Get happy in Panama City
Central American city becomes first-world contender
What’s the happiest country in the world? Topping many a list — including a December Gallup poll — is Panama. Yep, it’s no longer the Danes but the Panamanians who are considered the most positive people on Earth.
So, how exactly does this translate into a visit to its capital, Panama City? Certainly, things have improved for its citizens in the past 15 years. When the 48-mile-long canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (via the Caribbean Sea) was turned over to Panama in 1999, it ushered in an economic wave that brought the city to the forefront of international banking and trade. With the windfall came vast swaths of construction — high-rise office towers and apartment buildings dot the skyline — signifying this Central American city had become a first-world player.
The locals have a lot to smile about in Panama City.
In fact, Panama City brings to mind a smaller version of Miami, the city I’d flown from (the nonstop flight from NYC didn’t get to Tocumen International Airport until 11 p.m. and I wanted to arrive in these new surroundings during daylight), about three hours away.
I headed to the Westin Playa Bonita Panama, one of the latest in a cavalcade of new hotels cropping up around the country. From the air, the towering property (rooms from $265, starwoodhotels.com) looks like a 21st-century spaceship ready to lift off and orbit the earth. Checking in, you’re glad it’s grounded where it is.
The 20-story complex is currently the biggest resort in the country, and each room features a balcony or terrace offering views of the rain forest or ocean and the flotilla of ships waiting to go through the canal. There is a private beach and four pools, including one that runs the length of the property, resembling the canal itself. (The son of Panama’s president recently celebrated his marriage in the hotel’s ballroom, the country’s largest.)
A must for any Panama City itinerary is a visit to the Miraflores Locks, where children and adults can watch boats of all sizes enter or exit the Pacific side of the canal. The four-level complex features viewing stands, a museum (devoted to the history of the canal), dining and shopping venues. Extra party hats and champagne will be trotted out in 2014 to celebrate the canal’s 100th birthday.
Also worth a look is the BioMuseo, the Frank Gehry-designed gem — set to open later this year — that will tell the story of how North and South America were joined (by isthmus) 70 million years ago. Until then, hard-hat tours are offered. Take one. To tour a Gehry building as it’s going up is an experience you’ll remember the rest of your life. His architecture is beyond happy — it’s ecstatic!
To add contrast to the amazing building boom going on downtown, plan on spending at least a day or two in Casco Viejo, the old section of the city, which dates back to the 1500s. It’s gradually being turned into a pedestrian-only area to alleviate the current congestion.
If you’d like to brush up on your Spanish, you can check out the courses at Casco Antiguo Spanish School (cascospanish.com), where sessions run from one day to several weeks. The school’s director, David Gold, a Connecticut transplant, is also a great source for current local hot spots for dining, drinking, sightseeing, shopping and places to stay in the old section of the city.
Gold’s tips include the Manolo Caracol restaurant, whose chef/owner visits local markets every day to select fresh produce and seafood for his famed eight-course dinners. It’s justifiably the most popular restaurant in the area — ask your concierge to help reserve a table.
Also on Gold’s list is Encima, located on the roof of the Tántalo hotel, with stunning views of the skyline and an attractive crowd that could rival South Beach.
If Pedro Arias Davila, who founded Panama City in 1519, could magically reappear today, he’d surely be one of the country’s 3.5-million happiest people. As for me, I’m just happy to be able to work the word “isthmus” into my travel tales.
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