Tourism in Panama, navigating hostile territory

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Photo: Salsa king Ruben Blades' idea of how to promote tourism during his stint as a tourism minister. 

BANANAMA REPUBLIC embarked on a tourism trip throughout the country with some friends who were visiting from the US. It had been a while since we traveled this country without being on one assignment or the other. Since the Panamanians started to become serious about developing their tourism industry, about 15 years ago, we were curious to find out if that sector had yet reached maturity.

We rented a car, made some reservations and set out on our exploration of the country that, like aids, "will never leave you." What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, as it turned out:

A night at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in the Cangrejo area of Panama City: This used to be the Suites Ambassador Hotel, and other than the name, nothing has been changed in this outfit. Rooms are characterized by dirty, sticky carpet and walls, designed in a way that was once modern but now evokes thoughts of suicide. The "suites" have a kitchenette but no coffeemaker. The elevator didn't work most of the time. The breakfast is rudimentary; one is much better off skipping it and walk instead to nearby Manolo's for the real thing. Actually, just skip this sucky hotel altogether. There are much better options available for similar fees in the area.

Dinner at the Market restaurant: Great. This restaurant has been around for a while now and it is consistent, friendly staff and good food. Also, champagne by the glass which is good for you. Only minus is that they have TV's everywhere.

Harassment by dirty cops: So we get pulled over in the evening by some bad mannered members of the Proteger y Servir goon squad, also known as the National Police. Turns out our driver can't drive our rental car with her US license because she has been in the country for more than 3 months. No problem, we'll just change drivers and be done with it. But that was not what these policemen wanted, demanding instead that the ladies would come with them to the station. No way, your reporter responded, write the ticket if you must, but nobody is going anywhere with you. But police can't write traffic tickets. "So, call Transito," I said - the traffic police. They didn't want that either. Things evolved into a stand-off with more police arriving, threats to tow away the car ("go ahead, it's not mine"), threats to have us all arrested, implicit demands for bribes, cops yelling in the faces of two American tourists who don't understand the language and so on. Two hours later the traffic cops arrived and write a ticket. Half a mile away we run into yet another police checkpoint where they demand to see our papers again. This is just such a great way to treat visitors, a real moment of pride for the glorious Panamanian nation.

More cops: Next day we drive to El Valle. But first there is yet another road block on Tumba Muerto, this time they want to see papers and do a breathalyzer test with a dirty breathalyzer ("I'm not gonna breathe in that!" says one of our guests).

More corrupt traffic cops: In Chame, we're waved to the side of the road at yet another improvised checkpoint. This time, the traffic clown tells us we were speeding, doing 92 where 80 is allowed. I get out of the car and demand to see the reading on the speed gun, because we were doing 70. They have to show you that reading or else no fine and they can go to hell. They didn't even have a speed gun. Sensing that his ploy was falling apart, the traffic cop ranted a bit about road safety and let us go. By now, our guests believed that Panama was a rogue police state, with dangerous gangs of klepto-cops constantly on the prowl for innocent prey. An accurate assessment.

El Valle, Cabañas Potosi: We reached El Valle without further mishap. Cabañas Potosi is a nice, friendly place with beautiful grounds and views, close to town, and the cabins were clean, the hot water worked, the beds were comfortable and so we highly endorse this place.

El Valle, restaurant Bruschetta: Salmon was great, but spaghetti was microwaved (yikes). Bruschetta was the best plate we had on the table and, unlike some of the other dishes, priced normally. Not good, not bad, not special.

El Valle, Carlitos Pizzas & EmpanadasMany dishes on the menu were not available. And $10 for a small and mediocre hamburger, really?

On the road to Boquete: We paid our traffic fine at Transito in Santiago and moved on to Boquete. This gave us the opportunity to study Panamanian road maintenance and construction from up close. For some mysterious reason, the country has decided to work on the Panamericana the entire stretch between Santiago and David. Legally, you can't drive that distance now doing more than 40 km/h, and since we were all terrified by the prospect of having to deal with more armed goons, it took forever. There is no apparent planning or logic in this road expansion scheme.

Staying at the Cabañas el Parador in Boquete: Nice, rustic cabañas in a beautiful setting with spectacular views. The owners are friendly and helpful. Bananama Republic has become a fan of Boquete. It's laid back but not sleepy, there are some good places for lunch and dinner, many expats run quirky little businesses that grew out of hobbies, and the mountains are extremely beautiful. One of the few places in this country where tourism is run the way it should.

Boquete's Sugar & Spice bakery and restaurant: We can't recommend this place highly enough. Have lunch, good coffee, they have wifi, a small terrace, very friendly people and everything they serve is delicious. These people love what they do and it shows.

Back to the capital, we dined at La Teca restaurant in Coronado: Question: Why is it that restaurants in Panama feel that their interior is not complete without television monitors everywhere? If I want to have a TV dinner, I might as well stay home, thank you very much. I go to a restaurant for the food and the company, not to watch crap TV. So can we reverse that trend, please? Other than that, La Teca is weird. The waiter would not tell us what the fish of the day was. He simply refused, saying that it could be anything. Then half of my party did not get what they ordered, with the waiter insisting that this was indeed salad X while it was evidently salad Y. Finally the manager was called, who apologized and gave us coffee and desserts on the house. In itself, the food was good.

Back in the city, we stayed at the Principe Hotel & Suites: It's a relatively new outfit near Via Argentina. Through the big windows at the reception, we could see the receptionist picking his nose for a snack while we pulled up with our car, with the same fingers that would later touch our passports. In one of our rooms, we had to have them change the sheets because there were bloodstains on them. Nuff said.

Drive to airport over Corredor Sur: Unhelpful and unfriendly people at the toll booths when it was discovered that you can't pay cash any more but need some sort of card - something visiting tourists obviously do not know.


So, what have we learned, dear readers? Here's the rundown:

  1. The biggest impediment to a healthy tourism industry are the Panamanian authorities. You're not advertising your country if tourists are constantly met with hostile and corrupt police and have to navigate incoherent rules and laws that are impossible to find anywhere. For example, you can stay in Panama as a tourist for six months. Yet, after three months, you can't use your foreign drivers licence any more. You need to go to the drivers license office and get a Panamanian tourist license. Who knows that? Where is that info to be found? On the official website of the Tourism Authority: Not a word. Nor can anyone explain how it is that after three months in Panama you suddenly lose your ability to drive a car. This kind of nonsense is just a license for the police to shake tourists down - and they are eager to do so.
  2. The next obstacle are the bigger hotels. We've found that the smaller operations are usually run by friendly people who really do their best to accommodate their guests. There was, on the other hand, often something wrong with the bigger hotels we stayed at. They couldn't find the reservation. The room was dirty. Breakfast sucked. And so on. No wonder occupancy rates are down.
  3. Panama is definitely not a culinary hot spot. More often than not, you pay New York prices for mediocre food and bad service. There is a rich diversity in the capital and in areas like Coronado in restaurants, but to go out and eat there is often disappointing. There are exceptions of course, but if you visit for the first time and spend just a couple of weeks here these are too difficult to find. One reason for this sad state of affairs is that restaurant owners often charge first-world prices and then turn around paying the kitchen staff and waiters third world wages. This is - forgive the pun - a recipe for disaster, but common practice in Panama, and not just in the hospitality industry.
  4. Avoid Panama City. It's a mean, dirty, nasty town full of corrupt police goon squads and scam artists. Casco Viejo is nice but not as special as Panama may think - if you want old Spanish colonial towns you're much better off visiting Colombia or Nicaragua or Ecuador or most other Latin American countries for that matter. Or Spain. The further you get away from Panama's capital, the nicer the country becomes.
  5. Coronado is also best avoided, unless you come to Panama to visit southern Florida-style strip malls and beaches with black sand littered with white trash expats and yeyes.
  6. If you want a trouble- and hassle-free vacation, Panama should not be your choice. On the other hand, if you have a sense of adventure and aren't afraid to navigate the many pitfalls and idiosyncrasies of this country, there is plenty to explore. Just bring a healthy dose of humor and summer clothes.

Disagree? Other experiences? Leave them in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Tourism in Panama, navigating hostile territory

  1. Yes, Panama has become a nightmare when you travel anywhere now!

    Outside of gong to the store for food, I find it much easier to stay home and not get overtly frustrated by the continual unceasing traffic jams and lack of traffic movement, and never ending construction that seems to never be finished, some still being in construction for over three to four years.

    What used to be a 5 to 10 minute trip has now turned into an hour or more ordeal around and in Panama city!

    The complete lack of Parking in and around Panama City (now you have to pay for parking at the Malls without any form of free validation) even in the somewhat newly developed begrudgingly(?) upscale Costa del Este, Parking is almost non existent at best with parking being overlooked within any of the planning of this somewhat modern appendage of Panama City.

    The Police spend more time doing absolutely nothing of anti criminal crime fighting except for eating, used their cellulars, and having multiple roadblocks to scam the locals and the gringo!
    At night they do not even have flashlights or any other form of lighting device to verify your ID or if you are actually the one in the photograph of the ID!
    I personally have never been asked for coima (bribe), they have hinted profusely in immature juvenile fashion. I just look at them with pure unabashed discus!
    The Police since 2009 do not walk the beat as they used too, the vast majority are now obese and unkept compare to the previous governmental administrations of Panama.

    Otherwise Panama is a true Paradise as long as you do not get involved with the government, the police, any financial, real estate or banking institutions.

  2. The Police are no only incompetent at all levels of rank and corrupt as hell. Don’t pay the bribe! You keep pàying them they’ll keep shaking you down! Let them shake down the local Chino (their great at that) free food and phone cards! They have written my wife three mysterious speeding tickets that never show up when its renewal time.

    If you didn’t make reservations with an International chain hotel that gives you a confirmation number etc. Expect no reservation, In a nutshell they are so far from being tourist oriented and or friendly they can’t even begin to comprehend it.

    TV’s in restaurants you can bet the staff are watching them more than their clients! Forget about service if they are watching their cheap ass crooked lottery drawing!

  3. Okke, shame on you. You are “the” shaker and mover on the lovely island of Taboga. And yet, despite your years there have not managed to guilt someone into opening a true restaurant on the island…something better than the standards of the “Chu”. I love traveling through Panama, I used to do it as a teenager way back when El Cangrejo was a nice area….and nowadays I travel with my significant other who is in town every six months in a radioactive job. I’m looking forward to a shakedown….I want to see a National Policeman pee in his pants.
    Panama keeps changing, usually not for the better. I’m sure Blackbeard would still feel right at home these centuries later. I can say that my time spent in Panama is light years ahead of a recent visit to San Jose and environs-the usual tourist spots. Poor Ticos, they do not even own their own country anymore!
    There are two Panamas, those scoundrels in Panama City(and from the city) and the rest of the country-where people work and produce, I very much like those people. Have fun! Maybe I’ll see you in March 2015…

  4. I feel like a tortured tourist in my own country. This is like playing Survivor!. And yes, it is very hard to find good food here in Panama. Go to Volcan, Boquete or Multicafe in David Cervantes park and you will find some good food. Dos Continentes in Penonome is a good food stop most travelers don’t know, nice coffee. Worst coffee in my life was at Piramidal in Santiago, kept me awake until Dolega 4 AM but caused sort of hangover, recommended for truck and bus drivers who must keep awake. Best ice cream in Panama is located in a spot near the Caldera river bridge in Boquete, I know owner is Italian but don’t remember the name. Just next to it is Ceiba restaurant with almost perfect breakfasts. Coming from Paso Canoas, passing Concepcion you will see a discrete spot, they sell good natural fruit drinks (the “platano” drink is impressively good). Do not ever stop at any restaurants and fondas at Interamericana between Chorrera and Penonome (including Coronado), it’s a trap! Bad food and worse faces from dependants. Queso Chela?? Don’t!!! And Chichemito in Chorrera, at your own risk. I can only recommend the agrotour spot run by a Chinese family just between Chorrera and Capira, they have these “guayaba” drinks… refreshing.

    Time to go pay my traffic ticket, the bribe signs were too evident but I was very “slow” and didn’t notice until the ticket was written.

    BTW, dear Frede(rick), ticos somewhat know how to treat other human beigns correctly. Also colombians and nicas at some extent. As the grandson of a farmer I know here in Panama City animals are better treated than persons at a mall, supermarket, restaurant, bank, public office, etc.

    Some photos of Boquete’ Flowers “feria” by a good friend of mine: hope you enjoy!

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