The world is on the verge of a new day for Panama after the country’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, announced that he would pardon all those who had been imprisoned on drug-related charges.
The m&m travel agency is a company that offers tours and activities in Panama. They have been around for over 50 years, and are now expanding to offer more services.
A 10,000-foot active volcano, the world’s biggest binational protected reserve, Central America’s most tranquil and conflict-free rural tourist experience, and the world’s most expensive coffee may all be found in the western Panamanian province of Chiriqui (chi-ree-KEY).
Chiriqui also invites travel agencies and their clients to reconsider the Central American tourist experience.
Panama’s tourist industry is presently seeing a resurgence. Panama is urging “discerning” visitors to remain longer in the country, which is often utilized as a connecting point for Americans flying into South America (Tocumen International Airport receives approximately sixteen million yearly passenger arrivals). A marketing and branding campaign (started in October 2021) encourages us to “Live for More” and embrace the following values:
“A country brimming with life, perfect in its flaws and bursting with genuineness. Where the Northern and Southern worlds collide, ancient and modern worlds cohabit, and urban vistas coexist with wild, untamed jungles.”
Chiriqui is one of many provinces in Panama that showcase the country’s primary attraction: incredible variety in a stupidly tiny area. Panama is a little s-shaped isthmus roughly the size of South Carolina, yet it has more biodiversity than the United States, Canada, and Europe combined. While the wonders of the Canal and Panama Metropolis (Latin America’s most modern city) continue to draw the most visitors, Western Panama’s border with Costa Rica will astonish both seasoned and beginner off-the-beaten-path travelers alike.
Panama (Photo courtesy of Greg Custer)
Visitors arrive in David through a 40-minute flight from Tecomen International Airport, the province’s capital and a crossroads for visitors traveling between San Jose (Costa Rica) and Panama City. Agriculture, higher education, and middle-class wealth are all important to David. Visitors can travel south to the Pacific coast town of Boca Chica and two national parks, but most will prefer to travel north to the highlands, where they will find cooler temperatures and an Eden-like environment of rural towns, rivers (20), orchid farms, coffee fincas (farms), and one of Latin America’s most popular retirement living destinations.
The Pacific coast and the Gulf of Chiriqui are just a short drive south of David. The beaches of Playa Barqueta, Playa Las Lajas, and Santa Catalina (Panama’s surfer pipeline) are undeveloped yet easily accessible. The Parque Marino Golfo de Chiriqui (two dozen islands, animals, whales, lush mangroves and woodlands) and the Parque Nacional Coiba (Panama’s “Galapagos” and a UNESCO World Heritage site) highlight Central America’s Pacific for eco-adventure.
The highlands of Chiriqui are located north of David. When the Spaniards came in the early 16th century, they discovered a network of distinct indigenous civilizations. Following cultural annihilation, the Ngobe-Bugle are now the only people left in the area. The calm, lush landscape north of David still retains the imprint of European and North American immigration from the nineteenth century. Now, a new wave of “lifestyle migration” is sweeping the country.
Panama (Photo courtesy of Greg Custer)
In places like Guadalupe, Volcan, and Cerro Punta, agrotourism is a burgeoning cottage business. The scenery is evocative of the Swiss countryside, with rushing rivers, manicured pastures, dairy farms, strawberry fields, flowers, order, and prosperity. This pastoral oasis is idyllic for a Central American country plagued with violence and misery. Exploring locations like the Finca Dracula, an orchid paradise with over 2,000 kinds, and peaceful walking paths is well worth one’s time. The peaceful riverbank Hotel Casa Grande Bambito is nearby.
This region lies on the western side of Panama’s highest volcano, the Baru Volcano. It is the starting point for two great outdoor adventures: the Parque Internacional La Amistad (a World Heritage Site since 1990) and the Sendero de los Quetzales. This path goes along Volcan Baru’s northern side. From December through April, Quetzal sightings are most common (dryer months). It’s a spectacular trekking corridor that goes to a trailhead near Boquete (go with a friend and plan on spending at least 6-8 hours). As a result, even casual hikers in good shape may walk between these two famous locations.
Boquete (40 miles north of David) is a treasure trove of rustic Central American delights. Boquete, a river-divided valley surrounded by lush farmland, coffee plantations, citrus fields, eco-adventure parks, elegant dining/lodging, and a Shangri-La atmosphere, was “discovered” by AARP and marketed as a retirement paradise for North Americans. I’ve traveled Latin America for 40 years and have never seen anything like it.
Boquete, which has a population of 25,000 people (including thousands of retirees from the United States, Canada, and Europe), is located in the shadow of Volcan Baru. Hiking up a difficult “road” filled with rocks and gullies leads to the top. Alternatively, one may drive to the top in a 4-wheel drive vehicle and witness the sunrise/sunset across the Atlantic and Pacific. The Sendero del Quetzal descends from Punto Cerro (to the west), with the trailhead just outside of Boquete.
Boquete has defied most Latin American preconceptions because to its rich volcanic soil, abundant water, and the guiding hands of European and North American farmers. Gentrification, land clearance, and price inflation have all been brought about by coffee (especially tiny farms producing the world’s most costly beans) and abroad living. There are no passers-by, few day visitors (weekends and holidays, certainly), and no snarling traffic since the road from David terminates at Boquete’s northern side. Boquete is a place to inhale cool tropical mountain air (although it does rain almost daily from May to December) while sipping a local microbrew or the area’s world-renowned coffee. It is uber clean, free of distracting signage and visual chaos, as opposed to many areas in Mexico), and without any sign of shanty squatters.
There are a plethora of facilities available to expats (gringo cover bands, dining diversity, English theatre, bookstores). The US dollar economy of Panama makes it a bit simpler to settle there, and English is commonly spoken. I was told that tap water could be consumed everywhere in Panama. Boquete Tree Trek offers canopy treetop guided tours, zipline excursions, rum tasting, and panoramic jungle vistas of the Boquete region, among other eco-adventure activities. Finca Lerida is a must-see coffee farm and birding destination.
Panama’s Boquete Tree Trek (Photo courtesy of Greg Custer)
The Hotel Panamonte is reminiscent of a bygone age. Its modest houses (16) were built shortly after the Canal’s completion in 1914 and are large and nicely furnished. The tone is established by white picket fences and flower beds. It’s where US Army brass stationed in Canal City would go on romantic getaways, and it’s housed celebrities like Richard Nixon and Ingrid Bergman. The restaurant is outstanding, and cooking courses will resume in 2022. Also worth a look is the Hacienda Los Molinos Boutique Hotel, which offers contemporary elegance, a stunning location, and excellent resort facilities.
Spend days exploring this town with just one major street and a main square devoid of stone cathedrals or colonial homes. Consume Brazilian pizza (who knew? ), as well as Asian, Argentine, and Peruvian cuisine. Take a rest. A hike to a coffee finca is in the cards. At The Rock, eat like a real gourmet. Take a bath in a hot spring. Rafting on the river. Make a blog. Reflect.
“Live for more,” as one new tagline puts it.
Agents, take note: this area will not be packaged by US travel companies. It’s a “go to David, hire a vehicle, and hop from coast to volcanic calderas” plan. Allow for a full 4-6 days in the area for an amazing Central American experience.
At www.travelagentacademy.com, you may learn how to become a Panama Specialist.
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Greg Custer has over 40 years of experience in worldwide tourist marketing. He specializes in retiring abroad and lives full-time in the Lake Chapala region of Mexico. www.choosingmexico.com
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