Journey
to Panama

Lights from newlyb built luxury skyscrapers in rapidly growing Panama City, which has been dubbed "the new Miami" by travel experts, reflect on the Pacific Ocean.

To be a traveler is to love the road, and where it can lead you. And here's the allure of Panama: Wherever you come from, this road leads to a fascinating intersection. This is where the Atlantic-infused waters of the Caribbean mix with the Pacific. Where North America meets South America. It's also a junction of the ages. You feel this most in Panama City as you stroll the cobblestone alleyways of the historic Casco Viejo district, which lies in the shadow of luxury skyscrapers. You feel it as you line up your shot from a country-club fairway while trying not to notice the rustle and squawk of near-prehistoric creatures in the adjoining rain forest.

Similarly, Panamanian cuisine is a crossroads of Spanish, American, French, Chinese, Caribbean, and a little of everything in between. That's because people from so many different nationalities labored for decades building the Panama Canal and brought their regional cooking styles with them. In the century since, they've intermingled like the world's waters and helped the country emerge as Latin America's foodie haven.

Contemplating the canal—the sheer audacity of it—is integral to understanding this tiny Central American country. When the canal was begun, in 1881, to unite the seas was a goal akin to sending a man to the moon. Impossible, yet somehow done. It took 33 years and an epic struggle, but it worked. The canal opened in 1914. And even now, almost 100 years later, Panamanians are still dreamers and doers. In 2015, the "new canal"—an extra lane that doubles the capacity and allows bigger and more ships—will open. Experts expect it to signal the start of "Panama's moment" in the world of travel, marking this country as the next go-to choice for a memorable getaway. No wonder Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts recently opened its first hotel in Latin America, Waldorf Astoria Panama, in Panama City.

But spectacular new hotels are just one reason for visiting Panama. Here are five others.

Ambition

This place thinks big. One megaproject that's garnering worldwide buzz is Frank Gehry's Biomuseo in Panama City. When it opens later this year, this Museum of Biodiversity will feature rain forest gardens and biospheres, and spotlight the power and importance of nature, including the isthmus of Panama itself, which changed the face of the planet—shifting ocean currents, climates, animal migrations, and more—when it appeared 3 million years ago .

But the real excitement is the building itself. Gehry, whose wife is Panamanian, is creating a new icon for Panama, with his signature, twisting, fragmented structure, this time bursting with Latin American color. It will join Waldorf Astoria Panama and other new projects as the cornerstones of Panama City's modern profile.

"The rapid growth of the country in the financial and tourism sectors has generated tremendous interest in the hotel industry," said Marco Tabet, general manager at Waldorf Astoria Panama.

It's estimated that there will be 73 percent more hotel rooms in Panama this year compared with just three years ago. Some 30 skyscrapers are under construction, and 14 hotels are expected to open in the next year. Panama has become a leading regional hot spot of hospitality—and style.

"My priority for the hotel was to awaken emotions," says Saul Bassan, the Panamanian lead architect of Waldorf Astoria Panama. "When you see this magnificent and elegant structure from outside, its floating cubes immediately captivate your attention and make you want to look inside."

Once they're through the doors, guests discover a design aimed at evoking the same kind of excitement as opening a jewel box for the first time, says Gabriela Fifer, the interior designer and cofounder of Miami-based ba- haus/knf Design.

In harmony with native Central American forests, the hotel has an emphasis on solid woods, much of which have been locally handcrafted. It also displays daring textures and innovative materials—metallic corks, mirrored tiles, and colored crystals—that create dramatic visual elements throughout the hotel.

"The entire hotel is inspired by the rapid growth of Panama City," says Bassan. "It evokes velocity. The clean design is tinted with a few elements of surprise, representing the unexpected and intriguing facets of Panama."

Traditions

As the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, with an annual salary of $10 million, New York Yankee Mariano Rivera could live anywhere. But in the off-season, he brings his family home to Puerto Caimito, a fishing village near Panama City, where he grew up playing ball with a cardboard mitt and a tree-branch bat.

"I won't trade Panama for New York," he told Daily News. "Everything is original here."

Rivera was referring to the many intangibles that money simply can't buy: lazing with family on warm tropical evenings, sharing Sunday services with friends, and having a place where memories will forever run deep. It's feelings like these that knit together villages all over Panama like strands in a fishing net. "Come the end of the season, I miss it," says Rivera. "It's my land. You form a part of that land."

Because of Rivera and other Panama-born players, such as Carlos Ruiz and Rod Carew, baseball has a strong, celebrated tradition here. To see the latest homegrown heroes, watch some kids playing in the street or take in a game at Rod Carew National Stadium in the Condado del Rey section of the city. Ask your Waldorf Astoria Panama concierge about reserving seats for a season that runs from January through March.

The biggest celebration of them all, however, is El Carnaval de Panama—the country's answer to Mardi Gras. It's celebrated in February or March in every town, but Panama City has the best parades, costumes, fireworks, music, and dancing. No need to ask how to find it; it'll find you.

And should you happen to have too much fun at El Carnaval—or sip one too many secos, the unofficial national drink—Panamanians swear that sancocho, a hearty chicken soup made with cassava root and cilantro, will revive you. It's considered a national dish and is certainly worth a try. The stuff is ubiquitous, so ask any local for directions to his favorite eatery. Don't be surprised if, in the generous spirit of the country, he invites you to his madre's.

Another way to revive yourself and beat the heat is with a fresh coconut. Roadside vendors will lop off the top and pop in a straw. Or try raspado—shaved ice topped with tropical syrup and a dollop of sweetened condensed milk . The vendors in Casco Viejo make it best.

Adventures

Richard Halliburton was one of the greatest adventurers who ever lived. A sickly child, he made "carpe diem" his motto, crossing the Alps on an elephant, flying around the world in an open cockpit biplane, and in 1928, swimming the Panama Canal in 10 days. His book New Worlds to Conquer, which recounts that swim and plentiful other adventures in Central and South America, makes great hammock reading, as much for its storytelling as for its inspiration.

The cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo, Panama City's revitalized historic district (below), are lined with rustically beautiful Spanish colonial buildings.

The Jewel Of Panama City

"Waldorf Astoria Panama offers such a diverse array of spaces that every turn is a discovery," says the hotel's interior designer, Gabriela Fifer. "Every social space was conceptualized with a modern sensibility in mind to meet the needs and wants of the connected crowd."

The hotel's main lobby (above) is a stunning contrast of modern design and natural materials, including elements of stone, metal, and wood. The sprawling space features a double-height carved portico, which sets the scene for the Peacock Alley Bar. This magnetic center stage invites guests to sip, unwind, and socialize—just like they do at the original Peacock Alley at Waldorf Astoria New York.

The hotel also features Level 5, a 3,500-square-foot multi-event venue for meetings and social gatherings, where chic penthouse design blends with a Latin American ambience. The versatile space makes a seamless transition from a relaxed lounge into the ideal setting for formal celebrations.

Innovative restaurants, like La Posta (above), upscale lounges, and rooftop bars line Calle Uruguay, one of the most exciting streets in Panama City.

A Cuisine Like No Other

"Mmm...spicy, fresh, delicious."

That's all celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain could say while sampling seviche in Panama City for an episode of his show No Reservations. But what more can you say? When it comes to gourmet cuisine, Panama's greatest asset, in addition to its unique culinary diversity, is the availability of fresh, local ingredients. It's blessed with two oceans that supply the city with fish and seafood before sunrise every morning, and fertile farms in the countryside where produce thrives.

"I have been a chef in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Dallas, and Lyon, France, and in none have I found such readily available abundance of fresh ingredients as in Panama," says Kalych Padro, executive chef at Waldorf Astoria Panama.

Located in the heart of Calle Uruguay's trendy Restaurant Row, Waldorf Astoria Panama is the perfect starting point to experience the country's innovative cuisine. Try the nearby Palms for fusion dishes that blend Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin American flavors, or the wildly popular La Posta, which pairs a classic Caribbean ambience with an inventive menu emphasizing fresh seafood.

Adding to the ever-growing list of superb dining destinations in the city is Waldorf Astoria Panama's BRIO Brasserie, where Chef Padro creates refined modern French cuisine influenced by the natural abundance and flavors of Panama.

To seize your own day (albeit in less extreme ways), try Panama's ample opportunities for adventure. In less than an hour, you can travel from Waldorf Astoria Panama's bustling lobby to a primitive, not-another-soul-in-sight rain forest. Soberania National Park has hundreds of species of exotic birds, plus howler monkeys, bushmaster snakes, and crocodiles. From its Rainforest Discovery Center, you can climb an observation tower or trek the famous Pipeline Road. Watch for the harpy eagle, the world's largest predator with a wingspan of seven feet. Closer to the hotel, Metropolitan Natural Park is also breathtaking for birding.

Treasures

"Upon his silver hairs, time, like a Panama hat, sits on a tilt and smiles." This is the poetry of Karl Shapiro. And, indeed, there is something both distinguished and timeless about a classic Panama hat. Worn by everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Sigourney Weaver, its name is actually a misnomer. The Panama hat is originally from Ecuador. It got its title in 1906 when The New York Times photographed President Teddy Roosevelt wearing one while visiting the canal, and it's been inextricably tied to the country ever since. While there are factory-made knockoffs available, Ecuadorian craftsmen still hand-weave them from palm fronds. The highest-quality models are so tightly formed (1,600 to 2,500 weaves per square inch) that they can hold water and can be rolled tight enough to pass through a wedding ring. (When purchasing yours, look for those with "super fino" weaves.)

Another classic piece of Panama is the mola, a colorful fabric panel sewn by women of the indigenous Kuna tribe using an appliqué technique. They're traditionally stitched together and worn as blouses, but they can also be made into beautiful quilts and pillows, or used as decorative place mats and wall hangings. Stop by Panama City's Karavan Gallery (karavan-gallery.com) to select from their authentic inventory.

Also worth bringing home is a good-luck charm, known as a huaca. Centuries ago, tribal leaders were buried with small ornaments to ensure safe passage into the afterlife. Among the most valuable were solid gold pendants in the shapes of birds and animals. The conquistadors plundered most of these from graves, but you can purchase beautiful replicas at Reprosa (reprosa.com), a shop next to Plaza Obarrio in the city.

For a decidedly more modern reminder of your journey, visit the new shopping center Multiplaza Pacific, where luxury brands, including Vuitton, Cartier, and Ferragamo, line the sparkling hallways.

Promise

Of course, no trip to Panama would be complete without seeing the canal (which is just 10 minutes from Waldorf Astoria Panama). There are many ways to do so, including day tours and even transit by private yacht (panamayachtours.com).

But our favorite experience is a bit more contemplative. Have your concierge reserve you a terrace table in the third-floor restaurant at the Miraflores Visitor Center. As you sit there with giant ships seemingly as near as your salad fork, remember that what you're taking in is the result of unimaginable human toil. In pure determination, it's comparable to the construction of the great pyramids. Ponder where those ships have been and where they still have yet to go. Then, if you're so moved, draw up some grand plans of your own. Dream big. No one will scoff at you here.