Central America’s rising ecotourism star

As early as the 16th century, travelers sought to find the fastest way through Panama. Still largely known as a point of passage (thanks to its 50-mile-long canal), the country today is positioning itself as a major destination—the next Costa Rica, but with a touch of Bilbao. In the capital, the most significant development is the new Frank Gehry–designed Museum of Biodiversity—Panama: Bridge of Life, scheduled to open in the fall of 2009. Located at the confluence of sea, city, and rain forest, the Bridge of Life will combine architecture reminiscent of Gehry’s earlier work; exhibits developed by designer Bruce Mau, with content overseen by the Smithsonian Institution; and a park by landscape architect Edwina von Gal. Nearby, the Casco Viejo, once the stomping grounds of the city’s elite, is being rediscovered by artists, young professionals, and politicians. There’s even a 140-room waterfront hotel (from Paul Stallings, the man behind lower Manhattan’s Hotel on Rivington), housed in the landmark 1910 former Union Club building, slated to debut in late 2009. Stallings is also planning an eco-resort on the country’s still undeveloped Pacific coast, near the town of Pedasi. The 900-acre property will use geothermal heating and minimal air-conditioning. Best of all, 50 percent of the land will remain untouched.