Earlier this evening I walked across a plaza to meet a friend. There was an elegantly outfitted brass band playing for a group of dignitaries. The centuries-old Hotel Central—newly restored to its former glory—was the perfect backdrop. Locals hung out in the gazebo and on benches around the plaza, enjoying the impromptu show.
What a beautiful moment. Humpback whales weave through the crystal water as I tap away on my laptop. My friend takes a more ecstatic approach and jumps up and down, beckoning for my attention. I'm on Contadora Island, a one hour, 45-minute ferry-ride (or 20-minute flight) from Panama City.
I wake up to the sound of birds, the sun shining through the windows that line my bedroom. It has become my habit to get up and throw open the front door before doing anything else. All day long that door stays open, the terrace outside seamlessly flowing into the interior of my wood cabin.
When artist Cynthia Hass Bishop met her now husband, Fred Bishop, she had an important question for him: “Would you consider living outside the U.S.?” “When I was 10, I told my parents I wanted to go the University of Mexico City,” she says. Exploring has always been in her blood. And Panama was on her list early on.
I'm sipping a golden ale nano-brew and looking out over the peaks of Panama's Coclé Province. It's a broad vista. Beyond the bright, grassy shades of mango and banana trees are mountains, richly carpeted in a deep, velvety green.
I’ve heard about the sunsets here. At first, rays of gold and fuchsia shoot down from the sky. White deck chairs, cabanas, and boardwalk bars are thrust into a rose-tinted world. At the last minute, the setting sun changes from tangerine to blood orange…then a lurid flicker of red disappears out on the horizon.
“Rent before you buy.” I’ve been interviewing expats in Panama since I began writing for International Living in 2006, and this may well be the phrase I hear (and repeat) the most. It’s good advice when moving to a new community…whether it’s across the country or across the world.
I’m walking along the Panama Bay, under a clear sky the color of cornflowers. The tide is high, and the waves of the deep Pacific are breaking close to the shore. A warm, strong breeze swooshes through the palms…their rattling leaves are the sound of summer.
With an impressive skyline that glistens in the midday sun, Panama's capital looks modern and sophisticated. It's not uncommon for me to hear visitors comparing it to other cosmopolitan destinations like London or New York. Of course, with a population of just under 2 million, Panama City is much smaller.
Panama has much to offer, from mountain havens boasting year-round mild temperatures to colonial towns where the traditions of grand old Spain have shaped and enriched the local culture. But it’s Panama’s sunny beaches that get the most attention…and with good reason.