10 to Watch
Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2009
BudgetTravel.com reveals the best value hotspots for the New Year.
Why in 2009: Panama has led tourism growth in Central and South American countries for two years running, posting back-to-back 20 and 30 percent gains in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Last year, the country surpassed the one-million-visitors mark, welcoming 1.2 million leisure travelers. That's about how popular Costa Rica was in 1999—before it emerged as a solidly mainstream destination. Compared with Costa Rica, Panama has more animal species and a larger amount of preserved terrain filled with colorful macaws, monkeys, and endangered shore birds.
Main events: The Panama Jazz Festival, held January 1–17, will feature saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quartet (panamajazzfestival.com, from $10). Panama's Carnival celebrations, running February 2–24, are some of the largest pre-Lenten parties in the world. The bulk of the parades and revelry will take place in Panama City and Las Tablas (visitpanama.com).
Memorable moment: Climb Cerro Jefe (Boss Mountain) in Chagres National Park, whose summit stands nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. When the weather cooperates, you can see the Panama Canal and both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (visitpanama.com). Back in the capital, thread your way through the cobbled streets lined with Spanish mansions in the colonial-era district of Casco Viejo, used as a stand-in for Haiti in many scenes in Quantum of Solace.
Price check: American Airlines Vacations has a three-night winter stay at the Veneto Hotel & Casino from $87 per person per night (aavacations.com). Keep a lid on costs by booking at locally owned inns. Among TripAdvisor's top rated B&Bs in Panama is La Estancia (011-507/314-1581, bedandbreakfastpanama.com, from $75 for singles and doubles). It's on a hill next to a nature reserve.