Panama City, the hub of the Americas, marks its 500th birthday in 2019. But why wait for the candles and cake to visit and have a city-meets-rainforest experience?
Panama’s aggressively vertical skyline echoes Miami, yet drive about 30 minutes from downtown (making time for Panama’s notoriously clogged traffic) to hop on a boat tour around the uninhabited islands off the Panama Canal let you see (and hear) monkeys in the Gamboa Rainforest.
Downtown Panama is packed with condos and luxury hotels, where you can get a splurge stay for a great price, even with the U.S. dollar exchange. Big-name hotel chains usually offer rooms for under $200 US a night.
I didn’t stay at the boutique Bristol Hotel, although I toured the property and was impressed with the elegant rooms with Manhattan-like views. Dinner in the SalSiPuedes Restaurant was good, with a menu that played on traditional Panamanian dishes.
Downtown did feel quiet on the Thursday night I was there, although I was told things pick up on the weekend.
Instead, I stayed at the Santa Maria Hotel and Golf Resort, a new luxury property that opened in April between downtown and Tocumen International Airport. The beds were among the best I’ve slept in and the understated décor features Indigenous art and native woods.
The hotel has free coffee tastings to sample several  varieties, including pricey, Panama-grown Geisha coffee, along with complementary excursions to the Reprosa Treasures of Panama factory to see how artisans use the same lost-wax method to make gold and silver jewellery as ancient peoples.
Panama’s colonial quarter, Casco Viejo, about 15 minutes away from my hotel, reminded me of Cartagena, Colombia. I liked that it still retains some rough, original charms and it wasn’t clogged with tourists or cruise-ship visitors, like the Colombian city’s picturesque old quarter can be.
(If old Cartagena is on your want-to-visit list, be sure to also check out Getsemani. It’s just a few blocks away from the colonial city and the colourful murals by street artists are a must-see.)
Panama is rich with rainforests and is working hard to compete for tourist dollars with neighbouring Costa Rica, which has built its travel industry on eco-tourism.
Travellers are most likely only in Panama City briefly, while on the way to or from one of the country’s resorts in Bocas del Toro, or before heading to the Darién rainforest, where Indigenous Emberá and Wounaan people still follow traditional ways.
Panama City is certainly worth exploring for a day or two, and for more than its famous canal. Here’s several other things I did during my time there.

The Panama Canal: Miraflores Locks

Watch massive cruise ships enter the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal from the visitor’s centre observation deck. Linda Barnard photo

 

Like most kids, I did a project on the Panama Canal in grade school. I built a salt-ceramic relief map and was grossed out by reading stories of mosquito-borne illnesses. But to see the canal up close reminds you what an incredible achievement this was to build, linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Get to the four-storey visitors centre early — 9 a.m. is ideal — to avoid crowds and watch massive cruise ships pass through the narrow waterway, seemingly at eye level. An announcer with a big personality calls the play-by-play activity, while some passengers stand on their balconies with homemade signs. There’s a pretty good museum with interactive exhibits, a gift shop for all your Panama Canal swag needs and a café.

Chocolate in Casco Viejo

Delicious bonbons at the Tropical Chocolate Café. Linda Barnard photo

 

Panama has limited cocoa production but what it makes is delicious. We indulged in a tasting at the Tropical Chocolate Café, where manager Carolina Buglione took us on a indulgent tour of chocolate made from cocoa grown and processed at its sustainable Bocas del Toro plantation. Surprisingly, even the 100 per cent cacoa chocolate was good, but just a touch of sugar really upped the game. The 90 per cent chocolate bar was my favourite, while the hand-painted bonbons with tropical fruit fillings made by 22-year-old house chocolatier Eric Reluz were sublime.

Biomuseo

The colourful Biomuseo was designed by Frank Gehry. Linda Barnard photo

 

Designed by Frank Gehry as a home for an exploration of biodiversity through the story of how the Panamanian isthmus linked North and South America 3 million years ago, the Biomuseo has to be one of the world’s most colourful facilities. The metal plates are intended to remind visitors of Panama’s vibrant, traditional appliqué textiles, called molas, the brilliant hues of vegetation and birds and even shipping containers in the Panama Canal. The superstar display is the Worlds Collide room, where two herds of massive white, sculptured animals bound towards each other, evoking the mass migration of species from one hemisphere to the next. You won’t want to leave the room. The Biomuseo is still unfinished and a proposed Pacific-Atlantic aquarium will add to the experience.

The Amador Causeway

Rent a bike for a few bucks outside the Biomuseo and head out along a 6-km cycling path towards Isla Naos and Isla Perico to get an excellent skyline view. See ships waiting their turn in the canal entrance and stop at The Beach House’s La Playita pool for a swim or snack. I had ceviche and an excellent bowl of sancocho, the local chicken soup at traditional eatery Mi Ranchito, enjoying the sea view from a table beneath a thatched umbrella.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

This sloth was spotted taking a nap at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Linda Barnard photo

 

The Punta Culebra Nature Center is small and enthusiastic staff are happy to guide you through the proper way to pet a starfish in touch pools and how to spot the teeny, colourful frogs in the Fabulous Frogs of Panama exhibit. The sea turtle exhibit was closed but I did see lots of big iguanas and some curious racoons (which looked far slimmer than Toronto’s notoriously overfed trash pandas). I was told if I moved quietly and really looked, I might spot a sloth and sure enough, a staff member showed me what looked like a furry bathmat in a tree. As I wheeled my bike out of the entrance, the security guard motioned me to go around the corner into an open-air staff kitchen. There, asleep on the paper towel dispenser, was a sluggish sloth, who seemed very content to have his photo taken.