Panama: Is This The New Costa Rica?

With new resorts, increasing tourist numbers and more stability, Panama is luring more and more visitors away from their neighbors to the north.

Numbers are Up
This year Panama expects more than 2 million tourists to flock to their jungles, mountains and beaches. With a population of around 3.5 million, that is quite a lot of pop for their economy.

New and Improved
Most Americans equate Panama to the Manuel Noriega days of corruption and drug money. Who can forget when the U.S Army had him surrounded at the Vatican’s Panama City Diplomatic Mission and blasted Rock and Roll music 24 hours a day until he gave up? That was definitely one of our finer military moments. Well, times have changed, the government is more stable and the economy is booming. The government in Panama has invested over $877 million in airport improvements recently. They also have the most private airstrips per sq. mile of anywhere in the world, making jungle hoping possible without hiking through their impossibly thick jungles.

Time to Go
The high tourist season for Panama is mid-December to mid- April. This is considered the dry season with little rain in the area of Panama City. North of the mountains and the Caribbean side tend to experience rain all year long, with less in February and March along with Sept and October.

What to Do
With jungles, mountains and beaches, pretty much everything is covered. White- water rafting is best from May to December which is their rainy season. Scuba-diving is best December to Mid- May due to better visibility and for those who just want to party, there is always Carnival. Panama City’s Carnival celebration in February is the 2nd largest in the world.

Where to Stay
Resorts and hotels are being built and remodeled everywhere in Panama. The Pacific coast is where you’ll find the all-inclusives that so many modern-day tourists prefer. Only three are operating right now, Playa Blanca, Royal Decameron and The Sheraton Bijao Beach, with more to soon follow. The Caribbean side is gathering steam as well though with many new luxury resorts and hotels popping up.

How to Pay
There are no conversions to worry about down there as the U.S Dollar is the currency though it is sometime called the Balboa. Their Half-dollar is called a Peso, but this is not Mexico and everything else is U.S. Their coinage looks different but is so interchangeable that Panamanian coins will work in parking meters and most vending machines in the U.S. That is a nice perk as most of us all have foreign coins that are useless until we return to that country. Actually, their coins are even minted at the U.S. Mint right up here at home.

What to Drink
When you’re steaming in the jungle or burning on the beach, it’s good to know most of the water in Panama is safe and tasty. Even better is the beer which is well represented with Balboa, Atlas, Soberana and Panama being the main Panamanian brands. Rum is also popular here though not many places in Panama City will serve Captain Morgan’s due to the real life Captain’s sacking and burning of the city in1671. Seco Herrano a raw white-rum like liquor is practically the national alcoholic drink. Of course, the next morning you may need a cup of coffee and Panama is well-recognized as having some of the best in the world.

What to See
Of course, there is the Canal. You can take a cruise ship through it, charter a boat or if adventures, hop a banana barge that is just as likely to be carrying drugs along with those bananas. There is also the Panama Railroad, built in 1855 and rebuilt in 1909 that takes you on a 1 day trip along the canal and through some of their amazing jungle territory. There are hot springs in the Boquete region, trails everywhere for jungle trekking, coffee tastings along with every water sport imaginable.

What Not to Do
The U.S State Department advises against hiking in several areas, especially along the Columbian border due to Guerilla and drug trade activities. You might want to avoid that Banana boat barge through the canal and avoid what’s known as the Mosquito Coast as well. While anti-U.S. sentiment has died down, heck we gave them back the canal years ago, there are always certain areas to avoid. Spanish is the main language, with a large percentage of English speakers around. Just like their neighbors to the north, Panamanians are a friendly and fun loving lot and seem to be welcoming the world to their home.

by Michael Ryan

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