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The Five-Point Weekend Escape Plan

Taste the Roots of Fusion Cuisine in Panama City

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3. What to Do

Look out for Panamanian wildlife from a canoe, on a day trip through Chagres National Park.   

Sample some of the country’s freshest—and cheapest—seafood at the Mercado del Marisco, located on Avenida Balboa and Calle Eloy Alfaro between Casco Viejo and the bustling new Financial District. This no-frills warehouse, crammed with 69 loud (and pungent) stalls, was built with financial support from the Japanese in 1995 (hence the Japanese flag above the entrance), and it’s still a go-to for the city’s chefs, who pick up whole fish like Pacific sea bass ($8.50/kg). Head for one of the many ceviche stands to sample refreshing, citrus-cured sea bass ($1.50), prawn ($2.75), black conch ($3), or a combination of sea bass, prawn, and octopus ($2.50), all served out of a simple Styrofoam cup.

Immerse yourself in Panama’s indigenous culture and native flavors on a private day trip with Emberá Village Tours ($250 for one person, $120 per person for five or more). After being picked up at your hotel, knowledgeable guide Anne Gordon de Barrigón will take you to the edge of Chagres National Park, about an hour north of the city, where you’ll board a dugout canoe and travel upriver, past trees teeming with spider monkeys, toucans, and sloths. Upon arrival, you’ll receive a hearty musical greeting from the Emberá tribe, then hike through the jungle with tribal elders to find medicinal plants. Dig into a simple lunch of patacones (fried green plantains), fried chicken, and locally caught tilapia or peacock bass, then watch shamanic dances and shop for village-made crafts, woven from palm-leaf fibers or carved out of cocobolo wood and tagua seeds (often called vegetable ivory).

Order a cup of one of the world’s most complex, intensely flavorful, and rare coffee varieties at Bajareque Coffee House & Roastery (Calle 1), which opened in Casco Viejo in June 2012. The cafe is practically a coffee museum, where you can watch every step of the coffee-making process at the roaster in the glassed-in patio. The main attraction here—the rare geisha bean, beloved for its clean, sweet taste—goes from raw to roasted to brewed before your eyes, all in about 14 minutes. Seek out a chat with owner Wilford Lamastus, whose family grows the prized beans at high elevations on an estate outside Boquete near Panama’s western border. As for that cup: It's $6.50, but, with a spectrum of taste notes ranging from citrus to Bergamot, well worth the cost.

Published on Mar 27, 2014 as a web exclusive.

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