Coming Attractions: Panama

Watch out world, ‘cuz here comes Panama–that skinny little land-bridge of a country that’s famous for straw hats, yellow-fever infestations and American meddling.

Just how skinny a country is it? From the time the pilot lowers the landing gear to the time your flight actually lands in Panama City, that’s how much. One minute you’re looking down at the turquoise Caribbean and exactly four and a half minutes later, you’ve landed on the other side of the country, where–if you can see past the skyscrapers–you’ll observe mammoth cargo ships lining up in the Pacific Ocean to enter the canal.

Imagine a 13-year old mixed-race girl from a broken home who spends her childhood in a reform school later to discover that her abusive deadbeat father left her a massive trust fund. That’s Panama: young and eager, a little messed up, filling out nicely . . . and ridiculously rich.

Now that Panama gets to keep the cash she earns from her famous canal, the country has gained the kind of newfound respectability that comes from having new clothes and holding democratic elections. Witnessing Panama’s overnight transition from banana republic to middle-class retirement haven is like watching the Univision version of Extreme Makeover: it feels so tacky but you can’t change channels because you just have to find out what happens next.What’s happening now is this: a LOT of money is flowing into Panama, some of it from legit investors and some of it from Colombian entrepreneurs (and such as). Until recently, dysfunction and dictators kept away the Bills and Carols from Oklahoma City so that Panama’s nature remained underappreciated and remarkably intact. Meanwhile, neighboring Costa Rica has turned into another Orlando but with ziplines and monkeys. Panama’s real estate boom threatens a repeat of that trend, but for now, the real nature lovers and hardcore birdwatchers are all heading down to Panama’s vast network of well-protected national parks. They quickly realize that this is a beautiful, safe and fun place to travel.

The time I spent in Panama was filled with virgin tropical rain forests that were packed with amazing wildlife but wonderfully devoid of annoying tourists. Also, the beaches are phenomenal: literally hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline line the Atlantic and Pacific. Yes, all you scuba divers-you can dive in both oceans on the same day and enjoy two completely separate experiences.

The great Panama Canal is an awesome attraction in and of itself. Canal cruises are exploding in popularity so that nearly every major cruise line now tries to work it into their annual itinerary. If you prefer to head off the beaten path, then check out the deepest darkest Darien region or the San Blas islands and the Caribbean homeland of the Kuna Indians-Panama’s indigenous population. The fascinating Kuna culture is definitely one of the more exotic elements that has fortunately begun to be included in the country’s growing tourist development.

As a former American colony, English is widely spoken alongside Spanish, so that in many ways, Panama is a bilingual country. Other benefits include relatively good roads, a surprising collection of fine hotels, and a greater degree of rule of law than your average Central American country.

But is it really so peachy in Panama? Pretty much. Obviously, there’s a bunch of shady stuff going down–when Panama City billboards advertise savings accounts in Russian, well then, that’s got dodgy written all over it. And yet this kind of minor-league, white-collar stuff actually encourages all the stuff tourists love: lower street crime, good restaurants, and broader acceptance of credit cards. The fact is that nobody really knows what’s going on in Panama–the important thing is that it’s going and the sign in the window says, “Open.”

Helpful hints
The worst thing about getting to Panama is that you might have to switch planes in Miami-a two-hour flight away. Better options include direct flights from Houston (2 hours), Washington, DC (4 hours) or Los Angeles (5 hours). Panama’s Tocumen International Airport feels like an upscale Orange County mall minus the skateboarders. If you go shopping, remember that real Panama hats are made in Ecuador, so check the label. Another quick tip: get out of Panama City. Other than the old city (a romantic, yet tumbledown cluster of Havana-like architecture), the city is trying its darndest to be the next Las Vegas. Better to trade the traffic jams for the nice villages and tropical landscape of the countryside.