Enjoy an eco-vacation par extraordinaire in this underrated, economical Central American gem.
While its next-door neighbor Costa Rica draws hordes of ecotourists, quieter Panama actually has more animal species and a greater amount of preserved terrain crawling with colorful macaws, monkeys, and endangered shorebirds. Despite the fact that people tend to overlook its jungles, the Central American country with a middle that's slimmer than a supermodel's is fat with inexpensive adventures.
A fifth of Seco, the unofficial Panamanian national drink, made from distilled sugarcane. It tastes similar to rum, but it's like no rum you've ever sipped. Odd as it sounds, ask for a Seco con leche (with milk)--many locals prefer it creamy.
A hike to the top of the formation called La India Dormida ("The Sleeping Indian Woman"). Not only will your sweat be justified with an awesome view of El Valle ("the valley," actually a huge dormant volcano crater a few hours from Panama City), but along the way hikers are rewarded with sightings of what anthropologists believe to be pre-Columbian petroglyphs, as well as several waterfalls.
Served everywhere, the national dish known as sancocho is a robust stew of chicken (usually) with yucca, avocado, and aromatic seasonings.
A soak in the Pozos Termales, hot-water springs just off the main road in the town of El Valle. Anyone weary of outrageous prices at day spas should head to these five small, hot mineral pools--plus a spring with therapeutic mud--which attract plenty of Panamanians. Visit during weekday mornings to avoid crowds.
For $20 or less
Any bus ride within the tiny country. Taxis hailed in the streets of the capital shouldn't cost more than $4 to cross town, and tipping isn't customary--but negotiate your fare first.
You know you're dying to see it: the Canal. You don't have to pay a cent to watch ships of all sizes navigate its mighty chambers. Miraflores Locks, at the northeastern edge of Panama City, is a convenient spot to watch the machinery in action, and the Miraflores Visitors Center, which includes four exhibition halls and a 182-seat theater, costs $10 to visit.
A big helping of tamales or patacones de plátano (fried plantains) at any market. The tamales here are different from the Mexican variety--they usually come wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks.
For $16 or less
Accommodations, from thatched-roof huts to hostels. Fancy resorts also fall on the low end of the international scale: At the 600-room, all-inclusive Royal Decamerón Playa Blanca, on the Pacific coast, get lost in nine pools and eat yourself silly for $79 a night during low season (April to December). It's a short walk on the beach to check out Manuel Noriega's old, pre-prison crib.