Beyond Bocas

On the Panama expat forums I belong to, people lament that visitors don’t realize there’s more to Panama than the canal and the Bocas del Toro islands in the Caribbean in the far west of the country. Sure, some people stick around Panama City long enough to fly to San Blas islands or to go on a rainforest trek to see some monkeys and visit the Embera people, and some travel to Boquete, but Bocas de Toro is far and away the main attraction outside the capital.

I also went to Bocas for three days. There’s a lot to do. Snorkeling with thousands of fish on Isla Solarte, swimming in a cave filled with bats on Bastimentos islands while the local dog guards your belongings and awaits your safe return, deep sea fishing, taking a slow boat ride through the mangroves and spotting sloths and caimans, riding the surf at Red Frog beach, and indulging in the world’s best seafood in Bocas town on Isla Colón. It’s a great little escape and a quick 50 minute flight from Panama City.

But I’m seeing most of central Panama too and it’s not that easy. There isn’t a lot of information about places to go, in English or Spanish. There are some tour companies, and maybe there were more before the pandemic, but tourism doesn’t seem to be that well built up here. Every tourist I’ve talked to was only spending three days here or so before moving on to other Central American countries.

I must be missing something though. I was surprised to read reports from the World Travel and Tourism Council that indicate tourism accounts for more of Panama’s GDP than it does Costa Rica’s. In 2019, the value in Panama was 15.6% of GDP or $10,647,200,000 and the value in Costa Rica was 11.5% of GDP or $7,213,600,000.

I thought surely Costa Rica’s would be much higher. Not numbers-wise. That I get. Like I said previously, Panama is not cheap and I rented a car because tours are so expensive. But percentage-wise, I’m shocked. Tourism is so well built up in Costa Rica, and everyone I know has either gone there or is planning to. There are endless things to do and information is readily available. It seems like the number one tourist destination in Central America. But few people I know have been to Panama, and when I told people I was going, they didn’t know what there was to see other than the locks. I had never even heard of Bocas del Toro and only went because my friends who visited suggested it.

Although clearly tourism is a bigger financial boon for the country than I thought, the government does have a plan have a plan to improve things with a $300 million tourism improvement plan. This article states that “This is the first time that tourism becomes state policy, and we’re actually moving forward with a sustainable tourism master plan.” They plan to target “conscious” travelers, people interested in community and sustainability. This is great – whatever they do should focus on funneling more money into indigenous communities. And I love that although Panamanians aren’t big on hiking, this country has an extensive network of national parks that are well cared for. But those parks are oases in a sea of garbage.

The garbage problem needs to be addressed before anything else.

Panama is the 33rd country I’ve been to, many of them very poor. I’ve spent a substantial amount of time in Panama’s neighbors, like Nicaragua and Honduras. I’m no stranger to litter. But Panama is far and away the worst I’ve ever seen. This isn’t just my opinion. The unbelievable amounts of trash absolutely everywhere are another point of discussion on the expat forums. One recent commenter wrote:

My girlfriend and I arrived in Panama yesterday with hopes of figuring out whether this is a place we could live full-time. It took fewer than 18 hours for us to decide that Panama is not for us.
A few things that contributed to our decision…Garbage, literally, everywhere. Even in the supposedly upscale expat communities the complete lack of community standards is unsettling at best and downright disgusting at worst. I’ve been to 10 countries in the past year and Panama is, by far, the dirtiest.

The piles of trash are inescapable. They are along every highway, lining every side road, in every water way, on every street corner. Those national parks are the only refuge.

I find this especially sad for two reasons. One, so many people who live here come from countries where this is beyond unacceptable, where people pay $100 fines for throwing trash out their car windows. Panama is a major destination for American retirees. If you Google “how to retire to Panama” you will find infinitely more information than is available for Panamanian tourism. You know damn well all these expat communities don’t have trash like this. So why let the rest of their adopted country look like this? Why don’t they get involved?

Two, so many Panamanians I’ve met spend substantial amounts of time the USA and other places where, again, litter is a fineable offensive and garbage would never be left out like this. They know better. So why let their own country be like this? Why don’t they get involved?

This country has incredible biodiversity, especially in birds and amphibians, and so much to offer once you get into the jungle. Because of the wild differences in the marine life of the Caribbean and the tropical Pacific, which are barely 40 miles apart, the Smithsonian has a tropical research institute here. The lack of an overland route to Colombia through the dense and savage Darien Gap has created unique cultures and wildlife conditions. But with these repulsive trash heaps as the unavoidable face of the country, most people will never be interested in discovering how special this part of the world is.

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