainland rainforest national park, called La Amistad, inhabited by jaguar, tapir and scores more species. Local culture is just as eclectic, with Jamaicans, Spanish settlers and native locals influencing food, music and fashion.
Paradise found. (Photo Courtesy of Tourism Authority of Panama).
The Big Ditch
One of the all-time great feats of engineering, the Panama Canal was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the early 20th century to provide direct sea passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Learn about the canal—and see huge ships passing through— at the Miraflores Visitor Center. Ancon Expeditions of Panama can hook you up with all sorts of canal zone adventures from white-water rafting and dugout canoe trips to jungle treks and local village tours (anconexpeditions.com).
Panama Canal Fun Fact: The first ship to travel the 51 miles through the canal was the S.S Ancon in September 1913.
The famous canal. (Photo Courtesy of Tourism Authority of Panama).