By Jason Heidemann for the Orbitz Travel Blog
While the Isthmus of Panama may have taken 12 million years to rise from the sea, the capital of Panama City--with its glassy high rises, beguiling old quarter and a certain canal that forever changed the world--is rising much faster. In fact, Orbitz data showed that for spring travel, it had the biggest growth of any destination in terms of hotel bookings over the last five years, at +476%. Here's how to spend three perfect days in Panama City.
The Waldorf Astoria in Panama City, Panama
You'd have to be made of stone not to be affected by the energy, chaos and ongoing development of downtown Panama City, aka the Punta Paitilla. A jumble of skyscrapers, traffic snarls, construction cranes and vintage casinos, there are nevertheless several diamonds in the rough such as the corkscrew-shaped F&F Tower and the upscale Waldorf Astoria.
But the best way to actually see the city is to get some distance from it. The Cinta Costera or "coastal lane" is an expansive waterfront redevelopment project that is reshaping the city for visitors and tourists alike. Sandwiched between Avenida Balboa (the Panamanian equivalent to Chicago's Lake Shore Drive) and the Panama Bay, this reclaimed combination of bike lanes, walking paths, gardens, a skate park, outdoor theater, multiple green spaces and much more connects downtown to the old quarter and even beyond it. A late afternoon stroll provides a perfect introduction to the city, but the tropical heat and humidity will bear hug you hard (and never let go) so bring a bottle of water or buy one from a vendor along the path.
The Cinta Costera comes to an abrupt curve at the Mercado del Marisco, a bustling and celebrated restaurant and fish market with outdoor stalls selling ceviche and other seafood goodies at cheap prices. Although many locals give it an enthusiastic thumb's up, an equal number warn that some of its offerings may be a little rough on tourist palates.
Beyond the fish market the Cinta Costera gives way to the enchanting Casco Viejo or "Old Quarter." Undoubtedly the highlight for most visitors to Panama City, this 350-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site is situated upon a snug peninsula where numerous boutique hotels, rooftop bars, nightclubs and fine dining restaurants intermingle with cobblestone streets, historic plazas and crumbling facades. (The French occupied the area during their failed attempt to build the Panama Canal, hence the resemblance to the French Quarter in New Orleans.) The San Francisco Church, Arch Chato and Society of Jesus are among its unmissable attractions, although just wandering the streets is undeniably enjoyable.
Dinner at Tomillo best exemplifies the rapid transformation of the Casco Viejo into an upscale destination for savvy travelers. Ditch the contemporary dining room and instead head straight for the enormous outdoor patio housed in the ruins of the city's first train station headquarters. Here large fans, artfully strung lights and flame lit torches provide a romantic backdrop for sampling regional small plates. Order the Ceviche de Tuna and the Cachapas con Pato Carinta with a cocktail or two and nudge convivial owner Felipe into sharing his recommendations for eating and drinking around town.
Mornings bring low tide to the Westin Playa Bonita Hotel and while this can mean muddy oceanfront views, it also affords the opportunity for visitors to roll up their trousers and wade through numerous shallow tide pools in search of sea shells and other ocean treasures. Panama City is not a beach town and thus the Westin is a lodging rarity in that it offers a coveted expanse of private beachfront (which it shares with nearby adults only Secrets) a generous stone's throw from the hustle of the city and close to the Bridge of the Americas and the Panama Canal. Other highlights include its spa--the largest in Central America--numerous restaurants and a fitness center where President Obama once worked up a sweat.
Mid-morning is the perfect time to explore the Biomuseo, the city's museum of biodiversity designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry whose wife is Panamanian. The facade is pure Gehry and consists of a shingled exterior made up of a riot of colors tailor made for shutterbugs and also for admiring the beautifully manicured grounds that line the Amador Causeway where the museum in situated. Although unfinished as of this writing, the museum is still an engaging journey revolving around biodiversity and the integral role the Isthmus of Panama played in bridging the Americas.