'Wow' seems to be the word that sums up travellers' first impressions upon flying into Panama City.
Expecting old buildings, dirt roads and crowded conditions, visitors are greeted by a silhouette of high-rise glass buildings, modern freeways and upscale stores.
"The skyline of Panama City is on par with Vancouver or Toronto," says Barb Crowe, owner of Ixtapa Travel and a frequent visitor to Panama. "The country really combines the best of both. You have this modern, bustling city, but tucked inside it is beautiful old Panama with narrow cobblestone streets, old buildings and lots of history."
Combine this with a brand new hotel situated on a golden sand beach only 20 minutes away and you have the perfect vacation. That is exactly what the winner of the Winnipeg Free Press Great Winter Escape contest will receive if they choose Panama for their prize.
This week's prize offering is seven nights in the just-completed, five-star Westin Playa Bonita resort on breathtaking Bonita beach, 20 kilometres from Panama City. The prize includes accommodation in a deluxe room for two, return flights from Winnipeg on Air Transat, all meals, drinks and activities at the resort, transfers and departure taxes.
"This is an incredible vacation," says Crowe, adding Panama is a new destination for Transat Holidays from Winnipeg. The prize is courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press, Transat Holidays, Westin Hotels and Resorts and Ixtapa Travel.
The Westin Playa Bonita is a modern high-rise hotel with 611 rooms and great views of the ocean or countryside. The deluxe rooms feature one king or two queen-sized beds, tea/coffee maker, Wi-Fi and modern décor, all reflecting the Westin's upscale image. There are three à la carte restaurants, whirlpools, kayaking, tennis and a gym and sauna.
While the hotel and beach are amazing, you definitely don't go all the way to Panama just to soak up the sun. Bordered by Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east, Panama is also bounded on either side by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Panama City was founded in 1671 and today is a centre for international banking and home to more than 880,000 people. Casco Viejo (the old city) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 and is the second most popular tourist attraction in Panama after the Panama Canal.
Panama City is a must-do, according to Crowe, where old meets new as modern architecture contrasts with old buildings in the San Felipe area dating back to the 1600s.
"There are so many things to see and do and many great restaurants and bars where the prices are really low and the food is outstanding. We had the best pasta we have ever had. You walk past vendors and you can buy a bag of grapefruit for a dollar. A bottle of good wine is $3."
The number-one attraction in Panama is the Panama Canal, designated one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Built between 1904 and 1914, the canal allows thousands of ships to move between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Sailing through the 77-kilometre canal is a popular itinerary for cruise ships and ships from around the world use the canal to transport goods. In the early years of operation, the canal saw about 1,000 ships a year. Today, it is used by 15,000.
Options for seeing the canal are numerous, the least expensive being a five-kilometre taxi ride from the Westin Playa Bonita. You can view the ships as they pass through the canal and visit the museum outlining how it helped shape the Republic of Panama and why it remains one of the greatest feats of civil engineering.
You can also take a Transat Holidays partial canal tour, sailing down the canal on a small ship, crossing two locks with a total drop of 27 metres and then sailing across Lake Miraflores to the port of Balboa on the Pacific Ocean. Or try the Panama Canal expedition and journey to the heart of the rich tropical rainforest engulfing the area, which is home to howler monkeys, sloths and many bird species, including toucans, herons, egrets and kingfishers.
Panama is a country rich in history, culture and ecotourism. There are numerous isolated islands and beaches on the Pacific coast that are often overlooked by travellers and small inland villages in the central provinces surrounded by extraordinary wildlife and lush vegetation.
Some of the most popular tours are into the rainforest, where you can visit Yayas Falls and swim in the natural pools, or slide down a cable between tree-top platforms in the forest canopy. For culture and craft lovers there is a tour to the province of Coclé, where traditional crafts are still an integral part of daily life. You visit the charming city of Penonome, with its amazing mountain views, and stop at a cathedral and city market.
For the more adventurous, you can travel upriver in a piragua (flat-bottomed canoe) to an Embera Indian village to learn about the traditional life of these indigenous people.
For anyone wanting a less-conventional winter getaway, the Panama prize is the perfect choice. You get sun, sand, sea, plus tropical adventure, big-city sophistication and engineering magnificence.
But you can't win unless you enter. Simply fill out the Great Winter Escape ballot on this page and drop it off at the Free Press building, 1355 Mountain Ave., or at Ixtapa Travel, #105 - 3025 Portage Ave., or mail to Winnipeg Free Press, Box 1800, 1355 Mountain Ave., Winnipeg, Mb.
You can also enter online at www.winnipegfreepress.com/contests (limit one email entry per unique email address per day).
If you are a six-day Winnipeg Free Press home subscriber, you will also win a $200 gift certificate at Spa Lifestyle boutique, located at 2001 Henderson Highway. Check them out online at www.spalifestylefashionboutique.ca for a full list of services and treatments.
Westin Playa Bonita
* New five-star resort on a golden sand beach on the Pacific Ocean. Located 30 kilometres from the Panama airport, 20 kilometres from Panama City.
* Modern, spacious rooms with air conditioning, full bathroom, flat-screen TV, hair dryer, Wi-Fi, mini-bar (extra charge), in-room safe, iron.
* 3 à la carte restaurants (grill, Latin and Asian).
* Golf course nearby and spa on site (extra charges apply). Daily activities program, select non-motorized water sports, nightly entertainment and admission to the disco are included.
Next Week: Riviera Maya, Gran Bahia Principe Coba Royal Golden
To enter online, go to www.winnipegfreepress.com/contests