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In the Zone

A man, a plan, a weekend: Beat the crowds to Panama City

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It's a mystery that Panama gets so few tourists, since it's only five hours nonstop from Newark. It has a rain forest, mountains, coral reefs, and unspoiled Pacific and Caribbean beaches. Almost everyone speaks English, prices are in U.S. dollars, hotels are a bargain, and taxis are plentiful and cheap. A long weekend in Panama City should include a stroll through the Casco Viejo, the old downtown area; fresh corvina (a local fish) in the Restaurante Mercado del Marisco on the second floor of the central fish market; and an afternoon at Panama La Vieja, the seventeenth-century ruins of the original capital. Cruise the canal in a launch from Gamboa or snorkel in the Caribbean, and wind up at the mossy ruins of Portobello, the port from which Spaniards sent gold back to the Old World. Restaurants are a treat, thanks to the local seafood and the town's ethnic diversity (there are Jamaicans, French, Arabs, Jews, and Asians). Try the grilled octopus at the friendly Restaurante Jimmy's. And stay at the august Hotel Caesar Park. Or, for an adventure, stay outside of town at the Canopy Tower, an amazing converted radar station above the rain forest. But go now: Architect Frank Gehry, who is married to a Panamanian, is already sketching out a new master plan for the Canal Zone, and the world could discover Panama any second now.

Details Hotel Caesar Park, 800-228-3000 (rooms start at $109); Canopy Tower, 011-507-264-57-20 or www.canopytower.com (rooms start at $145); Restaurante Mercado del Marisco, 011-507-212-0071; Restaurante Jimmy's, 011-507-223-1523.


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