Panama. It’s a small nation of about 3.3 million inhabitants, with a land size roughly equal to South Carolina. It’s the southernmost country in Central America, and if not for its mind-bogglingly thick Darien National Park, the so-called Panamerican Highway could run from Alaska to the bottom of South America. But you knew all of that, didn’t you? What you may not be aware of, however, is just how stunning and tourist-friendly this incredible nation is. I recently embarked on a trip to Panama City and beyond, scurrying along the beach towns in Chame and the mountains of El Valle. If you’ve been considering a tropical getaway, particularly now that Old Man Winter is hovering over the United States, I’ve got five good reasons you should head south rather than east. Click on after the break for more, but only if you’ll kosher with mentally burning those final vacation weeks you’ve got socked away.
1) Panama uses US dollars as its currency
You heard right: US dollars! The how, who, what and why goes back quite some time and would probably only interest historians, but present day argonauts will certainly appreciate skipping the Robbery Machine (i.e. the foreign exchange booth) as they sail through customs. Panamanians may call it the Balboa, but make no mistake — the paper currency used throughout Panama is the US dollar, and coins are either US minted coins or Panamanian counterparts of identical size and weight. You may notice coins with slightly different markings, but if it looks like a quarter, you can bet it’ll spend like a quarter. (Fun fact: Panama’s quarters are accepted in American parking meters and drink machines.)
Bustling Panama City
But in all seriousness, it’s a huge relief to simply fly (or drive!) to Panama with the same currency that you use at home. No funky conversions to remember. No leftover foreign currency to exchange on the return trip. Just cold, hard, US cash. Better still, prices for nearly everything in Panama are far below US levels, so you’ll be fetching far more for your Benjamins here than back in the States.
2) Easy to reach (by plane or car)
Ever tried flying into a Caribbean airport? Okay, so it’s not that difficult, but your flight paths are generally limited. Really limited. Most of the outlying islands connect to the States via one major route, likely to Miami, Florida. One problem in South Florida, and you’re looking at a vacation-destroying delay. Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is a real-deal airport, with direct flights to a smorgasbord of locations around the world. It’s the only major airport in Central America with two runways, and it also happens to be one of the cheapest to fly into thanks to a healthy amount of airline competition. In the States alone, you’ll find direct flights to Houston, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.
Downtown Casco Viejo
Moreover, Panama’s closer than you might think to the States. It’s just 2.5 hours away by plane from Miami, and since it’s in the Eastern Time Zone, a good chunk of you folks won’t even have to adjust to an oddly setting sun. Let’s put it this way — you can get from Virginia to Panama in less time than it’d take you to fly from Virginia to California.
Life in El Valle
Oh, and did we mention that you can drive? For the absolutely carefree adventure travelers out there (with the right insurance policy), you can drive right through Texas, into Mexico and down the Panamerican Highway to Panama. We wouldn’t recommend this without being fluent in Spanish, but hey — talk about the ultimate road trip!
3) Diversity of land
Sure, Aruba has desert landscapes, and Turks and Caicos has the Conch Sound. Grand Cayman has shockingly blue waters fit for diving. But good luck finding a single place in the Caribbean, using a single currency, accessible via a single roadway system that offers picturesque beaches, white water rafing outfits and canopy tours. Panama is startlingly diverse; on one end, you’ve got the practically impassable Darien National Park. On the other, there’s Bocas Del Toro, a pristine hot spot for surfers. In between, you’ve got Boquete laden with flora, the lush mountains of El Valle, unspoiled beaches in Coronado and modern day nightlife awaiting you in Panama City. If you can’t find a landscape that suits you in Panama, you’re probably not looking hard enough.
Drive up to El Valle
Also, Panama road rules mimic those of America; folks drive on the right, and the Panamerican Highway runs nearly the length of the country. You’ll have far fewer signs and far more ambiguous speed limits, but it’s not too difficult to grok for the amateur traveler. After all, that’s what GPS rentals are for. I’m not saying driving in Panama is simple, but it’s totally doable. And yes, every single kilometer is an adventure of epic proportions.
4) No risk of hurricane
Here’s one you probably haven’t considered. In recorded history (reaching back to 1851 by some reports), not a single hurricane has made landfall on Panama. It remains the only Central American nation to avoid being struck by one, making it far safer to travel to than many of the islands hovering out in the Atlantic. No risk of hurricanes, yet still providing 365 days of pure, tropical bliss in terms of weather.
5) It’s still natural… or should I say, unspoiled
Look, the Caribbean is a truly magnificent place. Given the sheer quantity of countries and cultures, it’s impossible — nay, unfair — to lump it all together as one. There are most certainly locales in the Atlantic chain of islands that are relatively unspoiled. Prune Island comes to mind, but that’s just one of many. But by and large, the unspoiled islands in the Caribbean don’t meet an earlier criteria here: ease of access. Some of these require multiple plane hops, ferry rides and golf cart shuttles. That may intrigue some, but the fewer connections in our schedule, the less potential follies we see.
Panama, on the whole, is still largely untouched by tourism. Just over one million non-natives visited last year, which definitely isn’t many in the grand scheme of things. Just an hour outside of Panama City lies a string of beach towns — Punta Chame, Gorgona, Coronado, El Palmar and San Carlos (just to name a few). You’ll find just enough lodging here to stay comfortably (rental condos are just now starting to pop up), but you’ll still get luscious views of the oceans (yeah, oceans — you can swim in the Pacific and Atlantic in under two hours if you’re a good enough driver) and jaw-dropping looks at nearby mountain ranges. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more than a few dozen Earthlings on Panama’s central beaches, particularly during the week. Postcard-quality shots abound, and it’s comically easy to lose the world and find your soul in secluded places like Punta Chame.
El Valle mountains
There’s just enough tourist infrastructure here to keep vacationers occupied — white water rafing, zipline excursions and fishing expeditions abound — but you’ll bypass the glut of chain restaurants, overpopulated coastlines and horrific traffic (outside of Panama City, of course) that typify so many other tropical destinations.
Needless to say, your trip will be made a great deal easier if you speak at least some Spanish. I barely speak a word of it, and managed to get by just fine. People are genuinely warm here, and the diversity and beauty of the land is certainly awe-inspiring. If you’re looking to take your next vacation in Panama, feel free to take a peek at a few recommended day trips I’ve compiled here:
- Panama City Day Tour (Casco Veijo, Panama Canal, etc.)
- Exploring Punta Chame beach
- Sun and surf at El Palmar Beach
- El Valle: Hot Springs | Local Market | Canopy (Zipline) Tour
- Panama City: Panama Canal, Miraflores Locks | Casco Viejo
[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]