Panama takes its parties seriously, and 2019 could mark the country’s most evolved fiesta yet. Panama City—the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas—is turning 500. Ancient walls, glassy skyscrapers, and a mix of African, Native Panamanian, and Spanish cultures have all played a part in forming the frenetic “Miami of Central America.” Lately, however, Panama has become more focused on preserving its treasures. Head to the historic quarter of Casco Viejo and you’ll find innovative restaurants built inside restored colonial buildings. Meanwhile, on remote islands where hiking trails are peppered with Pre-Columbian era pottery and protected wildlife, new eco-resorts are finally putting Panama on the map for sustainable tourism.
For most, a visit to the isthmus country begins with a quick stop in the capital city before jetting off to nature. Learn the greeting “que sopa” (local slang for what’s up?) and you’ll have no problem making friends. While you’re there, check the big one off your list: the Panama Canal, a maritime trading conduit that was controlled by the U.S. for over a century before being turned over to Panama in 1999. Over the past 20 years, Panama has come into its own more than ever before. Cultural progress is most visible in Casco Viejo, the city’s old town, which has transformed into a stylish hotspot and UNESCO World Heritage Site rolled into one.
“When we opened on this street, you wouldn’t walk here at night,” says chef Felipe Milanes, owner of Tomillo Panama, a restaurant housed in the shell of an 1855 railroad office. “Right when we opened, all the buildings around us were sold. There are two that are almost finished and three restaurants that opened up the block. All of this happened in two and a half years.”