by Lisa A. Beach
If you’ve never been to Panama, put this Central American destination on your travel bucket list. As a melting pot of African, Caribbean, European, and Latin American cultures, it’s considered the “Miami of Central America.” Plus, with its stunning natural beauty, deep history, and thriving cultural hub, Panama makes for an exotic-but-close-to-home getaway.
As a narrow isthmus that’s considered part of the Caribbean, Panama rests between Costa Rica and Colombia with nearly 1800 miles of tropical shoreline. From thriving modern cities and historic communities to beautiful beaches and awe-inspiring rainforests, Panama won’t disappoint.
Explore the Outdoors
For beach-lovers, you’ll find miles of beaches with the Pacific Ocean bordering Panama on the south and the Caribbean Sea on the north. Head to San Blas Islands for snorkeling in the coral reefs, Isla Grande for diving and surfing, or Contadora Island for paddle boarding, sailing, and windsurfing.
Near Panama City — the only city with a rainforest tucked in the middle — you’ll find an amazing array of natural beauty, wildlife, and dazzling landscapes in Camino de Cruces, Cerro Ancón, Chagres National Park, or Gamboa. Enjoy hiking or canoeing while spotting sloths, armadillos, and toucans. Or head to Monkey Island in Gatun Lake for an up-close encounter with capuchin monkeys, howlers, and tamarinds. Birdwatchers will love Soberanía National Park’s Pipeline Road, a nature trail home to hundreds of bird species.
For a unique experience, hop in a “cayucos” (a motorized, dugout canoe) for a peaceful ride up the Chagres River, stopping at a waterfall along the way for a short hike and refreshing dip. Then head to Emberá village for a peek into the culture of this indigenous group. With traditional dancing, music from nature-made instruments, handmade crafts and textiles, and delicious, fresh-from-the-land food beautifully presented in a wrapped banana leaf, the tribe welcomes you like an old friend.
Don’t Miss the History
Make a point of visiting the Panama Canal, the 48-mile engineering marvel built more than 100 years ago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A trip to the Miraflores Visitor Center gives you a bird’s-eye view of the canal as you watch colossal cruise and cargo ships pass through the Miraflores locks. Learn how the canal was built, exploring its incredible history through interactive exhibits, artifacts, and a short film.
Nearby, check out the colorful Biomuseo, an interactive museum and lovely outdoor gardens that focus on Panama’s natural history.
For a cultural treat, head to charming Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 17th century. Amble through the cobble-stoned historic district — the heart of the city lined with Colonial-era architecture home to cafes, shops, restaurants, museums, churches, and city squares. This makes for a fantastic day trip capped off with dinner and drinks at one of the many rooftop bars and restaurants, such as Capital Bistró Restaurant, overlooking the breathtaking Panama City skyline.
Eat Up the Culinary and Cultural Scene
Since traffic can be a challenge — even for the locals — consider booking a guided tour to learn about the city’s history and culture. Explore this vibrant downtown’s modern financial district, commercial shopping center, soccer stadium, and urban parks sprinkled throughout the city.
Panama’s culinary scene reflects its blended heritage, especially in Panama City. From lobster-stuffed avocado and freshly caught sea bass ceviche to milk bread and fresh papaya, treat your taste buds to authentic Panamanian cuisine. For an upscale experience, enjoy a gourmet lunch at SalsiPuedes Restaurant in The Bristol Hotel. While you can grab a cold Panama lager, don’t overlook some local libations, such as coconut hard lemonades, tropical mojitos, and coffee-infused cocktails.
Where to Stay
To see the diversity of this country, consider splitting your trip between two stunningly beautiful resorts that both offer a luxurious home base for easy-access exploration.
For the Panama City urban experience: Just minutes from Tocumen International Airport and Panama City, The Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort (available through AAA preferred travel partner Travel Impressions) is Central America’s only Marriot Bonvoy Luxury Collection property. With Panama’s cultural heritage interspersed throughout the property, the resort boasts an elegant outdoor pool set against the backdrop of the Championship Nicklaus Design 72-par course. Culinary excellence abounds, from gourmet cuisine at Mestizo Restaurant and The Grill House FSH & STK to the mixology prowess at The Lobby Bar and AQVA Pool Bar.
For the Riviera Pacifica beach experience: A 2.5-hour drive from Panama City, The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort (available through AAA preferred travel partner Pleasant Holidays) sits on a lush, 400-acre property in the country’s Pacific Riviera region. Incorporating local cultural elements, this stunning resort provides a tranquil beach retreat packed with plenty of on-site amenities. With seven swimming pools, wildlife center, golf course, soccer field, tennis courts, bike trails, fitness club, horse stables, marina — plus 2.5 miles of private beachfront — this five-star property delivers a top-notch experience. Not-to-miss indulgences include CACAO Experimental Bar (hands-on chocolate-making), El Faro Beach Club (open-air restaurant with a Pacific Ocean view) and Corotu Spa (ancestral treatments with locally sourced ingredients).
Since it’s just a four- to five-hour flight from Myrtle Beach, Panama is easily accessible from the eastern United States. Several airlines fly direct into Panama City Tocumen International Airport, including American Airlines, Copa, Delta, Spirit and United. Call your local AAA Travel Agent for reservations.
- Climate: With its year-round tropical climate, Panama experiences two main seasons: dry (December to April) and rainy (May to November).
- Capital: Panama City
- Currency: The US Dollar circulates freely. The Panamanian currency, the Balboa, has parity with that of the United States.
- Language: The official language is Spanish, but English is also spoken frequently.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive November 2021)
(Photos: The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort, GettyImages)