PANAMA CITY – When describing major cities in Central America, travel writers often opt for such choice words and phrases as “armpit,” “open sewer” and “hardly worth a stop unless you lose your passport.”
Panama City may be the sole exception to this rule.
Unlike the capitals of countries to the north, Panama is a bustling, modern and well-planned city with attractions that make it a destination in its own right.
Instead of shunning nature, the city has embraced it with artfully decorated walkways, vistas of the Pacific Ocean and canal, and four national parks within a half-hour drive.
But Panama City had a head start. Blessed by geography, the city suffers no earthquakes; Spanish colonial architecture, left over from the 16th century, occupies space beside skyscrapers that would make even Donald Trump proud (he’s building a tower here, too).
Then, there’s the canal – the pride of all Panamanians and a sight not to be missed on any trip to the city.
Add to that white-sand island beaches, modern shopping malls, affordable prices and outstanding food and drink, and you’ll find yourself asking, “When am I coming back?”
In three days, you can enjoy a quick tour of the best Panama City has to offer – then start planning your next trip.
An obligatory first stop on the tourist circuit for any first-time visitor to Panama City is the Miraflores Visitors Center (276-8325), overlooking the first set of locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal.
This well-designed, impeccably maintained museum features four stories of exhibits that describe (in English and Spanish) the intricate workings of this man-made wonder of the world, as well as the grueling history behind it. Plan at least a few hours to soak it all in.
When you finish your tour, head to the top story and time your visit with the transit of a 900-foot freighter through Miraflores Locks, an impressive sight even for canal veterans.
When your digital camera reads empty, wipe the sweat off your brow and wait out the midday heat as you feast at Miraflores restaurant’s expansive (but pricey) buffet.
In the afternoon, take a walking tour of colorful Casco Viejo, one of Central America’s most stunning displays of Spanish colonial architecture, reminiscent of the best Sevilla or Havana has to offer.
While most of the neighborhood is undergoing a face-lift, even the old buildings offer a hint of what once was, and what someday will be.
History buffs should check out the Museo del Canal Interoceánico (211-1995), in the beautiful, whitewashed Plaza de la Independencia.
As the sun heads for the horizon, take a walk along the Promenade, which offers views of modern Panama City, with its silver skyscrapers to one side and the mouth of the canal to the other.
Grab dinner at one of the many trendy restaurants cropping up here, and savor the outstanding food, sunset and the waterfront’s pleasant, cool weather.
Party animals should proceed to the Bella Vista district to enjoy the city’s vibrant nightlife, which picks up after 9 p.m.
On day two, shift gears and rent a bike from Bicicletas Rali (220-3844) or Bicicletas Moses (211-3671). Both are found near the entrance to the Amador Causeway, a recently constructed, palm-lined, two-kilometer walkway that connects four islands in the Gulf of Panama with the mainland.
For couples, two-person bikes (with canopy) are a cheesy but thoroughly enjoyable alternative. Go early to beat the heat, and enjoy a late breakfast or lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the causeway on the other end.
If you like what you see – and it would be hard not to – make a day of it and visit the Marine ExhibitionsCenter (212-8000, ext. 2366), operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, for a primer on the canal’s natural history, including fish tanks that display species from both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean.
When you finish, hire a taxi for a short tour of the Canal Zone, now under Panamanian control, and enjoy the eclectic blend of tropical landscaping and tidy white North American-style clapboard homes.
On day three, swap the concrete jungle for the real thing and visit one of the city’s many well-preserved natural areas. Hike the Parque Natural Metropolitano (232-5516) and look for the diminutive mono tití, or squirrel monkey, a threatened species that lives within Panama’s city limits.
The more adventurous can check out Parque Nacional Soberanía (276-6370), less than a half-hour away, which offers some of Central America’s best birdwatching and most accessible tropical rain forest. You’ll find 105 species of mammals and 525 species of birds in this canal-front park, as well as multiple hiking trails and guides.
For those who prefer the open ocean to the jungle, the beaches and quaint village of Isla Taboga, accessible by a short ferry ride (232-5736), are another relaxing alternative.
On your way to the airport on the eve of your last day, don’t forget a stop at one of the city’s four remarkably modern malls.
Tracopa-Alfaro (221-4214, Av. 18/20, Ca. 5), ¢25,000 ($48) round-trip, 16 hours.
Tica Bus (www.ticabus.com, 221-0006, 223-8680, Av. 3, Ca. 24/28), $50 round-trip, 16 hours.
Panaline (256-8721, Av. 16, Ca. 3), ¢50,000 ($96) round-trip, return trip open for one year, 16 hours.
Copa Airlines (www.copaair.com, 223-2672), fares vary by availability, about one hour and 10 minutes direct.
Grupo Taca (www.taca.com, 299-8222), $308 round-trip, about one hour and 10 minutes direct.
Air Panama(www.flyairpanama.com, 222-0433), $278 round-trip, 45 minutes to David and another 45 minutes to Panama’s AlbrookAirport.