Editor's Blog

25/01/2018
Panama - a narrow destination with broad appeal

I am just back from The Republic of Panama. Why? Because a year ago I made a successful bid for a seven night holiday in the country, offered by destination management company Experience Panama on the online auction staged by event industry charity, Meeting Needs.

Here I must declare an interest because I am an executive committee member of Meeting Needs. However, I won the bidding process fair and square and my cash is as good as anyone else’s as far as our treasurer is concerned! Why did I bid for it? Dunno. I knew precious little about this quirky little country in Central America so I was curious to know more and, wow, what a place! I loved it.

Panama is a narrow strip of land called an isthmus, a sort of geographical umbilical cord that connects the two continents of North and South America. It was part of Colombia until the early 20th century and you may recall it was invaded by the USA in 1989. The United States government said ‘Operation Just Cause’ (always good to prejudge an event by giving it a propagandised name) was justified but the UN disagreed. They called it "a flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States."

The entire history of the nation is fascinating, beginning with its invasion by the Spanish in the early 16th century and including a bizarre effort by the Scots to establish a presence there in the 17th century which wrecked the Scottish economy and contributed to the Union of Scotland and England. This was after the Spaniards worked out that Panama divided the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans by only a couple of days walk and they took full advantage.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa's trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1513 had demonstrated that the isthmus was a path between the seas and Panama quickly became the crossroads and marketplace of Spain's empire in the New World. Gold and silver were brought by ship from South America, carried across the isthmus and loaded on ships bound for Spain. The route became known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road, although it was also known as Camino de Cruces (Road of Crosses) because of the number of graves along the way. The first town on the site of what is now Panama City was burnt to the ground in 1671 by the privateer (pirate to you and me), Henry Morgan, but the stonework is still well preserved and it is worth a visit.

After the fire the ‘new’ old town, known as Casco Viejo (Spanish for old quarter), also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, was built and remains the historic district of Panama City, and it remains largely unspoilt today - a must-visit area of beautiful Hispanic architecture and more churches than you could throw a crucifix at (pictured). Being a devout atheist, churches aren’t really my thing but I enjoyed checking them out in Casco Viejo, perhaps because of the extraordinary lengths the Spaniards went to construct them in such a foreign environment. Having paid my dues with the almighty, I then felt I deserved to indulge my personal preference to worship good food and wine and Casco Viejo offers plenty of opportunity for both.

But the reason I think Panama is such an outstanding destination is because it offers that most clichéd of travel experience commodities, variety. Ancient and modern sit cheek by jowl, beaches and rainforest meet, indigenous people and modern tourism interact in a positive way and the economy is fuelled by the amazing Panama Canal. To be accurate, it is Panama Canals (plural) that flood the nation with foreign revenue because there are now two of them. As ships got wider, Panama responded by accommodating them. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? And a trip to the canal and through the locks is an absolute ‘must’. The museum that tells the story of the canal is brilliantly done. Panama’s ‘accidental’ income bonanza makes the nation special. Net revenue from the canals to the government will reach US$2 billion a year in 2021 while unemployment is only 5% of the population of 4 million. Next door in tourism-friendly Costa Rica, the jobless figure is twice as high as a percentage of population. Panama is the second-most competitive economy in Latin America, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index and attracts more than two million tourists.

While the Panama Papers revelations were bad for the country’s reputation and corruption follows the high FDI inflows, this is a nation on the move and infrastructure development reflects that confidence. Among the Manhattan-style high rise buildings you will find the world’s top hotel brands and I stayed at the Marriott right opposite the Atlapa Convention Centre.

If there is a criticism, it is the traffic. If you plan to put a group into Panama (and I would recommend you do) listen to the advice of your destination management company and avoid peak travel times. This country is only 50 miles wide – you can imagine what that does to traffic flow! But perhaps more important, Panamanians have never seen the point in traffic lights. Luckily for me, Experience Panama provided fantastic personal driver/guides in modern, air-conditioned vehicles with refreshments on hand so my journeys were comfortable, on-time and relaxed.

Now back from Panama, I am setting my sights on the next Meeting Needs auction because it goes live on January 24 with more great deals to be had – don’t miss out at www.meetingneedsauction.co.uk



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