Where: The capital and the canal
Why: Founded in the early 16th century, Panama City — Panama’s steamy, sultry capital — has certainly lived through interesting times, gifting it a rich and chequered history. The first permanent European settlement on the Pacific is today a cosmopolitan capital of contrasts where neighbourhoods such as Casco Viejo and Panamá Viejo offer glimpses of its colonial past while its skyscrapers, high-end boutiques and modern hotels hint at its status as a regional centre of finance and commerce.
Panama’s growing profile in the UK owes a debt of thanks to a swathe of new tour products and significantly increased airlift from all over Europe. Air Europa’s new Madrid to Panama City route, for example, is set to launch in June, and this year’s visitors can expect to see widespread celebrations and activities as the capital gears up to celebrate the 500th anniversary of its founding on 15 August 2019.
Small-ship cruises, meanwhile, are another growing area in the country, with operators increasingly looking to open up areas beyond the Panama Canal, though most trips still begin with some time on the canal. Top picks include trips with the likes of One Ocean Expeditions and Aurora Expeditions, while last year saw Silversea feature Panama on its new Pacific Coast cruises — such as its 14-day Callao (Lima) to Fuerte Amador (Panama City).
A few nights in Panama City offers an excellent introduction to a seven-night stay in the country and it’s a great place to try tasty local dishes such as sancocho stew, the beef dish ropa vieja or ceviche. Seafood lovers will be in seventh heaven grazing the stalls of the Mercado de Mariscos or digesting the menus at scenic restaurants such as Mi Ranchito.
The old colonial neighbourhood of Casco Viejo makes a logical base, its Latin charms easy on the eye. As well as being home to attractions such as La Catedral Metropolitana and the Panama Canal Museum, it’s awash with bars, restaurants such as Diablicos and boutique hotels such as Las Clementinas or Casa Antigua. Accommodation is one of the capital’s strengths, with other top picks including the Waldorf Astoria, The Bristol Panama City and W Hotel Panama with its infinity-edge pool.
The remains of Panama Vieja, the city’s former centre whose untimely burning coincided with an impromptu visit from the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in the late 1600s, makes for a pleasant stroll and is essentially an open-air museum. Plus, just 24 miles away the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is a popular excursion.
A couple of nights in the capital are typically backed by a few nights in a rainforest resort such as Gamboa and some more at a coastal or island resort in Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast, where attractions include Starfish Beach. Some itineraries spend a few nights in Boquete, offering everything from rafting and hiking to coffee plantation tours. For a longer tour consider adding some R&R time in the pristine San Blas islands, reachable by boat or via flag carrier COPA Airlines out of Tocumen International Airport.
Pair it up
Panama works particularly well twinned with neighbouring Costa Rica, offering added options for wildlife and active adventures, and tours of 14-16 days are recommended. Both are safe destinations with excellent service levels and infrastructure, making them easy to get around, and each features a great range of accommodation options, not least at the top end.
How to do it
Wendy Wu Tours has a 16-day Costa Rica and Panama tour from £3,990pp, departing 4 September, flying into San Jose and out of Panama City (land-only from £3,290pp). Highlights include time in Panama City, Gamboa and Bocas del Toro.
Q&A: Kate Wharton, Product Manager for South America, Steppes Travel
What makes Panama City such an epic destination and does the rest of the country have much to offer?
Acting as a natural biological corridor between North and South America, a third of the country is protected by reserves and national parks. It also has the largest number of bird species in all of Central America, combined with an exciting capital city, beautiful restored colonial hotels and a wealth of culture, much of it within striking distance of Panama City.
How to get the most out of a visit?
You have to see the canal, if only briefly, as it’s simply extraordinary — it really is an incredible feat of human achievement. Panama should be travelled as a whole though, as there’s so much to offer outside of the city and canal. For example, stay on a private island at the new Isla Palenque, the best beach property in the country. For culture and world-class birding don’t miss the Darién Gap, off limits for so long and home to the Embera people and the amazing harpy eagle.