AT the crossroads of two oceans and two continents, Panama City is a dynamic metropolis. That’s never been truer than it is today. Everywhere in this steamy, tropical town are foreign investors talking shop in upscale cafes, expat fortune-seekers toasting their fates in wine bars, cranes stalking the rooftops of a skyline that seems to grow before your eyes and — on the downside — traffic that puts even the most congested American city to shame. Central America’s capital of international finance is in the midst of a prolonged boomtown fever. Right now, there are more than 30 skyscrapers under construction — among them the Trump Ocean Club and The Panamera, which will be Latin America’s first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (both are set to open later this year). All of this building and hype has local residents calling Panama City the “Dubai of the Americas.” They’re only half-joking.
1) FAST BOAT, SLOW BOAT
take the “rapida” (fast boat) to Taboga Island, the day trip of choice for beach-obsessed Panamanians. The 30-minute, 12-mile trip ($6) departs from the Amador Causeway, a palm tree-lined peninsula built from canal construction debris, and makes its way through the maze of freighters lined up at the waterway’s mouth. Taboga, nicknamed the Island of Flowers, is famous for its varied flora, its tan beaches and its fish shacks. Splash in the warm Pacific before returning on the 4:30 p.m. slow boat, the Calypso Queen Ferry (Isla Naos, Amador Causeway; 507-314-1730 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-314-1730 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-314-1730 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-314-1730 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-314-1730 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-314-1730 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-314-1730 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-314-1730 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting
$6). (The U.S. dollar is the paper currency of Panama, though it is also referred to as the balboa.)
2) WINE, THEN DINE
On the cusp of revival for years, Casco Viejo, the city’s formerly dilapidated colonial quarter, has turned the corner. The area still buzzes with a creative energy (and the saws of construction crews). But, for good or for ill, the old town seems comfortable in its newly painted, nouveau riche skin. Watch the sun set with a glass of wine ($3.50) or a cold Panamanian cerveza ($2.50) while neighborhood kids play among the mangroves in front of La Rosa de los Vientos (Calle Octava, Casco Viejo; 507-211-2065 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-211-2065 end_of_the_skype_highlighting), a two-month-old Italian restaurant with waterfront seating. After sunset, explore the avant-garde art scene at Diablo Rosso (Avenida A and Calle 7, Casco Viejo; diablorosso.com), a gallery and cafe that sells retro-inspired clothes and accessories. Around the corner, Los del Patio (Calle 3, Casco Viejo; no phone; losdelpatio.org) is a just-opened coffeehouse with installation art.
3) CARIBBEAN STYLE
Like a sexy, tropical Chez Panisse, Casco Viejo’s Manolo Caracol (Avenida Central and Calle 3, Casco Viejo; 507-228-4640 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-228-4640 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; manolocaracol.net) holds a mirror to the place it calls home, reflecting the country’s Caribbean-infused culinary traditions with a swaggering self-confidence. Stashed away on a side street across from a ruined church, the restaurant takes its name from a famous Spanish flamenco singer. But the real star here is the restaurant’s Spanish owner, Manuel Madueño, whose 10-course, $30 chef’s menu offers simple preparations of seasonal ingredients, like essence-of-seafood soup or a salad of bitter lettuce and green mango.
4) MOONLIT PROMENADE
Walk off dinner on the promenade, where lovers canoodle in the moonlight. Then kill an hour at DiVino Enoteca (Avenida A and Calle 4, Casco Viejo; 507-202-6867 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-202-6867 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; enotecadivino.com), a three-month-old upscale wine bar with low light, Iberian ham hanging behind the counter and black-and-white movies playing silently on a far wall. Peruse the lounge’s art, food and design books, or schmooze with the crowd of urbane expats, artists and intellectuals.
5) SHAKE A TAIL FEATHER
In keeping with its old Cuba vibe, Habana Panama (Calle Eloy Alfaro and Calle 12 Este, Casco Viejo; 507-212-0152 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-212-0152 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; habanapanama.com) blends in with the crumbling edifices at the edge of Casco Viejo’s refurbished core. Inside this retro dance hall, there’s a plush red interior featuring photographs of Cuban musical greats and hours of steamy salsa dancing. With live bands, a modest cover (from $10) and a clientele of limited inhibitions, this is one of the hottest dance spots in town.
6) RISE AND SHINE
Arrive early to avoid a wait at Lung Fung (Calle 62C Oeste, Los Ángeles, 507-260-4011 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-260-4011 end_of_the_skype_highlighting), a busy dim sum palace that serves classic Cantonese small plates (shrimp shumai, pork buns, fish balls and chicken feet; starting at $2.10). The aesthetic is familiar — red lanterns, painted dragons and food carts — but the restaurant’s multinational clientele of Chinese immigrants, Panamanian businessmen, American expatriates and European tourists makes for great people-watching.
7) EURO-PANAMANIAN MIX
Set up in the home of the French designer Hélène Breebaart, a former Christian Dior representative who has lived in Panama for more than 40 years, Breebaart Boutique (Calle Abel Bravo, Casa No. 5; Obarrio; 507-264-5937 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-264-5937 end_of_the_skype_highlighting) produces custom clothing that incorporates the elaborate textile art of the country’s indigenous Kuna people with contemporary design. Embroidered napkins start at $30 a set; clothing prices vary, and the production time takes about a week.
8) GEHRY TOURS
Get an early glimpse of the new Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo (Amador Causeway; biomuseopanama.org), which has recently completed the first phase of its multiyear construction. Though the interior, which will have exhibitions on natural history and science, won’t be done until 2012 or later, the museum began offering free tours (Spanish only) in January. Reservations should be made at least two weeks ahead.
9) RAW FISH
The Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio’s ceviche restaurant La Mar (El Cangrejo; 507-209-3323 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-209-3323 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; lamarcebicheria.com) opened with much ado in 2009, serving an eclectic selection of citrus-marinated fish, from the classic ($7) to the Asian-inspired perú tai ($9). For Panamanian-style ceviche, walk the newly constructed Cinta Costera — a boardwalk park that follows the waterfront — to the Fish Market (Panamerican Highway and Calle 15 Este), where paper cups of shrimp, octopus, corvina or black conch ceviche start at $1. Or buy fresh fish or lobster and head upstairs to the restaurant, which will cook your catch for a modest fee ($6.50 to $8.50).
10) RESERVATIONS REQUIRED
La Posta (Calle Uruguay and Calle 49; 507-269-1076 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-269-1076 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; is the flagship restaurant in the David Henesy-Carolina Rodriguez mini-empire. The place has an unpretentious air — fans whirring overhead, joshing guayabera-wearing servers — that belies its popularity. The fare is Caribbean-Italian, and reservations are a must on weekend nights. Try the garlicky camarones en hamaca (shrimp in a hammock, $8.50), house-made pastas (from $12.50) or jumbo prawns with passion fruit ($19.50).
11) TOAST THE GOLDEN FROG
Have an after-dinner beer at La Rana Dorada (Via Argentina and Calle Arturo Motta, El Cangrejo; 507-269-2989 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-269-2989 end_of_the_skype_highlighting), a six-month-old Irish pub-style bar named for Panama’s most famous endangered species, the golden frog. Then move to the poolside lounge on the roof of the Manrey Hotel (Calle Uruguay and Avenida 5a Sur, Bella Vista; 507-203-0000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-203-0000 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; manreypanama.com), where D.J.’s play on weekends.
12) PRIX FIXE BRUNCH
For a leisurely meal, Las Clementinas (Avenida B and Calle 11, Casco Viejo; 507-228-7613 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-228-7613 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; lasclementinas.com) has a prix fixe brunch ($24 adult, $12 child) that includes a selection of omelets, empanadas, risottos and parfaits. There are English-language magazines to skim and a collection of New York-centric sketches and memorabilia on the bathroom walls.
13) GREEN ZONE
Succumb to the weekend’s lazy pace with a stroll through Parque Recreativo Omar (Avenida Belisario Porras), the recently renovated 140-acre expanse of green at the city’s center. Like New York’s Central Park, but with palm trees, Omar is a respite from urban life; it’s home to an impressive sculpture garden, the National Library and a prominent statue of the Virgin Mary. There are also soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts and a flower-lined swimming pool. Pick up a fresh fruit juice near the park’s entrance. Then savor your tropical elixir beneath a towering tree on a picnic-perfect lawn.
IF YOU GO
With three individually designed rooms, the Canal House Hotel (Calle 5A and Avenida A; 507-228-1907 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-228-1907 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; canalhousepanama.com) holds court in a colonial mansion on a quiet corner in Casco Viejo. From $200.
On a hopping night-life strip in Bella Vista, the new 36-room Manrey Hotel (Calle Uruguay and Avenida 5a Sur; 507-203-0000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 507-203-0000 end_of_the_skype_highlighting; manreypanama.com) has a spare, modern design, Bvlgari bath products and iPod docking stations. From $200.