The Gamboa Rainforest
Outside of the urban centre, Panama City begins to morph into the serene green of Soberania National Park. From your base at the elegant Gamboa Rainforest Resort, ride a treetop car for a stellar vantage point to spot sloths, monkeys and over 300 species of birds. A boat tour along the Panama Canal (which runs parallel to the park) promises sightings of crocodiles, iguanas and caimans. Reel in your best fish tale on Gatun Lake, where it’s not if you catch a peacock bass but rather how many. And should you reach your adventure saturation point, kick back at the resort’s spa, where the herb and mineral treatment will get you back on your feet in no time.
El Valle de Antón comes with a one-of-a-kind tag: It’s the world’s only inhabited volcanic crater. (But don’t worry; it hasn’t erupted in 300,000 years). The eco-friendly, socially conscious Canopy Lodge situates you deep in the cloud forest and offers 12 rooms with private bathrooms. For adrenalin junkies, attractions include a zipline across the forest, followed by a hike over the Chorro El Maccho waterfall. The kids can spot colourful critters and birds at Butterfly Haven, and when it comes time to dine, head to La Casa de Lourdes, the gourmet star on the scene. Hot on the rotating menu is the langostinos (giant shrimp) in Asian sauce, while the cheesecake gets an exotic twist with warm guava sauce.
Kick off a no-guide, DIY day at the Amador Causeway, a breezy six-kilometre avenue poking into the Pacific Ocean. For the how, when and why of Panama’s biodiversity (and its impact on the planet), start at Frank Gehry’s only architectural project in Latin America: the BioMuseo. The waffled rainbow structure contains eight permanent exhibition galleries, devised by Canada’s own Bruce Mau Design. Next up, stroke a turtle or starfish in the touch pool at the kid-friendly open-air Smithsonian Marine Exhibition Center. As you move along the Smithsonian trails (through almost-extinct dry forest ecosystems), keep your eyes peeled for iguanas, armadillos or even a shaggy two-toed sloth. End your day on a high note in the city’s favourite dining zone at Mi Ranchito, where ceviche de pescado is paired perfectly with a Pacific sunset.
A boat transports visitors across the Chagres River to the Embera tribe, an indigenous culture living a pre-colonial existence that emphasizes balance with the environment. Standard building code here is thatched dwellings on stilts, designed to stay naturally cool. Embera Tours Panama offers sustainability-based excursions focusing on education and local tradition. Chill with the chief on an eye-opener forest walk and drum along to straw-skirted dance troupes. Afterward, eat patacones (flattened plantain), which are sizzled over burning twigs, and lunch sourced directly from the river by one of the village’s fisherman.
Air Canada is launching new non-stop flights between Toronto and Panama City beginning December 17, 2014.