After Costa Rica (see blog) I took a bus into Panama and ended up staying for a month.
The good stuff: At the very east and west edges of Panama it reminds me of Costa Rica with lush jungle running off into the oceans on both sides, waterfalls and tons of tropical plants and animals. The prices for EVERYTHING are 30% less than Costa Rica on average. The people in the rural jungle areas are very nice and accommodating. Panama City has all the luxuries of a big city in the US/Europe and the best shopping in Central America thanks to the canal and the tax free importation zone (Zona Libre). There's every type of food possible, plenty of 24 diners, at least a dozen casinos and more under construction, high rise hotels, etc. They're building huge high rise condos surpassed only by the building boom in South Beach, Miami.
The NOT so good stuff: Unfortunately, I spent most of my time in Panama City for Spanish classes and getting ready for South America. All my interactions with people outside the PC/Colon area were similar to Costa Rica. But in PC it's a different story. There are two main issues that Panamanians have with the US. The canal thing has been a debacle since 1904 for many reasons and when we ousted Noriega in 1990, 4000 people (mostly innocent) were killed (between Christmas and NYE) in the process, and left the country in a state of riots and looting that threw them into a recession that they're still climbing out of. My advice is to speak fluent Spanish and don't wear short. The disparity of wealth here is more than most countries and the middle class makes up only 10%. The street are filled (packed) with Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, and taxis. There's a fine line that divides the east side of the city with its high rises and the west side which has areas that would amaze even the most seasoned traveler. Most people (75%) make $200/month or less and the remaining 15% are driving $80,000 cars and are usually govt employees or friends of (imagine that) who hide their corruption behind anit-US sentiment and still blame economic issues on US related activities. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has been using cheap oil to spur demonstrations in the streets.
Where to go: San Blas Archipelago, the Kuna's are very friendly people, snorkeling and diving is excellent. Coral reefs and gardens in a multitude of colors and shapes where few have been and yet they are easily accessible. Boquete/Volcán Baru are near the Costa Rican border as is Bocas del Toro. Of course you have to see the Panama Canal to say you went there and then drive toward the Caribbean until you get to Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Casco Viejo is an awesome area of Panama City, take a cab there and make sure you tell the cabby you want to go up the hill to the nice area.
Where NOT to go: Obviously, I'm not a big fan of Panama City and it reminds of some of the reasons I wanted travel in the first place. Save your money and just go to South Beach, Miami.
After Panama I headed to Cartagena, Colombia (see blog) to kick off South America.