By Deborah Kirk
Often written off as the odd bits of land on either side of the canal, Panama is largely overlooked by travelers, which makes this gorgeous squiggle of a country all the more appealing. There's a little of everything—jungle, mountains, beaches, and a vibrant capital—packed into a nation that could fit inside South Carolina. The weather reaches its peak in January and February; it's hot (it's always hot) but the rains have finally ended and everything is gloriously green. Most visitors begin in Panama City, watch ships transit the nearby Miraflores Locks, and then move on. Big mistake. New restaurants, bars, and galleries have reinvigorated the capital's once-neglected colonial quarter of Casco Viejo. The Amador Causeway, a narrow breakwater protecting the entrance to the canal, has become a dining destination with unbeatable views. Panama City is also a good base for exploring the rest of the country. Consider a trek into the opaque, mysterious Darién Jungle or a visit to the cooler ChiriquÍ highlands, heaven for hikers, river rafters, birders, volcanologists (you never know), and coffee connoisseurs. Alternatively, head for the low-key Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro, where you can dive, snorkel, and contemplate the mystery of how Panama has stayed beneath the radar.
The San Blas Islands, home of the Cuna Indians, known for their colorful, intricately woven textiles (contact ANCON Expeditions).
Insider's Guide: Ruben Blades
The musician, actor, and political activist, who recently released his 17th album, Mundo (Sony Discos/Columbia), suggests a few adventures in his native Panama:
• "Apply for a visit to Barro Colorado Island, the nearest virgin forest to a city that I know of." (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, 011-507/212-8026; www.stri.org)
• "Go deep-sea fishing in the Pacific." (Tropic Star Lodge, 800/682-3424; www.tropicstar.com)
• "Visit the town of Natá de los Caballeros, west of Panama City, to see one of the oldest functioning Catholic churches in North America, built in 1522."
• "Board a Panama City bus and feel the exhilaration of the Indy 500, for 25 cents—excluding insurance."
• "Or try just crossing a street in Panama City—say, Via España—at noon. It's a high-speed adventure."
Continental and Copa fly direct to Panama City from Newark (five hours) and Miami (three hours); Miami also has flights on Iberia and American. For help planning a trip, call ANCON Expeditions (011-507/269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com).
WHERE TO STAY
El Panamá A faded pastel landmark with five-star amenities, a casino, and a superb pool. It's a busy—borderline chaotic—place with authentic Panamanian flavor. Doubles from $95, including breakfast; 120 Via España, Panama City; 011-507/269-5000; www.elpanama.com
El Panamonte This 19-room country inn is perfect for exploring the Chiriquí highlands. Doubles from $59; Avda. 11 de Abril, Boquete; 011-507/720-1327; www.hotelpanamonte.com
Punta Caracol A new luxury "aqua-lodge" in Bocas del Toro consisting of five cabins built over the water. Doubles from $215; Isla Colon; 011-507/612-1088; www.puntacaracol.com
WHERE TO EAT
Limoncillo A standout in central Panama City for its attractive clientele and imaginative cuisine. Dinner for two $50; Calle 47 and cCalle Uruguay; 011-507/263-5350
Las Bóvedas This favorite in the Casco Viejo neighborhood serves fine French food under the vaults of a 300-year-old former prison. Dinner for two $60; Plaza de Francia; 011-507/228-8068
Café Barko The perfect setting for sunset cocktails and ceviche, at the very tip of the Amador Causeway, with views of the capital, the Pacific, and the canal. Dinner for two $40; Isla Flamenco; 011-507/314-0000