Michaela is a playwright and recent grad of the National Theatre School of Canada. Additionally, she's a huge travel nerd.
From the laid-back sun ‘n surf vibe of numerous beach towns, to the hot and ready pulse of capital cities like San José and Panama City, Central American sister countries Costa Rica and Panama are meccas of world class entertainment, culture, and nightlife adventure for the thousands of tourists who flock to these paradises annually to soak up the sun and merengue under the stars.
Starting your trip in the north, Costa Rica has some of the most spectacularly breathtaking natural landscapes you’re likely to ever come across, and the perpetually temperate weather enjoyed by its many coastal beach towns means there’s vibrant activity all year round. Jacó is perhaps the best know of these oases. Located just to the south west of San José, Jacó boasts all of the low-key costal charm you’d expect, plus several excellent internationally acclaimed restaurants and a nightlife scene so magnetic its rapidly becoming one of the most famous party destinations in Costa Rica. If you’re looking for pulsing electric beats, check out Le Loft or The Monkey Bar – though both are quite pricey and often very busy. For something a little more unique, try Los Amigos (the food is reportedly excellent) or Tabacon Jacó, which has a richly traditional feel and live music Thursday through Saturday nights.
If the big city is more your speed, San José is a culture-lover’s paradise – an intoxicating blend of sultry new world energy and traditional elegance. The Teatro National de Costa Rica, constructed in 1897, is one of the most architecturally stunning active performance venues in the world. Drop in and take a tour, or better yet, see a show: The National Symphonic Orchestra performs here as part of the regular season, in addition to other world-class performance programming. Some other ‘musts’ of visiting San José include Bar Chavelona and El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte, two popular youthful watering holes, or, for a bigger party, hit up the impressive Club Vertigo. Don’t be afraid to ask locals for nightlife recommendations, but keep in mind that in Costa Rica a “club” is a dance club while a “night club” is a strip club.
Like its northern sister Costa Rica, Panama is a lush and vibrant epicenter of adventure, beauty and pleasure. Try to time your visit for February to catch Panama’s annual Carnaval – the country’s biggest annual celebration – that takes place in the four days that lead up to Ash Wednesday. During this week the small towns on the Azuero Peninsula are where it’s at, with spectacular parades, music, and street dancing so vibrant and unique it’s unlike anything of its sort anywhere else in the world.
If your stay includes Panama City, don’t leave without visiting the Teatro Nacional (there's one here, too!), or catching a show at Danilo’s Jazz Club – founded by internationally acclaimed Grammy winning composer and pianist, Panama City local Danilo Perez. Round out the night with a Seco Herrerano – Panama’s unofficial national beverage – at one of a number of beautiful repurposed industrial spaces-tuned-upscale-bars Panama City is famous for. A memorable one is Lum’s, a former hanger that used to hold machinery used to dig the Panama Canal. This is a city that comes alive at night, so be sure to soak in the atmosphere by walking as much as you can, as often as you can after dark (obviously with the caveat of being safe about it). This is also a city of tremendous hidden beauty by daylight, stunningly disparate and wholly inviting.
For some additional inspiration, check out:
- Costa Rica Travel Guide - Nomadic Matt
- Costa Rica on a Shoestring - GlobetrotterGirls
- Panama - Bemused Backpacker