(New York Post) As far as drug-trafficking despots go, Gen. Manuel Noriega — who just died a little over a month ago — had tremendous taste in venue: The “bridge of the world, heart of the universe,” Panama.
Sure, its (now) Miami-ish-looking capital, Panama City, was his birth place — so it seemed like the logical choice. But his besties at the CIA could have propped him up anywhere his heart desired. Instead, he chose his ultra-sunny Central American homeland to rule with a (margarita-clutching?) iron fist. Well, that is until the US army deposed him in ’89 with a little help from the Clash, Jethro Tull, Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC blasting out of a boombox, “Say Anything …”-style.
Anywho, love him or hate him, it’s easy to see why Panama was near and dear to even this most heavy-handed of dictators.
Beyond its complicated history, Panama is a tiny country that delivers far beyond its weight in beaches, jungles, critters and dictator-free politics in the modern world. (Jealous?)
It’s safe. It’s welcoming. And they even accept dollars. Go forth.
Panama sometimes gets credit for things it had nothing to do with. The Panama hat? Invented in Ecuador. “Panama” the song? Courtesy of a certain rock quartet out of Pasadena, Calif.
But that 48-mile, man-made Panama Canal thingamabob? While the US oversaw its construction in the early 20th century (after the French failed at it years before, wah wah), and while most of the labor came from the Caribbean, its modern-day success story is all Panama’s, no matter what The Donald says.
Over a century after its construction, it’s an absolute marvel to behold, as its locks raise and lower gargantuan ships depending on which side they came from, keeping them moving on their merry way. And the waterway was expanded just over a year ago to allow more traffic as well as bigger, longer vessels (so-called “Neopanamax” ships).
Did you know the Nazis plotted to blow it up during the war, only to be thwarted by the Chilean police? Learn fun facts like these at the handful of jam-packed visitor centers along the canal’s stretch.
Crash at the 611-room Westin Playa Bonita, only 5 years old, squatting on the shorefront right outside Panama City. Its elevators definitely are on island time, turtlishly taking forever to both move and open. But the wait is worth it as they pour you into a light-filled, airy, fun and stylish space — heavy on the locals as guests — surrounded by a mile-long beach, a triplet of sexy pools and a Sensory Spa by Clarins.
The breakfast at buffet-style Oceanica is bougie and boozy, with a well-visited DIY Bloody Mary/screwdriver station (from $180).
It’s owned and operated by the Bern family, who started in real estate and construction, and moved into hospitality (sounds familiar … could politics be next?). Among other things, they own two ultra-exclusive, curio-filled private mansions, Villa Bonita and Casa Naga.
To book either of those, you kinda need to know a guy who knows a guy who knows the family personally.
Presidents have graced the rooms of the former; a certain non-Drake Canadian pop star was being discussed as a “maybe” at the latter (it includes an open-air shower in the master bedroom).
Fiona the baby Jaguar was orphaned and attacked by dogs in the Panamanian jungle after poachers killed her mother — sadly a regular occurrence around these parts. But the saintly people at the Center for Wildlife Rescue (APPC) in Gamboa rescued her and, as of May, she is now healthy and living at the zoo in Palm Beach, Fla. (which may be a downgrade). Drop by this heroic facility for a cuddle session with some of their other rescues like sloths and anteaters. The aforementioned Bern clan helps sponsor their efforts and awesome staff.
Graze the roof
If you want any semblance of a breeze in Panama, you have to think vertically. The cure for what’s taxing you and your overworked deodorant? Rooftop mojitos at CasaCasco in Casco Viejo, a PC ’burb. It’s the sceniest bar in town, magically blessed with cooling winds and romantic proximity to the night sky’s astral brood and lunar queen. Great place to catch a fireworks show, if you’re so lucky.
Any kinky architectural freaks in the house? You’ll be pleased to learn Frank Gehry designed his one and only Latin American building in Panama. The rainbow-colored Biomuseo, on the Amador Causeway, is 43,000 sexy square feet of interactive exhibit space devoted to Earth’s biodiversity, both living and extinct. Especially cool is its giant theater whose walls, floor and ceiling double as unified flatscreens which project artsy nature movies that literally surround you.