Before I go on, I want to be clear that some things were awesome. I could easily share photos like the above and write a post full of nice experiences. But there are plenty of those online, so I will instead explain how Panama was for me.
It should be noted that I think most people who visit Panama find it good, if not great. I think my travel companions, Andrejs and Andreas (my brother), are both firmly in the good camp. So, I don’t want to give the impression that Panama is terrible. The people are nice and it also felt very safe. But for me, Panama revealed a lot of my limitations for what I can and what I want to handle when travelling.
Panama is a popular country for American retirees. This means that some areas, like Boquete or El Valle, have plentiful, decent airbnb options where your host is an expat and the house is built to a foreigners’ expectations. These areas also feature good restaurants and markets — because they cater to expats. The expat hotspots are also located higher up, so the weather is more temperate with highs of about 24 degrees. I enjoyed these places the most. We had excellent Italian and Peruvian food, the weather felt like spring-time, and the activities available were a bit more developed.
As Andrejs pointed out to me, however, this meant that I somewhat enjoyed Panama for expats. You could say I liked Panama light.
The less developed aspects of Panama are harder for me to handle. The weather is mostly hot and often humid. Figuring out how to transport insulin without it overheating was a concern. Even if you stay in expat lodging, powercuts are common, too. We had one that lasted 48 hours. Food and lodging is either cheap and with unclear hygiene levels, or surprisingly expensive for what you get. A hotel costing $90 per night felt like one step up from a hostel and pretty mediocre main courses cost about $14.
The major difficulty I faced was that information about activities is incredibly scarce. This not only doesn’t suit my personality (I like to plan and know what I’m getting myself into), but it is also very hard when trying to handle health concerns. An ‘easy’ hike ended up meaning 1.5 hours of steady ascent, resulting in three hypoglycaemic episodes in the space of two hours. A boat tour ended up being almost as bumpy as a jetski, whilst sitting on a bench, with inflexible bursts of physical activity.
What I also realised was that less developed didn’t necessarily mean that you were seeing the more ‘real’ Panama. Less developed areas like Santa Catalina were also developed for tourists, but for tourists with lower demands. So, if you’re the easy-going, flexible type that likes the beach, Santa Catalina is great for you. If you’re the backpacker type, even better. If you like hiking and don’t mind not knowing how long it will be for or how intense it will be, then Panama has a lot to offer. But, if you’re the type who wants or needs to know what to expect before embarking on a full-day snorkel trip or a 3-hour hike, you can ask questions, but don’t expect accurate answers and do expect surprises.
Oh, and if you head outside of Panama City, expect ants, spiders and other unusual and unidentifiable bugs in your bedroom.
One of the main reasons I like to travel is to gain insight. I hate being categorised (as you may have suspected from my previous post) and I am embarrased when I realise that South and Central America is largely one big blur in my head. I know bits and pieces about the countries. I can name some facts. But, I am largely unable to adequately distinguish between the countries, let alone understand the complexities and different types of people within them.
After two weeks in Panama, I have an improved understanding of the country, for sure. I could see the mix of locals, indigenous communities, and expats. I could see the strong contrast between the skyscrapers in Panama City and the slums. I’ve seen the generally modest way Panamanians dress, which is now an interesting contrast with Colombia (more on that later). But I also feel that too much of the discomfort had too little reward in terms of increased understanding or insight. Panama may be rewarding for those interested in exploring relatively untouched nature, but my mind often felt under-stimulated.
For me, the highlights in Panama were those where I learned something and I will share some here to counter any overly-negative impression. I’ll also share some photo highlights.
Touring a coffee farm (we went to this one, which had an excellent guide), we learned how coffee is farmed and how it is picked by indigenous seasonal workers in Panama. Unsurprisingly, small operations differ from the gigantic cooperations that produce ‘cheap’ coffee, both in terms of the quality produced and in terms of treatment of workers.
Large companies use machinery to essentially pressure-wash the cherries off the beans. But, if you sun-dry the cherries and then grind the beans free, you are left with more flavourful coffee beans and also the dried cherry skins as a byproduct. If your farm is not using harmful pesticides, these skins can then be used as a tea, which is quite delicious.
At a butterfly farm in El Valle, we learned why you shouldn’t touch butterflies. If you touch the wings, your fingers are left looking sparkly. What you have rubbed off is the coating that they use for thermal regulation. So, don’t steal their sparkle!
The caterpillars that grow from the tiny eggs can be quite enormous. The whole process, from egg to caterpillar to butterfly is quite extraordinary. And then they live on average only 8 weeks!
So, in conclusion, by all means visit Panama. You might love aspects of it but conclude that once is enough. Then you’re a weirdo like me. (Congratulations!) Or you might love it and want to retire there.