GETTING THERE: Continental, Delta and Northwest have flights from the Washington area to Panama City starting at about $630.
GETTING AROUND: Unless you plan to explore beyond Panama City, stick with cabs. As in Washington, Panama City taxis charge by the zone rather than meters. A typical ride across town is no more than $3, but be prepared to help navigate, as the drivers often don't know their way around.
WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel DeVille (Ave. Beatriz M. de Cabal near Calle 50, 507-206-3100, http:/
If you've always wanted to experience a luxury hotel but worried about the price, treat yourself to a night at the Bristol (Calle Aquilino de la Guardia, 507-265-7844, http:/
For a side trip to El Valle, Hotel Campestre (Calle Club Campestre, 507-983-6146, http:/
WHERE TO EAT: The staff at S'Cena (Calle Primera in Casco Viejo) treats everyone like royalty. Elegant but not fussy, this restaurant above a jazz club serves Mediterranean food. Entrees are about $28.
If you get to Panama only once, be sure to experience dinner at Manolo Caracol (Ave. Central and Calle 3 Oeste, 507-228-4640). An evening in this boisterous Casco Viejo landmark is more than just a meal; it's a performance. The fixed-price meal (less than $25 a person, not including wine) arrives at the table in waves of deliciousness: ceviche, grilled zucchini, seared tuna, chicken kebabs, salad, Spanish rice and flan.
Panama's local elites congregate at La Posta (Calle 49 and Calle Uruguay in the Bella Vista neighborhood, 507-269-1076, http:/
La Casa de Lourdes (507-983-6450, http:/
WHAT TO DO:
· Two museums are dedicated to the engineering marvels and history of the Panama Canal. To see the canal in action and take in a museum, make the short drive to the Miraflores Locks (507-276-8325, http:/
· See a performance or simply take a peek at the National Theater (Ave. A between Calle 3 and 4 in Casco Viejo, 507-262-3525, admission 50 cents). Recently restored, the neo-baroque hall features a fabulous chandelier and ceiling mural by Panamanian Roberto Lewis.
· A few blocks away is the Palace of the Herons (Ave. Eloy Alfaro at Calle 4 in Casco Viejo), where the president shares his residence with a group of the elegant white creatures. The building is closed to tourists, but it's worth strolling around the outside and gazing out across Panama Bay.
· The Golden Altar (Ave. A between Calle 8 and 9 in Casco Viejo), one of the few treasures not stolen by pirate Henry Morgan, can be seen up close in the Church of San Jose.
· The Amador Causeway (west of Casco Viejo) provides some of the best views of the Bridge of the Americas and is a good place to jog or bike. The Smithsonian Institution's Marine Exhibition Center (507-212-8000, Ext. 2366, admission $1) has two aquariums, a museum and an outdoor telescope for viewing ships waiting to pass through the canal.
· Panama City's fish market, or Mercado del Marisco (Ave. Balboa), doesn't get many tourists. But it's worth the trip if you want super-fresh, super-cheap seafood. A pound of seafood costs about $5.50, and the kitchen will cook it up for an additional $6.
INFORMATION: Panama Institute of Tourism, 507-526-7000, http:/
-- Ceci Connolly