A strategic geographical location, a dollarized and growing economy, a healthy political climate, hotels, shopping malls, conventions centers, beaches, mountains, history, 54 boarding gates and 62 jet bridges at the Tocumen International Airport; these all facilitate the arrival of millions of tourists annually to the Central American isthmus.
By The Editorial Board of HealthPanama.com
In the heart of the Americas, joining North and South, lies Panama, a country that’s quickly becoming a popular destination for millions of people looking to enjoy paradise beaches and modern shopping malls, purchase brand name products at bargain prices, close business deals on neutral ground, visit one of the world’s most exciting engineering wonders and much, much more.
Every year, Panama welcomes with open arms more than 3 million visitors, a figure equivalent to its total population. The charisma of its people, the dollarized economy, its geographical location and global access, its large touristic infrastructure, as well as the hundreds of locations and attractions that it offers, make Panama a destination worth visiting.
But what does Panama specifically offer the visitor? What exactly makes it so attractive?
Panama is a small country that can be travelled from east to west within 8 hours and traversed from its north coast to its southern coast in less than 3 hours. This exceptional geography allows the traveller to take in the magnitude of the Panama Canal and experience unique activities such as bathing in two different oceans on the same day, going deep into the jungle, trekking or snorkeling and whale, caiman or bird watching. It also offers the opportunity to come into contact with centuries of history, to enjoy the cool weather of its highlands, to climb the country’s volcano and stop for a cup of Panama’s world-class gourmet coffee. These are just a few of the many things that the country can offer.
Official statistics indicate that a tourist stays for 8 days on average in Panama. This is not enough time to get to know and enjoy everything that the Central American isthmus can offer, but it lets the tourist bring home good memories about a fulfilling stay that will certainly translate into a return visit. We also do not have enough pages to tell you all about it. We will leave you with just a few suggestions while saying out loud: We are waiting for you!
The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal, with 102 years of uninterrupted operation, it’s a mandatory stop. If you do not visit the Canal, you can’t say you visited Panama. Spending half a day at one the visitor centers, such as Miraflores or Agua Clara, is a must.
In the visitors’ center of Miraflores, located on the Pacific side of the Canal, you’ll be able to see first hand how the canal locks open and close as ships make their scheduled passage. A bilingual tour guide will explain the operation of the locks, talk about the Canal history and share some fun facts about this colossal masterpiece connecting the world on a daily basis. You may witness the crossing of a small sailboat, a cruise ship or a container carrier.
If you already know the Miraflores visitors’ center, then consider adding the Agua Clara center on the Atlantic coast to your plans. If it’s your first visit to Panama, make sure to include at least one of them as part of your itinerary.
A quick way to experience Panama without a taking a long trip is by visiting La Calzada de Amador, also known as the Causeway. Built in 1913 using the excavated rocks from the Culebra Cut, a segment of the Canal the cuts through the Continental Divide, this causeway joins Panama City to four nearby islands in the Pacific: Naos, Perico, Culebra and Flamenco.
The site was part of a US military complex known as Fuerte Amador, established to protect the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Today, you can still see remnants of the military installations on the islands.
Having been transformed into a tourist attraction, today the Causeway is one of the most popular and visited locations in Panama. It offers a breathtaking view of the city and of the ships awaiting entry into the Canal.
The Causeway is the perfect place to go for a walk and enjoy a good time with family and friends at one of its many restaurants offering national and international food. With its undeniable beauty and history, the Causeway is another must-see on your agenda.
Close by is the Cinta Costera (coastal belt) from where the contrasts of the city can be experienced. Modern skyscrapers and buildings from Panama’s colonial times are surrounded by a walkway ideal for exercising and spending time with family. It shares space with kids parks, sport courts, fountains, historical monuments and lookouts.
Panama is surrounded by sea. This presents an unusual dilemma: choosing a beach among many; especially when they are all unique and beautiful.
If your plan is to spend your days in the sand, the sun and the sea, these are some of the names you need to put down on your agenda: Bocas del Toro, Pedasí, Contadora, Taboga, Santa Catalina, San Blas. A detailed description of each individual location would need to start with a disclaimer about how every single one of them is a must-see. This will undoubtedly make you question the amount of time you were originally planning to spend in Panama. So, in order to simplify matters for you dear traveller, let us be kind and offer you a brief summary of some of these gorgeous beach destinations. The choice will be yours.
Boca del Drago is the beach to visit if planning to travel to the province of Bocas del Toro, on the western end of the country. This beach can be accessed by bike, bus or taxi. There are local restaurants serving a wide variety of fresh seafood and ceviche. Alternatively, you may also choose a platter of fried fish with a side of coconut rice, accompanied with an ice-cold beer.
Also in Bocas del Toro, you can find Cayos Zapatillas, uninhabited islands full of white sand and reefs chockfull of marine life. This important ecological area is designated as a protected nesting site for the Hawksbill sea turtle, which is a critically endangered species.
If you have already seen its popular pictures and set your mind on visiting San Blas, then you would have chosen wisely. With 378 islands along the Caribbean coast of Panama, it is paradise on earth. Despite the course of time, San Blas remains unchanged and natural, offering travellers the perfect quietude to bathe in the sea, scuba dive, or simply read a good book by the beach of your dreams.
Mountains and Highlands
Panama’s highlands offer a spring-like weather year round and have become one of the main destinations in the country for tourists from all over the world. The province of Chiriqui, also found in the west end of the country bordering Costa Rica, is home to the best highlands in the country, as well as beaches and much more. Beyond the geographical wonders of its mountain and beach locations, Chiriqui is also home to rich indigenous cultures, idyllic retiree communities and a host of attractions such as world-class rafting, kayaking, bird watching and trekking among others.
If you like good coffee you cannot miss this province. Chiriqui is home to some of the best coffee beans in the world. At the annual The Best of Panama 2016 international coffee auction, Panama’s coffee achieved a new average record price of 60$ USD the pound. Café Geisha de Panama continued dominating as one of the highest valued aromatic coffees in the world. The Café Geisha Green Tip Washed was in fact auctioned at 275.50$ USD the pound. This coffee is grown in Alto Quiel, town of Boquete, Chiriqui, at approximately 5,900 feet above sea level.
The town of Boquete in Chiriqui is the main highland destination in Panama. It is considered as one of the best places in the world to own a vacation home or to retire. Located near the border with Costa Rica, its central attraction is the inactive Barú volcano, which sits at 11,400 feet above sea level, offering spectacular vistas and gifting the region with rich volcanic soil that produces exceptional flora and fauna.
Panama’s Casco Viejo (old town) is a beautiful touristic site in the city. It was founded in 1673 after pirates destroyed the first city in 1671. The remnants of old city, known as Panama La Vieja, can also be visited (see below).
The new city was built and fortified with a wide wall of stone to protect against pirate incursions. In the Casco Viejo you will find good restaurants and sale stands offering traditional crafts, but most notably you will find exquisite architecture of religious, civil and military nature that despite the passage of time has preserved its historic features. Some of these buildings are: El Palacio de las Garzas (the presidential building); Paseo Esteban Huertas, also know as Las Bóvedas; the Teatro Nacional and the Teatro Anita Villalaz; the Palacio Municipal (city hall), as well as the Museo del Canal Interoceánico and the Museo Religioso. There are also several historical churches such as the Iglesia de San Jose, which has a gold altar; the Iglesia San Felipe de Neri, the oldest in Panama; and the Iglesia Catedral. You will also find a number of important squares such as the Plaza de Francia, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza Herrea, Plaza Santa Ana and the Plaza de la Independencia.
The Panamá Viejo Historical Monument Complex, also known as Panama La Vieja, can be found within the modern city, between the mouths of the Algarrobo and Abajo rivers. It sits in front of the Pacific Ocean at the narrowest section of the isthmus.
Panama is considered as one of the most attractive shopping destinations of the Americas due to the large number of shopping malls and low pricing. Visitors can enjoy large and modern malls that offer shopping aficionados a great variety of stores and luxury brands, but above all, bargain prices.
Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Carolina Herrea, Salvatore Ferragamo, Micahel Kors, Ermenegildo Zegna and Adolfo Dominguez all have a presence in the luxury halls of the most popular malls in Panama City. You can also find Hugo Boss, Juicy Couture, Mango, Zara, GAP, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Lacoste, Oscar de la Renta and Polo.
Panama City has 6 major shopping malls: Metromall, Multicentro, Multiplaza, Albrook Mall, El Dorado and Altaplaza.
Due to its geographical location, Panama has also become an intense trading hub that gives buyers access to not only retail shopping, but also wholesale purchasing depending on their needs.
Panama also has the second most important free trade zone in the western hemisphere which can operate as a supply hub for buyers importing product into their respective countries. Goods such as apparel, electronics, appliances, furniture and cosmetics among others, can be procured tax-free thanks to special zone regulations.
A Destination for Conventions and Trade Shows
Panama has become an economic growth indicator in Latin America as one of the leading countries in terms of international conventions, trade shows and other events of great magnitude thanks to its unique location and impressive infrastructure.
Tourism centered on business meetings and conventions has become a niche market for Panama and the country is investing decisively in its diversification and further growth during the current year. The goal of this plan is to identify and manage the different tourism segments flowing into the country and putting an emphasis on attracting markets that spend more than the average tourist. Preserving the customer loyalty of the business traveller and stimulating the growth of the demand for these services are also key elements of this strategy.
In 2015 alone, Panama hosted 63 congresses and conventions. This number was expected to be surpassed considerably in 2016.
Panama’s folkloric tradition is rich and abundant in cultural manifestations, especially in the inner country towns that make an effort to preserve their religious festivities. This concern and interest, both nationally and internationally, translate into religious tourism. This segment generates a great number of international visitors to Panama.
Thanks to this type of travel, the country receives thousands of tourists in search of the history behind some of the cultural and religious assets mostly related to the Catholic Church in Panama.
In Panama City’s Casco Viejo exists a series of religious temples with a rich history and architecture that dates back to colonial times. This is also the case in different parts of the country’s interior such as in Natá de los Caballeros in the province of Coclé or San Francisco de la Montaña in the province of Veraguas.
Likewise, hundreds of foreigners arrive in Panama to take part in the procession of the Black Christ of Portobelo, which is celebrated annually on October 21. Another annual event that attracts similar crowds is known as the Santa Librada celebrations in the Province of Los Santos, which occur in the month of July.
Medical and Health Tourism
Aside from its engineering wonder, beaches, shopping malls, convention centers, colonial history and religious heritage, Panama is also experiencing considerable growth in the medical tourism field. This activity involves travelling to another destination in search of health care at a lower cost.
The worldwide connectivity in today’s global village makes possible what would have been inconceivable just a few decades ago. Today any person can choose to see a doctor on the other side of the world or Panama for instance. At this point it’s only a matter of securing the necessary financial resources.
Panama has a medical infrastructure consisting of quality clinics and hospitals, some of which hold international certifications and affiliations. It also has cutting edge technology and thousands of skilled doctors and specialists who remain up to date in the latest medical advances and procedures; most of them still have a 33% availability in their patient capacity and most of them are certainly ready for booking. There are also facilities for recovery and wellness that offer packages and plans for medical tourists. You can also find local companies that serve as facilitators and can assist patients with gathering all required information, looking after all their needs and ensuring the safest, most economical and reliable medical travel.
Some important key points that also contribute to the arrival of medical tourists in Panama are its strategic geographical location, its dollarized and growing economy, its healthy political climate, the 54 boarding gates and 62 jet bridges at its Tocumen International Airport and the existence of companies such as MedicalPan, S.A., which was the first enterprise to offer quality care to the international patient.
Panama’s medical costs are 40% to 70% less expensive than similar procedures in the United States and they are provided with equal, and sometimes greater quality than in the northern nations or other countries in the region.
It is important to mention that last May Panama performed its first heart transplant, only the second country in Latin America after Argentina to carry out this procedure. This achievement helped to certify at the highest level the two institutions involved in the process: The Arnulfo Arias Metropolitan Complex and the Punta Pacifica Hospital. This certification ensures to patients from around the world the competence of Panamanian institutions to perform critical and complex procedures at the highest global standards.
Panama’s offer is crystal clear: affordability, cultural compatibility due to its affinity with the Anglophone market, cutting edge technology and highly skilled human resources that can’t be matched in the region. These features make Panama the clear option for medical tourists from the Caribbean, Central and South America regions, as well as the North American nations.