For the past century or so Panama has been known as a great place by which to get from here to there, thanks to the 51-mile canal that slices through it. As the SI Swimsuit crew discovered during its eight-day shoot, however, the country has other, less-explored virtues that offer a diversity of pleasing experiences and landscapes.
The intrepid crew took 16 rides on helicopters, eight on boats and six on planes, as they mined every corner of the country, from its vibrant capital, Panama City, where dozens of sparkling new skyscrapers and a lively nightlife mix with the colonial charms of neighborhoods like Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; to the three-year-old, five-star Bristol Buenaventura resort, on the Pacific coast; to the more bohemian, Caribbean pleasures of Bocas del Toro and its serene, waterfront Playa Tortuga hotel; and, finally, to the even more remote San Blas, a hidden cluster of 378 mostly tiny islands. While a few dollars will buy you permission from the colorfully dressed Kuna Indians to spend the day lounging on the beach of one of the islands they call home, lodging remains scarce in San Blas, so the SI crew was forced to crash on Proteus, a 142-foot research vessel on which Steve Zissou would feel at home. Proteus's chef serves you gourmet meals as sharks circle around and around outside, hungering for theirs.
The fact is, however, that you do not need a tycoon's transportation options to enjoy Panama's natural and cultural beauty, as was eminently clear one afternoon on Avenida B in the capital. That day, construction workers came down from their scaffolding to join model Ariel Meredith in an impromptu and steadily growing dance party, as a Spanish version of Beyoncé's Halo played from somebody's boom box. That magical half hour only confirmed what the crew already knew: that Panama is no longer a place that you will merely want to pass through but one that you will want to stop and stay a while.