(Chicagomag) Long a budget eco-alternative to Costa Rica, Panama protects similar forests and draws a fraction of its northern neighbor’s crowds. But global business folk working in canal-based trade, along with expat retirees lured by the country’s generous health care policies, have helped drive a development boom in the capital. Panama City’s spate of new hotels cater to travelers seeking sophistication in the tropics, with beaches and jungles just a day’s trip away. And right now, visitors have more rooms to choose from than ever before: The lavish Trump Ocean Club opened last summer, the Westin Playa Bonita Panama debuted in late November, and a hotel tower appended to the luxury Bristol Panama opens this month. The Bristol will host two new restaurants from local celebrity chef Cuquita Arias de Calvo: the small-plate specialist 8º58ˇ Lounge and the more formal Social Table (507-264-0000, thebristol.com). Nowhere is construction busier than at the Panama Canal; a new route for mega–container ships will open in 2014 and is already visible from the Miraflores Visitors Center just outside the city ($3 admission; 507-276-8325, pancanal.com). On the Pacific, the Frank Gehry–designed BioMuseo, devoted to the country’s abundant biodiversity, won’t open until later this year, but early birds with an interest in architecture can arrange advance visits each Friday (free; biomuseopanama.org).
Redefining rush hour: Paitilla Point in Panama City
WHERE TO STAY
LUXE Join sexy South Americans on the 13th-floor pool deck at the 369-room, 70-story Trump Ocean Club, soon to open a casino. From $319. 877-898-7867, trumppanamahotel.com
BUDGET This studio apartment in the heart of the historic Casco Viejo quarter puts you within walking distance of museums, restaurants, and the waterfront promenade. $110 a night. 507-6713-7165, pattyscasitas.com
GOOD FOR GROUPS Families who want the beach-resort experience should check in to the new Westin Playa Bonita Panama; amenities include three pools, eight restaurants and bars, and a kids’ club. From $265. 507-340-9893, westin.com