The term "hat trick" is used when a hockey player scores three goals in one game. In Panama, hats take on a special significance when they refer to the traditional brimmed toquilla straw hat: light-coloured, lightweight and perfect in the Panama heat.
When I left Toronto recently, it was 32 F, and six hours later, armed with only a baseball cap, I was relishing the 91 F temperature as I walked to the old city along the skyscraper residential towers on Avenida Balboa, the main thoroughfare that hugs the Gulf of Panama.
In my first visit since 2013, I quickly discovered why tourism statistics keep rising (2.5 million visited in 2017), as Panama showcases energy, music, food, special interests and enjoyment. Here are 9 reasons (the triple Panama Hat Trick) why your clients will love your suggestion to visit the country.
The average year-round temperature in Panama is 78 F (25C), with the dry season extending from mid-December to mid-April. For travelers, this means lots of outdoor opportunities: shopping in the old city, relaxing on the beaches, visiting the national parks, and day or evening meals and drinks on patios and terraces.
2. Mercado de Mariscos
The area around Panama City’s fish market is really a microcosm of what to expect in restaurants throughout the country: fresh seafood. And the specialty of the country is ceviche — raw octopus, squid, conch, fish, shrimp and clams marinated in citrus juices. For seafood aficionados, this is heaven, sometimes served in a styrofoam cup for $3 and sometimes served with a light cream sauce in an upscale restaurant for $15.
In the Mercado de Mariscos, you can very informally dine in the food court on ceviche or fresh, fried sea bass, washed down with an icy cold Atlas or Balboa beer. It’s a lively, friendly, smiling, family atmosphere, accompanied by the equally smiling, bouncy Panamanian music playing over the speakers.
Whether at the beach on Isla Grande listening to the whistles of the great-tailed grackles, or on a local bus on the way to El Valle to see the rare golden tree frog, or just wandering from shop to shop in Panama City’s old town, the addictive rhythms of Panamanian music keep your spirits up.
As a crossroads for people from all over the world, “Tipico” Panamanian music is a fusion of, well, everything you can imagine: salsa, reggae, jazz, calypso, dancehall, Brazilian, merengue, African, Spanish rock and more. It’s very common to hop into one of the yellow taxis to find the driver singing to the radio or CD, and within a few minutes, realizing that you are tapping your feet and swaying to the beat of the music, too.
4. Caliope and cocktails
The food in Panama is worth the travel. A number of excellent fusion restaurants (seafood, beef, tapas, chicken, Asian, African, Caribbean, Spanish) have appeared over the last few years characterized by superlative client reviews. Millennial chefs, such as Martino Pace at Caliope, using local ingredients in open kitchens, and with an obvious passion for excellence, are elevating the food scene to amazing heights.
With the re-emergence of the "cocktail" as the trendsetting way to begin a meal, Panama is at the top of its game. Try the Hendrick’s tonic at Caliope made with Hendricks Gin, Fentiman’s Tonic, cucumber juice, ginger and thyme. One would be hard-pressed to find a more refreshing way to chill out before a meal.
5. Panama Veijo
Reconstruction of the streets and historic buildings in the Old City of Panama is pretty well complete and it’s a pleasure to wander around this small area. There are lots of souvenir stores, Panama hat stores, historic sites, museums and hotels (such as the Panama Canal Museum and the nearby Central Hotel, in Plaza de la Independencia), as well as restaurants, ice cream and coffee shops.
6. Outside the city
It’s a jungle out there … well, actually a rainforest! Less than an hour outside of Panama City lies Soberania National Park, which is a magnet for families, birders, hikers and nature lovers. The Canopy Observation Tower, part of the Discovery Center, puts visitors on the same level as parrots, toucans and howler monkeys. Pipeline Road is famous for spotting 80 to 90 species of birds as well as anteaters, howler monkeys, leaf-cutter ants and red-tailed squirrels.
7. Special interests
Trips outside of Panama City include the historic fortifications at Portobelo, where all the gold in South America was gathered in centuries past, before being loaded onto ships bound for Europe. There are island beaches mixed with the beauty of nature on Isla Grande, Taboga Island, the San Blas Islands and others. You can rent a bicycle and take an outdoor mud bath at El Valle; or explore the free trade shopping zone in the city of Colon.
8. The Canal
Opened in 1914, the Panama Canal changed the world by allowing ships to travel from one ocean to the other without having to sail around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. At the Miraflores Visitors Centre in Panama City, the locks lift or lower huge commercial ships and small pleasure craft 54 feet (16.5 meters) as they travel between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
On the way to Soberania National Park, you can see ships along the canal; and when you visit the colorful Frank Gehry-designed Biodome Museum on the Amador Causeway, you will see the lineup of ships waiting for permission to enter the Canal. And of course, if your clients wish to cruise through the Canal, they would experience the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side and then Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side.
9. Su Casa
The full expression is “Mi casa es su casa,” which means “My house is your house.” In Panama, you’ll often just hear the shortform “su casa” in hotels, restaurants, attractions, and even when you get into a taxi. These two words denote warm hospitality, respect for the visitor, and the customer-service ethic that permeates all aspects of Panama tourism.
Panama is just brimming with activities to satisfy clients of all generations. Something you don’t have to keep under your hat!