Panama Rising

The southernmost country in Central America is having a breakthrough moment as the Panama Canal turns 100 and tourism begins to climb.

Some are calling it the new Costa Rica.

I’ve never been to Costa Rica, but from what I’ve seen and heard, Panama definitely rivals it – in beauty, history and adventure.

Visitors and residents can sense that the country is on the cusp of something great. And after four days of exploring Panama, so could I.

The country celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the famed Panama Canal in August and is in the middle of a massive project to expand the locks to accommodate heavier, larger ships.

The canal put Panama on the map, but this expansion brings the country to the forefront of the world once again. The goal is to double the waterway’s capacity to satisfy the world’s growing demand for maritime trade.

I watched the cargo ships navigate through Gatun Lake and the narrow Miraflores Locks before spilling out into the Pacific Ocean. The ships may move slowly – it takes eight to 10 hours to travel through the canal – but the feat is truly awe-inspiring. It’s hard to imagine that the first ship made that journey in 1914.

Today, the waterway never sleeps, operating 24/7 so that nearly 40 ships can move from one ocean to another every single day.

The canal steals much of the country’s limelight, but Panama has so much more to offer.

Tourism is new to the country – our guide mentioned that it’s just picked up within the last five years. But big, luxury hotels like the Westin Playa Bonita Panama (where I stayed) and the InterContinental are drawing a new and upscale crowd to the republic.

The Westin is situated on the south side of the country, just 10 minutes from the downtown center, with views of the Gulf of Panama, which empties out into the Pacific Ocean.

What’s startling about Panama is the dramatic tides that come and go multiple times a day, transforming the coast.

Luckily, we were warned more than once that the view outside our window would look drastically different later in the day. In just a few hours, the beach changed into an unrecognizable sandy, rocky, water-less coast.

Fortunately for us, high tide returned as quickly as it disappeared.

The hotel boasts four pools, six restaurants, multiple bars (including a swim-up bar in the pool), and a full-scale Sensory Spa by Clarins – the perfect retreat after a busy day of exploring. The hotel also arranges excursions through Gamboa Tours.

On a boat ride through the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve we saw capuchin and tamarin monkeys leap through the trees. The tamarins licked mango slices straight from the palm of my hand. But, the tour guide kept our boat a safe distance from the white-faced capuchin monkeys – they’re known to be aggressive.

We also traveled more than an hour outside of the city to the Embera Indian Village – one of Panama’s five indigenous communities. There, we took a dug-out canoe up the Chagres River to the village where we tasted fresh fish, plantains and papaya while exploring the local traditions of the community.

On our last night we visited Casco Viejo, also known as the historic district – one of my favorite parts of the trip. This neighborhood, with cobblestone streets and old cathedrals, lights up at night with bars, restaurants and concerts in the square.

We stopped at Tantalo, a trendy, rooftop bar that overlooks the city’s colorful skyline, and ended our journey at Mojitos sin Mojitos, a bohemian-style rum and beer bar.

After a long day of adventures, both were great spots for a cold, Balboa beer.

Where to stay: Westin Playa Bonita

Where to relax: Book a spa treatment at the Westin’s Sensory Spa by Clarins

Where to eat: Tierra y Fuego, the hotel’s upscale, Latin steakhouse

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