Panama City is growing so quickly locals joke the new national bird is the construction crane. But antique charm still exists below the shimmering skyline, especially in colonial-era Casco Viejo, where the savvy visitor hangs out. Your travel dollar stretches a long way — and with flights usually hovering around $450, it’s an easy escape during dry season (January-April).
For the most novel lodgings, drive 40 minutes outside the city to Canopy Tower. The old radar station with a dramatic Canal view is now a paradise for bird-watchers. Inside city limits, Canal House, set in a restored century-old mansion, is truly luxurious. Los Cuatro Tulipanes will hook you up with short-term boutique apartment rentals.
Enchantingly crumbling buildings and cobbled streets are slowly giving way to shiny new constructions. Explore the world heritage site before it’s too late. Start at the ruins of once-grand nightclub (and soon-to-be five-star hotel) Club Union (Calle 1a Oeste), where dramatic across-the-bay views lie in the middle of the neighborhood’s most developed sites. While there cough up the $1 fee to tour the lavish Teatro Nacional; don’t believe the grifters who claim you need to hire a guide. For guided tours with a different spin, canoe to a remote Embera village with Anne Gordon, an American who moved to Panama after marrying a villager. Or stay in town. View parkland treetops from the Smithsonian Institute’s crane; ogle flamboyant paint jobs on the diablos rojos commuter buses from the safety of the sidewalk at the Albrook Mall terminal (Corredor Norte, adjacent to Gelabert International Airport). Oh yeah, and there’s a big canal on the outskirts of town.
Forget menus and put your faith in chef Manuel Madueño, whose exquisite Spanish tasting menu at Manolo Caracol may be the city’s finest feast. Ceviche merchants at Mercado de Mariscos (Calle 15 Este, at Av. Eloy Alfaro) have the freshest octopus in town, but nearby Ciao Pescao (Calle 4a) offers its version — plus cocktails — in the more relaxed setting of Plaza Bolivar. To eat like a local, ask a cabbie to drop you at El Trapiche (Av. 3a Norte) on bustling Via Argentina for a Panamanian Fiesta combo plate. Refresh your dry throat with a sugarcane juice from a street vendor. Later, seek the comfort of industrial-strength air-conditioning and 50¢ beer during happy hour at Relic, run by the owners of Luna’s Castle, a hostel with a well-earned rep for friendliness.
Surely the hippest place in PC, Diablo Rosso is a boutique that serves food, an art gallery that throws dance parties, and a general gathering spot for those in the know. Nearby, the Karavan Gallery (Calle 3ra; 507-228-5161) has a calmer collection of folk-based artists. For high-quality reproductions of gold jewelry found by archaeologists, head to Reprosa. Kill two birds with one stone at the Emerald Museum (Calle 5a Este, at Plaza Catedral), a jewelry store with walk-through exhibits detailing the mining process. Handicrafts from tribes like the Kuna are everywhere, but head to the Balboa District’s YMCA (Av. Arnulfo Arias Madrid, at Av. Amador) for the best variety at reasonable prices.
Photos: Staff; Courtesy of Manolo Caracol; Courtesy of Diablo Rosso