Why Go to Panama? Why Go Now?
500 years after Panama City was founded, Panama the country is on the rise and quickly becoming one of the “must-visit” destinations of 2019. The #4 spot on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2019 list, a mention in Town & Country’s roundup of recommended 2019 destinations and a rumored inclusion on another coveted “where to travel next year” list will undoubtedly catapult Panama to the forefront of many people’s trip wish lists.
But in truth, while Panama has been under the radar for tourism, the destination has long played a central role in human history due to its geographic position as a global crossroads. Archeological records indicate that the Isthmus served as a center of trade for Pre-Colombian indigenous groups. Spanish Conquistadors designated Panama as the launching point for their conquest of the Americas. And centuries later, France and the United States (along with enormous labor contributions from the rest of the world) dug the Panama Canal, opening the gates to the level of global commerce that we know today.
So why is Panama the country only now beginning to attract interest among the well-traveled international crowd?
Simply put, until recently, Panama lacked a selection of quality accommodations to enable high end travelers to explore beyond Panama City & the Canal Zone in comfort and style. Reasons behind this are more complicated & nuanced, but can be greatly simplified and attributed to a government and economy that has been very focused on the Panama Canal, the banking sector and real estate development in and around Panama City. Tourism, especially in remote regions, was small potatoes so few incentives and government initiatives were devoted to cultivating it.
Today we’re starting to see that change as years of hard work, passionate vision, financial investment, and government lobbying by dedicated entrepreneurs across many sectors within Panama - hospitality, fashion, dining, coffee production, etc - begin to pay off and attract notice. Now, instead of just visiting Panama City and staying at a large international chain hotel, travelers have a small but growing choice of privately operated boutique hotels & resorts offering luxury amenities, a high level of service and access to unique cultures and destinations across the country. These include Isla Palenque in the Gulf of Chiriquí, El Otro Lado in Portobelo, a handful of high quality hotels in Panama City’s Casco Viejo as well as other options along both the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts and select properties in Panama’s interior.
So why would a traveler choose to visit Panama? What does Panama have that Costa Rica doesn’t? These are the questions that I most frequently hear from travel professionals. And in truth Panama and Costa Rica do have a lot in common. Both countries boast incredible biodiversity and wildlife (with Panama actually tallying more total species of bird, mammals, reptiles & amphibians and fish than Costa Rica), beautiful beaches, high cloud forests and thick lush rainforest. A stable government and economy. And short, nonstop flight connections with most major hubs in the United States and Canada.
But there are three major differences in what Panama offers that Costa Rica does not.*
A Melting Pot of Indigenous and International Cultures
Panama has seven distinct indigenous groups that comprise roughly 13% of the population. Most recognizable are probably the Guna Yala people of the San Blas Archipelago, known for their colorful molas which can be found for sale at markets throughout Panama City. The Emberá people are also highly visible given the proximity of some groups to the Canal Zone along the Gatun and Chagres Rivers. Many of these groups run their own autonomous governments, have land rights within rainforests and are very vocal supporters of conservation and ecotourism over deforestation and resource extraction.
Tour operators and DMCs in Panama will often include visits to indigenous communities as part of an itinerary. While this sort of cultural tourism always has an awkward voyeuristic aspect, we’ve found the experiences to be respectful and very insightful when arranged through a reputable local operator and encourage anyone traveling to Panama to include this in an itinerary. The indigenous people of Panama are an essential and vibrant part of the country’s identity.
On the Caribbean side of Panama, Portobelo is home to Afro-Panamanian people who descended from the Cimarrones, formerly enslaved Africans during the Spanish colonial period who escaped to establish independent communities. The Cimarrones assisted the likes of Sir Francis Drake and pirates like Henry Morgan with the successful sabotage of Spanish trading vessels. Using these partnerships as leverage, the Cimarrones were able to negotiate with the Spanish to gain their freedom. Today, their history is celebrated through the local “Congo Culture” - with colorful art, music, dance and festivals - particularly around Carnaval and just after Easter. El Otro Lado is a major supporter of many of these cultural initiatives and the place to stay for travelers who wish to further explore the unique history of this part of the Caribbean.
The Panama Railroad and Panama Canal also helped turn Panama into a global melting pot, bringing workers from throughout the Caribbean, Europe, China and the Americas. Many of them stayed in Panama after the work was completed and their influence can be seen, felt and savored throughout the country, but in particular through the country’s food. Dining out in Panama City and throughout the country is a delight and often a surprise for travelers who consider Central America to be the land rice and beans. (Though there is nothing wrong with a solid gallo pinto to start the day!)
Ancient & Modern History on a Global Scale
As mentioned previously, Panama has played a pretty important role in the world we know today. Most people are somewhat familiar with the Canal (or if not, dive into David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas) so let’s jump back a few centuries. After Vasco de Nuñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus on foot (the first European to do so) and claimed all of the Pacific Ocean for the Spanish Crown, Spain erected the first settlement on the Pacific side of the Americas in 1519 which we today know as Panama City.
From this vantage point, the Spanish were able to build and launch ships to explore the Pacific Coast of the Americas, claiming land, building settlements, picking fights with the locals and ensuring not only the conquest of Central America but also the destruction of the Inca Empire in Peru. Panama’s significance in enabling the Spanish to orchestrate the downfall of the largest and most sophisticated empire in the Americas really can’t be overstated.
Panama City was also where a the majority of treasure plundered from the Incas ended up before being hauled overland to the Atlantic to be shipped to Spain, attracting a lot of unwanted attention from pirates and jealous rival nations. To get the treasure from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Spanish bushwhacked the Camino Real - a 7 ft wide path through the jungle connecting Panama City first to Nombre de Dios fort (which was destroyed by Sir Francis Drake) and then to Portobelo (which was attacked and pillaged by the pirate Henry Morgan who also destroyed the fortresses of San Lorenzo and later the original Panama City.) If you want to know about the true “Pirates of the Caribbean” you need to come to Panama and explore the UNESCO ruins of fortifications, old cities, parts of the original Camino Real and ancient treasure halls on both sides of the country where giant figures in history made themselves into legends.
Centuries later, the Gold Rush in the US spurred the need for faster transport from the East to West Coast. Today it is hard to imagine that taking a boat from New York to Panama, trekking 50 miles through the jungles and swamps of Panama and then taking another boat to San Francisco was somehow considered the fastest, cheapest and safest way to go from East to West in the United States. But this was before the completion of the Continental Railroad and the lust for gold plus a need to move mass quantities of people and mail from Coast to Coast spurred the creation of the Panama Railroad. The construction of the railroad was in and of itself an incredible engineering feat and epic struggle, full of drama, tragedy and strong characters that blazed the eventual path for the Canal.
Seriously, if you have history buff clients, they must go to Panama. It’s wild to consider all that went on in this relatively small isthmus and how we’re still hugely impacted by so much of it today.
Lastly, as an emerging destination, Panama beyond the city and Canal Zone is largely free from tourist crowds. Though some places like Boquete have become havens for ex-pat living, there are still beaches, islands, parks and pathways that are free from selfie sticks, cell phones and chaotic crowds, even during high season (like lovely little Isla Palenque, a 400 acre private island.) Sadly, but inevitably it won’t stay this way forever, so best to come to Panama sooner rather than later.
Hopefully this post has prepared you to confidently respond to clients when they ask “What’s so great about Panama?” Feel free to share this blog or reach out if you have additional questions about which Central or South America destinations offer the best fit for the interests of your travelers. Our suggestions may surprise you! - Kirsten
(*Costa Rica, while a former Spanish colony, never offered the resources (treasures like gold & silver or a large indigenous population to force into labor) in abundance that attracted the Spanish. So when compared to Panama, Costa Rica remained relatively undeveloped and unexplored during the colonial period. And there are indigenous people in Costa Rica; largely and sadly due to disease, their numbers today are greatly diminished and account for under 2% of the total population with most groups live in more remote mountain areas away from regions frequented by tourists.)