It’s hard to tell if there’s a sense of urgency in visiting Panama. The Panama Canal is expanding and medical tourism is booming, but four hours from the city, towns and beaches have that ‘came and went’ feeling with “Se Vende” signs hung from restaurant palapas and cement skeletons of apartment buildings left abandoned. It’s hard to say if Panama is on the verge of a massive boom or if it’s laying still like the panting basset hound outside our cabina’s door, but whichever way you look at it, the time to visit Panama is now.
It’s Not Costa Rica
Reason No. 1 to visit Panama: It’s not Costa Rica. Over the past decade, Americans have taken over Costa Rica and turned it into their very own fruit smoothie drinking, yoga class participating, stand-up paddelboard learning pseudo-American society. It’s not that these activities aren’t appreciated, but beaches and tourist destinations that were once known as tranquil getaways are now packed to the gills, suffocating the culture and untouched scenery that once made Costa Rica such an enchanting destination.
Panama still has those tranquil places (and lots of them) — where you can walk on a beach without a footprint in the sand, share a wave with turtles and fish instead of humans and wander through the jungle on a path that hasn’t been tread in days. But if you’re looking for that pristine beach getaway in a five-star resort with white sand beaches and turquoise waters, Panama has that too.
The Best of Both Worlds
With the crystal clear Caribbean Sea on one side, the deep blue Pacific on the other and one of Latin America’s most modern cities as the hub of it all, you could spend a lifetime in Panama and still not be able to say you’ve done it all.
Visit the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and experience world-renowned snorkeling spots, pristine beaches and enough restaurants and nightlife to keep you moving from morning to night. Or if you’re looking for a lifestyle so lazy that the palm trees are practically falling into the sea, the San Blas Islands in the San Blas Archipelago offer post-card beaches and undeveloped surroundings due to the stiff preservation laws enforced by the native Guna people.
From mountain towns offering white-water kayaking, world-class rafting and a type of coffee that has been titled the “Best in the World” (it costs roughly $300 per pound) to the Pacific Coast littered with uncrowded, warm-water surf spots, hip surf towns and undeveloped wave-catching destinations. However you envision your dream tropical vacation, you may be surprised that Panama is where you can find it.
With a single visit to the emergency room in the U.S. costing well over $2,000, it’s easy to understand why Americans are leaving the country in search of high-quality health care for a far cheaper price. Because Panama’s doctor’s were trained in the States, the facilities are remarkably similar to the U.S. and the very same medications are available to patients (all at a price at least 50 percent less than the United States), the country’s medical tourism industry is booming. And even better than laying in your bed, looking out the window at 4-feet of snow on the ground, you can relax and recover in one of the world’s most beautiful tropical settings — Panama.
Vacationers often retreat to the safety of their resort when visiting Central America — after all, it’s super dangerous, right? Panama boasts one of the lowest crime rates in Latin America, which means you have much less to worry about when you travel. And possibly your biggest health safety concern in other Central American countries — the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge — is virtually non-existent in Panama, because the tap water is 100 percent safe to drink, so stick your head under the faucet, open your mouth in the shower and enjoy.
The U.S. Dollar
Something’s weird about using U.S. coins and dollar bills to purchase handmade empanadas, but it’s so easy, you certainly don’t want to complain either. Forget about searching around for the best exchange rate or wondering if you were overcharged for a loaf of bread, and spend your time taking in the sites, sounds and culture of Panama.
When flying into Panama City, listening to all the American businessmen chatter about real estate and investment opportunities, you may find it hard to believe that foot-print free beaches, sloths snoozing on tree branches and unridden waves are breaking just a short drive away. And whether or not there truly is a sense of urgency in planning your trip to Panama — before it does or does not turn into Costa Rica — there’s no denying that the time to visit is now.