“Move quietly. Take your time and watch the trees,” whispered a guide at the compact Punta Culebra Nature Center off the Amador Causeway in Panama City. If I was lucky, I’d spot a shy sloth, the laid-back king of the Panama rain forest.
I crept around the grounds of the small nature centre at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and peered up into the foliage. Finally, I saw what looked like a hairy bathmat snoozing on a branch. A sloth, or at least, the back of a sloth.
Job done, I figured. After a visit to the tiny and colourful (and even glass-like clear) residents of the Fabulous Frogs of Panama exhibit, I wheeled my rental bicycle towards the exit.
A security guard smiled and motioned me to look into the open-air staff kitchen beside his office. There, asleep on top of a paper towel dispenser, was a good-sized sloth. I was able to stand right beside him (her) and take all the time I wanted to examine its long, hooked claws, sleepy eyes, shiny brown face and cascading fur. After all that stealthy sloth searching, I was convinced a car alarm wouldn’t have raised more than a sleepy yawn from the critter with the Mona Lisa smile.
Panama City, the hub of the Americas, marks its 500th birthday this year and while the Panama Canal is the first thing that springs to mind for most visitors (and yes, it’s a must-see) there’s so much more to do to explore a city-meets-rainforest setting.
Travellers are most likely only in Panama City briefly while on the way to or from one of the country’s resorts in Bocas del Toro or the Darién rain forest where Indigenous Emberá and Wounaan people still follow traditional ways. The west-coast region, including Chiriqui, just made the No. 4 spot on the The New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2019 list.
Yet Panama City is certainly worth exploring for a day or two. And for more than its famous Pacific-Atlantic-linking canal.
Panama’s aggressively vertical skyline echoes Miami, yet drive about 30 minutes from downtown (making time for Panama’s notoriously clogged traffic) you can hop on a boat tour around the uninhabited islands off the Panama Canal. We could see (and hear) a variety of monkeys in the Gamboa Rainforest and had the unique experience of boating in the canal itself, trailing massive cruise ships and tankers.
Downtown Panama is packed with condos, restaurants and luxury hotels. You can get a splurge stay for a great price, even with the U.S. dollar exchange. Big-name chains usually offer rooms for under $200 U.S. a night.
I didn’t bed down at the boutique Bristol Panama Hotel, although I toured the property and was impressed with the elegant rooms and Manhattan-like views. Dinner in the SalSiPuedes Restaurant was good, with a menu that played on traditional Panamanian dishes.
Downtown did feel quiet on the Thursday night I was there, although I was told things pick up on the weekend.
Instead, I stayed at the new Santa Maria Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort, which opened a year ago between downtown and Tocumen International Airport.
The beds were among the best I’ve slept in and the rooms and common areas have understated décor featuring Indigenous art and native woods. The lobby has some exceptional examples of masks and intricately woven baskets.
I’m not a golfer, but the Championship Nicklaus Design golf course looked pretty good to me, with city skyline views from some spots. The Grill House FSH & STK fine-dining restaurant opened in the club house since my visit.
The Santa Maria puts an emphasis on Panamanian products and has free coffee tastings at the lobby coffee shop. We sampled several varieties, including pricey, Panama-grown Geisha coffee.
I also took a complementary excursion offered by the hotel to the Reprosa Treasures of Panama factory to see how artisans use the same lost-wax method to make gold and silver jewellery as ancient peoples.
Panama’s colonial quarter, Casco Viejo, about 15 minutes away from the hotel, reminded me of Cartagena, Colombia. I liked that it still retains some rough, original charms and it wasn’t clogged with tourists or cruise-ship visitors, like the Colombian city’s picturesque old quarter can be. Do a walking tour or pick up a map and explore.
Panama has limited cocoa production but what it makes is delicious. We indulged in a tasting at the Tropical Chocolate Café in the old city, where manager Carolina Buglione took us on a indulgent tour of chocolate made from cocoa grown and processed at its sustainable Bocas del Toro plantation. The 90 per cent chocolate bar was my favourite, while the hand-painted bonbons with tropical fruit fillings made by 22-year-old house chocolatier Eric Reluz were sublime.
Like most kids, I did a project on the Panama Canal in grade school. I built a salt-ceramic relief map and was grossed out by reading stories of mosquito-borne illnesses. But to see the canal up close reminds you what an incredible achievement this was to build, linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Get to the four-storey visitors centre early — 9 a.m. is ideal — to avoid crowds and watch massive cruise ships pass through the narrow waterway, seemingly at eye level. An announcer with a big personality calls the play-by-play activity, while some passengers stand on their balconies with homemade signs. There’s a pretty good museum with interactive exhibits, a gift shop for all your Panama Canal swag needs and a café.
The better museum option by far is the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, which has to be one of the world’s most colourful buildings.
The museum focuses on biodiversity, explaining how the Panamanian isthmus linked North and South America 3 million years ago. The exterior metal plates echo Panama’s vibrant, appliqué textiles, called molas, the brilliant hues of native vegetation and birds and even the shipping containers in the Panama Canal.
The superstar display is the Worlds Collide room, where two herds of white, sculptured animals of all sizes bound towards each other, evoking the mass migration of species from one hemisphere to the next. You won’t want to leave the room.
The Biomuseo is still unfinished and a proposed Pacific-Atlantic aquarium will add to the experience.
I rented a bike for a few bucks outside and headed along the paved six-km cycling path across a stretch of the Pacific towards Isla Naos and Isla Perico.
There’s an excellent skyline view of Panama City.
Hungry, I stopped for lunch with the locals at traditional eatery Mi Ranchito for excellent ceviche and a bowl of sancocho, the local chicken soup; and to enjoy the sea view from a table beneath a thatched umbrella, watching huge container ships waiting their turn in the Pacific canal entrance while preparing to do what was once thought impossible: sailing from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.
Linda Barnard’s Panama City trip was hosted by the The Santa Maria Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort, which did not approve or preview this story.