Between the caribbean sea and the Pacific Ocean a marshmallow-roasting seven degrees north of the equator, Panama is the lush land link between Costa Rica and Colombia. The 80-kilometre Panama Canal opened in 1914 (when you could swim across it for 36 cents) and has made the country the wealthiest in Central America.
Panama has recognized the wide-eyed fascination travellers have with all things eco and jungle, and are beginning to capitalize on their pristine surroundings.
Over 900 bird species parakeets, quetzels, a hundred species of hummingbirds and of course our Froot Loop favourite, Toucan Sam live in the rainforests, along with jaguars, pumas (no, not the shoes), anteaters and howler monkeys. If you're a little slow on the binoculars, you might be able to spot a sloth. These toothless mammals move so slowly that they have entire ecosystems growing on their shaggy backs.
The searing, blistering sun will turn you into a slab of Canadian peameal bacon on a chaise lounge. It's so relentless you can actually burn places I never thought burnable, like your navel and the insides of your ears.
Long stretches of beach are covered in volcanic sand as black as Oreo crumbs, so you must walk like a cat on a hot tin roof. While doing this tiptoe, you might also wish you had on a pair of ski goggles. The sand whipping off the dunes could easily replace a micro-dermabrasion treatment.
Meandering down the sandblasted beach, we discover a bustling fishing village where boats are filled with hammerhead sharks. All the shark meat is exported to Japan, and the fins find use in medicines.
The barefoot kids with machete-sized knives who fillet the fish are wise to the digital-cam-toting tourists. They bargain for U.S. bills or use well-practised sign language to request sugary drinks from the local store.
On the Gulf of Panama (Pacific side), trickles of water swell up into raging lagoons in less than three hours, so you quickly learn tide times. Returning from our fishing village and Fanta pop adventure, we're in a full channel up to our chests. Later, lounging poolside again, Nova Scotians Abe and Ann recount their story of the harrowing lagoon crossing and how Abe got a raw rock rash while saving his bottles of rum from the raging sea by balancing them precariously on his head.
The Barcelo Playa Blanca resort ("playa blanca" means white beach, but, really, the sand is black) is only a year old, and the staff are eager to please. Unlike Cuba or Mexico, not a lot of English is spoken. If your best Spanish is a Taco Bell order, you'll have a steep learning curve.
The food is impeccable (not the usual all-inclusive "barf-et") and strongly reflects the local cuisine. The buffet table groans with whole herbed snappers, suckling pig, chicken empanadas, pork tamales in tight corn husk packages, patacones (fried plantain) and seafood paella with more seafood than rice.
The eclectic mix of locally grown veggies includes baked eggplant, asparagus spears, artichoke and palm hearts, and waxy yucca, reappearing every day in a unique form. Broiled pineapple con queso (with cheese) and soursop yogurt are welcome staples at any meal.
The popular beers are Atlas and Balboa (named after a Spanish explorer who discovered the Pacific). The balboa is also the Panamanian currency, equivalent to one U.S. dollar. Secco, a sugar cane liqueur, tastes like sugary water. Try it alone its flavour is lost in a mixed drink.
If you're looking for guaranteed sunshine and extra pounds around your midriff from Thanksgiving-dinner-style consumption at the all-you-can-eat-in-your-bikini buffet, pick Panama.
Ole, and don't forget to put sunscreen in your navel.