Oh, How Beautiful Is Panama! is the name of a German children’s book that is found in most households (in terms of familiarity, an English equivalent might be Goodnight Moon). In this book, a bear and a tiger are convinced that where they live pales in comparison to the adventure that awaits in Panama, and they set off to find the “land of bananas.”
I had to think about this staple of my childhood over breakfast at Panama’s new Islas Secas Reserve & Lodge recently. Every bite of pineapple, papaya and (yes) banana was so full of flavor that it seemed the little bear and tiger might have had a point. Like that first plate of fruit, Panama itself packs a punch. It is Central America’s narrowest country, but it charms, overwhelms and ultimately bowls you over with its larger-than-life landscapes, both on land and at sea.
When reduced to numbers, Panama is baffling: wedged between Costa Rica and Colombia, it’s only slightly larger than Ireland, but has more plant species per square mile than Brazil. In one day, you can drive from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, because at its most narrow, only 31 miles separate the great oceans. It is home to 125 animal species found nowhere else in the world, while its population is only some 4 million people.
Due to an inefficient government, red tape and corruption, Panama’s natural diversity has been under attack, especially in the last decade, as the country is slowly finding its way onto the international travel scene. For now, it remains a good fit for adventurous travelers who can go with the flow and don’t get stressed if an itinerary detail changes or things run on “island time.” But luxury is at the doorstep of Panama—Ritz Carlton is building a Reserve in the southeastern Pearl Island, with an expected opening in 2020; some other big-name developers have been investigating. For travelers who like the bragging rights of having visited a place before it becomes mainstream, the time to go is now.
Most who travel here immediately feel protective of the small Isthmus whose turbulent history is deeply tied to American intervention, as well as to the Panama Canal, a feat of human engineering that forever changed the way we crisscross the world. What you wish for Panama is thoughtful development that protects, cherishes and celebrates its most precious assets: the staggering nature and the incredible diversity of its citizens.
Luckily two very different hotels are already doing just that: newcomer Islas Secas Reserve & Lodge, an ambitious conservation project that transports guests into a nautical wonderland off Panama’s southern Pacific Coast; and Sweet Bocas, a four-year-old private home in the gorgeous northeastern Bocas del Toro archipelago, that makes an incredible base from which to explore this fascinating region, including the work Sweet Bocas does with Give & Surf, a foundation that supports the indigenous community of the Ngöbe-Buglé.
Related: Home Sweet Bocas
On my last day, my guide took me deep into the rainforest, which is – another Panamanian headscratcher – located only a 35-minute drive from Panama City’s Casco Vieijo. Standing on a 100-foot viewing platform completely alone, we looked out onto miles and miles of tropical trees and listened to the calls of birds, some as intricate as if they were performing at Carnegie Hall. It was easy to picture the little bear and the little tiger from my old picture book making their way through this jungle below, as delighted by the plate-size blue butterflies and fluttering hummingbirds as I was. Oh, how beautiful is Panama! After this visit, I can only wholeheartedly agree.
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