Costa Rica is undoubtedly the king of Central American tourism. But a usurper lies to the south: Panama. With plenty of attractive beaches, enchanting islands and a forested interior, nature lovers can find what they’re looking for.
Growing indigenous and adventure tourism offers more engaging alternatives, and Panama City has enough nightlife and attractions to be a destination in itself.
And while there is surely competition between the neighboring countries, Costa Rica and Panama are also cooperating in their promotion of tourism. In January, the airlines Air Panama and Air Costa Rica (www.flyaircostarica.com) launched a joint flight from San José to Bocas del Toro, a popular archipelago off Panama’s northwestern Caribbean coast. The tourism ministers from both Costa Rica and Panama –the latter is the Grammy award-winning salsa legend and actor Rubén Blades – attended the inauguration of the flights and highlighted efforts to integrate the two countries (TT, Jan. 13).
Here is an overview of three of the country’s main attractions.
Bocas del Toro
Regular, quick flights between Costa Rica and Panama – Nature Air (www.natureair.com) also now offers service to Bocas del Toro – make launching a Panamanian adventure from Costa Rica easy. But even by land, an arrival in Panama is less than a day away. By bus from San José, a traveler can arrive in Bocas del Toro with enough time to enjoy some afternoon sun, catch a seafood dinner overlooking the bay and watch the sunset. Though slightly complicated – a bus to the border crossing of Sixaola, a walk across a railway bridge and a taxi to the launch for boats to the islands – the trip is a visually enthralling ride through Costa Rica’s banana-rich Caribbean, finishing with a speedy boat ride through tight canals.
Bocas del Toro, a collection of islands in the blue-green Caribbean, dotted with hotels, thatch-roofed cabinas and waterfront restaurants and bars, is one of Panama’s principal attractions. From the main island of Colón, visitors can take motorboat taxis to any of the other islands or surf breaks, launch a tour of the area by sailboat or head out snorkeling or diving. The Bastimentos National Marine Park is a 13,226-hectare protected area, of which 11,596 hectares are water. The park encompasses islands and the sea, including more than a dozen coral reefs, protected habitat for manatees and a tarpon spawning ground.
The Bocas vibe is as laid back as you can imagine, and accommodations range from hostels to luxury hotels. Particularly attractive are the palm-roofed Punta Caracol cabins, which sit on stilts over a coral reef off the shore of Isla Colón.
Tourism is made easy in Bocas, for some, thanks to a population largely bilingual in English and Spanish and Panama’s usage of the U.S. dollar as official currency, alongside the balboa.
Up in the volcanic highlands of the western Chiriquí province, approximately 30 minutes from the provincial capital of David, the idyllic town of Boquete is nestled in the forested mountainside between the Caldera River and Barú Volcano. While air conditioning is universal in nearly all the rest of Panama, Boquete, at an elevation of 1,200 meters, is cool and fresh – a hooded-sweatshirt- lover’s paradise.
The green slopes of nearby mountains and volcanoes tower over the small town, and its streets are often populated by strolling tourists, making their way between hotels and hostels and a notably excellent selection of local and international cuisine. Recommended by Forbes magazine as an ideal retirement spot, Boquete also attracts outdoor enthusiasts and adventure lovers for hiking, birding, rafting, mountain biking and horseback riding. Many people use the town as a base for climbing the 3,475-metertall Barú Volcano, 15 kilometers west, or visiting the 14,300-hectare Barú Volcano National Park.
Those less adventurous, or looking for something a little closer to town, can stroll north out of downtown Boquete, head uphill and find El Explorador (The Explorer), a surprisingly large piece of property that a local family has turned into something of a wonderland on hallucinogens. A trail constantly marked with little signs leads visitors up and down the hilly property, which has been decorated with secondhand objects, many painted with little faces and offering cute – and occasionally profound – advice. Small stations, such as a friendly goat and a adventurous swing, make good stops along the way, especially for children, and about halfway through, the trees open for a great view of Boquete, the valley below and Barú Volcano.
Panama City and Canal
The towering skyscrapers and attractive architecture should be enough for you to tell you aren’t in San José anymore. Panama, the banking capital of Central America, has every bit of the feel of an international, metropolitan city, with wide streets, huge casinos, luxurious hotels and a surprisingly diverse population.
Apart from shopping – one of the principal attractions of Panama, where many products can be found at duty-free prices – pedestrians can choose to make their legs ache by visiting one of the various areas of the city on a walking tour: Panamá Viejo (Old Panama), Casco Viejo (Colonial Panama), Mi Pueblito, the downtown shopping district and the commercial district, for a start.
Casco Viejo, for example, is designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and features a mix of colonial, European and neoclassical architecture.
Cobblestone streets lead through tall wooden houses, past the presidential palace, government buildings and various churches, out to the coastline for a view back at the Panama City skyline.
And, of course, there’s the Panama Canal. Tour agencies offer more extensive tours of the canal – considered one of the “engineering wonders of the world” – but one can also hop in a taxi and head to the Miraflores visitor center to get a view of the canal operations.
Watching the huge ships – some stacked tall with containers, others dominated by a complicated knot of pipes and tubes – slip slowly through the canal, pulled by small cars on runners on the ground, is a fascinating experience. The immensity of the operation, with the jungle in the background, can inspire awe in even the worldliest traveler. A tour of the museum and a viewing of the Panama Canal movie will add to one’s appreciation of the project.
For more info in Panama’s tourism attractions, go to www.visitpanama.com.
Emberá Drua Indigenous Group in Panama Open to Tourism
Looking for something different, many visitors to Panama opt for one of the many indigenous tourism packages.
Panama has a much more visible indigenous population than Costa Rica, fed partly by groups coming north from Colombia and the famous (and infamous) Darién region that separates Panama from South America.
According to the Panamanian Tourism Institute, Panama has seven distinct indigenous ethnic groups spread throughout the country, including the Kuna, the Ngöbe and the Emberá. Many – particularly these three – have developed tourism projects to share their culture and traditions with visitors while providing more financial stability for their people.
The Emberá Drua can be found along the Chagres River, inside Chagres National Park, an hour-and-a-half north of Panama City. Originally from the Darién – a section of thick jungle that houses indigenous groups, drug runners and guerillas, and is the only gap in the Inter-American Highway – the Emberá Drua came to the Chagres River in 1975. As the village leader tells it, his father, Emiliano Caisamo, founded the village after finding city life in Panama undesirable and having a friend recommend the area.
Nine years later, the government created Chagres National Park, which encompassed the area the Emberá Drua now call home. No longer allowed to fish, farm or harvest wood except for their own consumption, the people needed a new way to bring money into the village. From there, the idea of a tourism project was born.
Visitors to the community are met at a large bend in the Chagres River by young men in long, dangling loincloths, and are taken to one of three Emberá Drua communities upriver. The ride itself is beautiful, passing through pristine waters shaded by thick, protected forest.
Arriving at the highest village – the original – the boat is met by a group of Emberá Drua and welcomed with traditional music. A day trip to the community starts with a welcoming speech recounting the history of the people in one of the communal, thatch-roofed halls. Other speakers talk about the painstakingly detailed process of making their traditional crafts.
Visitors can then take their time and tour the village, which consists of traditional huts made from wood and thatched roofs, a dirt basketball court and a small concrete school.
Modern clothes and toys visible in some of the homes and a phone booth are a few reminders that these people exist in the 21st century. But the traditional – and delicious –lunch of fried fish and thick plantain chips, called patacones, served in a banana leaf, exemplifies the ancient customs by which these people still live. Other activities include fishing, swimming and a guided tour of the forest by the village botánico (“botanist”) highlighting the plethora of plants used for medicinal and other purposes.
According to David Clarke, a tour guide who has been bringing visitors into indigenous communities in Panama for more than 10 years, tourism has preserved many Emberá Drua traditions while providing income for the village. Clarke says contracts with the local tourism companies are fair, and a village committee receives at least $35 for each visitor to the community. With sometimes hundreds of visitors a day coming from cruise ships, the tourism project has become the lifeblood of the Emberá Drua. Many tour operators offer day trips with hotel pickup for as low as $48 per person. For information, call Clarke at (507) 6525-7083 or e-mail him at email@example.com.