Not long ago, the mention of an upcoming visit to Costa Rica got you tabbed as a vigorous traveler. Nowadays, adventurephiles are looking to Panama, the latest ecoplayground with panache. It’s safe, easy to get to, and rife with white sand, canopy-hugging beaches, fauna-rich rain forests, and a nightlife fueled by rum and merengue. Given the five-hour nonstop flight from New York, you could get away with a four-day trip, but plan on a week to best experience the stunning coastline.
1 A late-morning flight from Newark to Panama City ($575 round-trip on Copa or Continental) will have you hearing salsa before sundown. From Tocumen International, it’s a half-hour, $25 taxi ride to the InterContinental Miramar, a downtown hotel with sweeping views of Bahía de Panamá and the red-tiled roofs of the Old City.
2 Start the day with a six-hour partial canal transit (Panama Yacht Tours; 507-263-5044; $99). The 120-foot yacht departs from Amador and heads south to the Pacific and Panama City, passing through the rain-forest-hemmed Gaillard Cut and the massive locks at Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. Follow with a visit to the modest but engaging Museo del Canal Interoceánico, whose maps and artifacts detail the Herculean endeavor of connecting the seas.
3 Nightlife is key; prep with a long afternoon siesta, then start off either at the lively Restaurante Chimborazo, a Peruvian family establishment serving sopa de levantamuertos, a seafood-and-cilantro dish that translates to “soup to wake the dead,” or fill up on seafood and mojitos at Bolero, a fine Cuban bar-restaurant north of the Old City.
4 The all-night salsa-and-merengue club scene is centered in the Casco Viejo district. Things start hopping after 11 P.M., when even the infrequent air conditioning doesn’t dissuade elegantly dressed Panamanians from dancing up a storm. Refuel with a shot of Seco Herreráno (the local rum) and an iced-milk chaser.
5 Rise extra early one morning and head to the Amador Causeway, a land spit jutting out into Panama Bay. Park at the Balboa Yacht Club and stroll the wide red-brick esplanade. Throw a blanket down at Playa Solidaridad and look to the sea: Because of the west-to-east orientation of the isthmus, the sun will appear to rise from the Pacific.
6 Set a day aside to explore the nearby rain forest. For $200, you’ll get a tour, lunch, and a 40-minute shuttle ride from downtown to the Canopy Tower Lodge, in the Parque Nacional Soberania (507-264-5720). From there, you can look down on the ships passing through the canal, or be face-to-face with perching three-toed sloths, howler monkeys, and keel-billed toucans.
7 Spend a night or two at Playón Chico, a Kuna Indian village in the San Blas Islands; a 40-minute flight followed by a ten-minute canoe trip will bring you to the beachfront hammocks and bamboo huts of Sapibenega Lodge (507-226-8824; from $180).
8 After you’ve had your fill of spearfishing and jungle walks, catch the 55-minute, $120 flight to Bocas del Toro, near the Panama–Costa Rica border. Punta Caracol Lodge (507-612-1088; from $325 all-inclusive) offers a series of palm-roofed, solar-powered cabanas on stilts over a turquoise cove and its own resident pod of dolphins.
9 If so much exquisite solitude gets you jumpy, hop a $15 boat taxi to the lively Barco Hundido, an open-sided, thatch-roofed seaside bar known to Anglos as the Wreck Deck. A four-o’clock happy hour features frosty 50-cent Balboa beers.
10 On your way back to the airport, stop at Los Pueblos shopping mall and beeline to Gran Morrison, where you can pick up a first-rate Darién-made Tagua carving or a Panama hat from the famed town of Penonomé.