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Frommer's Panama author Kristina Schreck speaks with host David Lytle about why now is the time to visit Panama. The country's natural and man-made wonders, history, and expanding tourism infrastructure make it a prime destination for first-time visitors to Central America or those who've grown tired of Costa Rica's crowds. Listen in and learn about the incredible variety of activities and sights, such as Panama City's historic center and Coiba Island's natural treasures.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Things to do: Tours, Snorkeling, Diving, Jungle Exploration, Pacific Beaches.
  • Places to go: Panama City, Suber Amia National Park, Monkey Island, Coiba Island, Panama Canal.
  • Best Food: Seafood, Chinese Food.
  • Driving Around: Rent a 4x4, a lot of the side roads are in poor condition, and always have a good map.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

David Lytle: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.

Hi! Welcome to the frommers.com podcast. My name is David Lytle. I am the editorial director of frommers.com. Today we are talking with Christina Schreck. She is the author of "Frommer's First Edition to Panama." Very exciting, we are glad to have this. It literally landed in my hands about 20 minutes ago, so I am just reading through it right now.

Christina Schreck has traveled extensively throughout Latin America and has lived and worked in Argentina and Chile for eight years. She is the former managing editor of "Adventure Journal" magazine and currently resides in Santiago in the Andes. Hi Christina.

Christina Schreck: Hi! How are you doing?
David: I am doing well! Thank you. So that is exciting you are the author of the first edition guide for Frommer's to Panama. Why are we writing about Panama now?
Christina: Panama now. Well, that is a very good question. I think that Panama is just coming on to the travel map and there are a lot of reasons why. You tend to heard when you are in Panama a lot that Panama is much more than a canal because obviously we all know about the Panama Canal.
David: Right.
Christina: The country hasn't truly viewed itself as a travel destination until recently and I think it has not shown much enthusiasm until recently in building an infrastructure that meets the demand of travelers beyond backpackers and looking for something a little bit more for the luxury travel. You tend to find now lots of lodges, lots of tourists for anything between backpackers and moderate to luxury.

I think another reason is because a lot of foreigners still have visions of a different kind of Panama. Well say what Panama used to be. Obviously a lot of people think it is a drug running corrupt nation with politicians are like Manuel Noriega. But I think the whole story now is something entirely different. Panama is a very safe country. It has a crime rate which is probably about equal to the US. It is considered along with Chile and Uruguay as one of the safest countries in Latin America.

David: Oh that's interesting!
Christina: Panama also is very easy to travel through. I mean it is a no brainer when it comes to figuring out prices because they use the US dollar as a monetary unit. And the Panama Canal is really truly one of the wonders of the world. You will be blown away by it but there is so much more to visit now.
David: So for a first time visitor to Panama what sort of surprises lie ahead of them? What can they expect to see and do there?
Christina: Well Panama as you know is a tiny little squiggle of a country. You would be surprised how much it packs within its borders. It has a profoundly diverse array of natural beauty, culture and history. And people like to say that the country is rapidly evolving into what is considered a new Costa Rica.

Panama is home to a blanket of pristine vast wilderness and I think in many respects it outshines its northern neighbor and I will tell you why. Panama is a land bridge and it connects the North American continent with the South American continent. So all the flora and fauna between the two continents actually meet here in Panama and it creates what the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute likes to call a hyper-diverse environment.

And by the way the Smithsonian Institute has actually chosen Panama over the past decade as its research centre for this very reason. It's a very, very diverse area. If you can imagine that Panama has 15 national parks and covers about around 12 to 13 percent of the entire country. But of course this rainforest stretches beyond the park borders. I can give you an example of a place called the Darien, which is considered the largest and the most diverse rain forest in all of Central America.

Darien is the South Eastern area of Panama and is actually the area where the Pan American highway ends. So right about a quarter of the way before the border of Columbia, there is no road which connects with Columbia and as I said it is the largest and most diverse rainforest in all the Central American nations.

If you can imagine the plant count in Panama runs at about 10,000 different species and more importantly which is really important for visitors is that it has nearly 950 species of birds. It is like a bird watching paradise and you see a lot of birdwatchers coming to Panama. This by the way is more than the US and Canada combined and a lot of locals like to say that you will find 20 tourists viewing one bird but in Panama you can see one tourist viewing 20 birds.

David: So I imagine it would probably be the Audubon Society offers tours to Panama?
Christina: They do, they exist in Panama City but they only offer about one tour per month. But you can check that out on their website. But there are a lot of bird watching tour companies who specialize in Panama because of this diversity.

The best thing about Panama is that to get to this rainforest it is so easy to get to. I mean you can actually be in Panama City. You can jump in a taxi and in 10 minutes you can immerse yourself in this wild steamy jungle because they have a metropolitan park within the city confines and it is the only protected tropical forest that is found within the city limits of a major urban area.

If you want to continue on for another 15 minutes in your taxi you can get to Suber Amia National Park which is this beautiful lush rainforest where you can hear Howler monkeys, you can see Toucans, you can take a boat ride in the Panama Canal. There is a Monkey Island where you can see Spider monkeys and Kavolchy monkeys.

David: With a rainforest being in like Central Park, do you have monkeys running wild in the city?
Christina: They have a small monkey which is called a Jeffers Tameron monkey. You could actually see it if you walked into the park. But yes you won't see any Howler monkeys necessarily you will have to drive a little bit farther than that. But as I said it is within 30 minutes of your hotel room in Panama City which is great.
David: Right. That just seems fascinating to me. I mean I am adding this to my list of places to go next year.
Christina: Well actually the thing about Panama as well is that beyond this forest like most rain forests most people do tend to think that Panama is just jungle. They have an area that is on the western side which has cool mountain highlands. There are a lot of coffee plantations in this area. There is a giant volcano so there are lots of clear rivers. There are lots or river rafting and of course you have got the Caribbean coast and the Pacific coast which has just hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches.
David: Right.
Christina: You have thousands of uninhabitable islands along both coasts. And the opportunities for active travel are just phenomenal in Panama. You've got world class surfing, you have rafting, sport fishing, trekking and especially snorkeling and scuba diving. And I wanted to let you know a place called Coiba Island, it's kind of the new place coming out of Panama right now.
David: Coiba Island.
Christina: Yes, Coiba Island. It's on the Pacific Coast, or just off the Pacific Coast. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The interesting thing about this island is that until, I guess it was last year; it used to be a penitentiary, that was kind of Alcatraz style. This is where they sent the most notorious prisoners in all the country. This was abandoned last year. For obvious reasons, people never tended to go to the island so it has pristine conditions. It is so rich in marine life that people typically call it the Galapagos Island of Panama.
David: Is there an actual penitentiary on Coiba Island?
Christina: There used to be one, but now they've moved it somewhere else. I really don't know where they moved it to, but it doesn't exist anymore.
David: They've dismantled the facility and now it's just....
Christina: No, it still exists there but it's not open for tourism yet and there is a bit of talk about doing tours through the old penitentiary.
David: Turning it into like an Alcatraz as well.
Christina: Exactly, but I think the real attraction is diving and snorkeling.
David: That sounds fantastic. How crowded is it?
Christina: It is gloriously free of crowds. You can get dropped off on this uninhabited island and it's kind of like this Robinson Caruso experience, kind of a castaway experience. You can trek along rainforest paths and you won't see anybody except fauna and of course lots and lots of trees. Who knows, after taping a podcast like this, and with our book coming out that may change, but as for now it's just completely empty of crowds.
David: That's always the danger in reporting on destinations that are a little farther afield, you always run the risk of inviting the tourists there. You want people to know about it, but not everyone.
Christina: Exactly, at the same time you don't.
David: Right, exactly. Costa Rica is sort of the crown jewel in tourism for Central America. How does Panama compare to Costa Rica, and what are they doing to compete with it? What do they have that Costa Rica doesn't?
Christina: Well, there's a big difference between the two countries. Panama is unfortunately, they've opened up a lot of mega resorts in Panama and the government is only recently realizing that they should really take the route that Costa Rica is taking and that is sustainable tourism, opening up eco-lodges instead of these mega-resorts.

In terms of the terrain, the flora and fauna that you can see in both countries, it's fairly similar but I think that Panama is more interesting than Costa Rica. It's called the "Crossroads of the World," obviously because of the Panama Canal. You've got so many boats and ships and different nationalities coming through the country. A lot of people have actually stayed there, so you've got this complex ethnic brew of nationalities, of religions.

Unlike Costa Rica, Panama is home to seven living indigenous cultures, many of whom still maintain strong ties to their traditional culture. There's this group that is utterly fascinating. They are called the Kuna Indians, which you may have heard of. They live on the islands that are scattered off the eastern Caribbean coast and they actually live on a semi-autonomous comarca. It's a semi-autonomous reservation for indigenous groups. They basically run their show.

But the neat thing is the Kuna women, they are known for their elaborate beaded jewelry bands; they wear them down their arms and legs, and really bright, colorful clothing. You can't miss them wherever you go. The Embera Indians live in the Darien area. They live in rustic communities and can be visited by dugout canoe. Usually that's the only way you can get to their communities. Over on the Western side, you've got the women of the Noobly Goobly tribe and they wear these long beautiful flowing embroidered dresses. You've got these ethnic groups, they're just fascinating, and you don't find that in Costa Rica.

There are even three groups of African descendents in Panama. The first group came as early as the Spanish conquest and more recently during the building of the Panama Canal.

If you look down on the Southern area you can see a little peninsula and that's where the Spanish descendents have settled, around the 16th century. A lot of their towns still have the same architecture of that era; they still have the same cultural events and traditions that are carried down from that era.

Then you've got Panama City which is of course a melting pot. You've got Chinese, you've got Arabs, you've got Jews, and you've got everybody from all over the world, all in one city.

David: I imagine that's all because of the Panama Canal, just commerce traffic goes through there.
Christina: Right. And there's a lot of economic opportunity happening in Panama City right now as well so you've got a lot of traffic for that reason.
David: For listeners, as you've so lovingly described the Kuna women, we've actually put a fantastic photograph of a Kuna woman on the cover of the Panama guide.
Christina: That's right.
David: And you can see the long beaded bracelets that just run down her arm and the fabric that she's draped around her which is really incredible. The cover is viewable if you go to the bookstore on frommers.com just to get an idea of what you are talking about.

I imagine especially in Panama City, with that melting pot of culture, the opportunity for variety of food must be incredible.

Christina: Oh, it's fantastic, it really is. The cuisine in Panama City is incredible. In Central America when you travel to these small villages you get a lot of the rice and beans sort of thing, but if you're in Panama City or in some of these towns, you'll find restaurants that are a wonderful fusion of different flavors and styles. In fact, it's known that Chinese food, for example, is some of the best Chinese food that you can actually try in all the Americas, with the exception of Lima and San Francisco.
David: It should go without saying that seafood should be fantastic there. Panama has the Caribbean and it has the Pacific, so there is access to all kinds of fresh seafood.
Christina: Yes, the big thing is jumbo shrimp; there is lobster, calamari, and octopus. It's all very, very fresh and very good.
David: Fantastic. Speaking of the coast, do you have a preference Caribbean versus the Pacific?
Christina: Well, I'm from California originally, and now I live in Chile, so I have a soft spot for the Pacific. I don't exactly know why, but I just think that the beaches in the Pacific on Panama are actually white sand, palm trees. They look really similar to the Caribbean coast anyways. It just seems to be fewer people. There's something more sexy and beautiful about the Pacific Coast, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is.
David: What's available for travelers in Panama that they're not going to find anywhere else? You mentioned that there are basically retirement communities. Is that a big deal in Panama now?
Christina: It is. Actually, it's very curious because of two kinds of tourism that are coming out these days. One of them is an oxymoron, of course. It's called residential tourism, and it refers to this huge tidal wave of retirees and expats who are moving down to Panama.

Obviously, cheap land prices -- in the case of retirees, they have tax breaks -- visas are easy to get. You have been seeing lots and lots of Americans and Canadians moving down there, which is an OK thing in some cases and has not been a very good thing in other cases. You see a lot of these gated communities being built. The land prices go up, and they tend to block themselves off from the rest of the culture or the community, which is tough. So residential tourism is this odd term that you see thrown around occasionally. Nobody's really sure what it means.

There's another thing that's happening called health tourism, and this is actually very interesting because in Panama City, medical care and health facilities offer the same quality as US counterparts. In fact, there's a brand new Johns Hopkins Hospital. A lot of people are visiting Panama because they found that to get medical care or to have a procedure done; it costs them only a fraction of the price. You get these people who come down. They get their nose job, or they their gastric bypass surgery, or they get their teeth fixed, or whatever they need. Then they just recuperate poolside or at the beach. That's like a half vacation, half medical procedure, and they've saved thousands of dollars. So that's a very curious but interesting form of tourism that's happening these days.

David: Eastern Europe has also become popular in the past few years for that as well -- like, Hungary's now known for dental care.
Christina: Right. Exactly. I still think it's something a little bit more attractive, though, than recuperating on the beach, though.

[laughter]

David: Right. Exactly. Of course, we're not medical professionals, so we can't give recommendations. You said there's a Johns Hopkins University there?
Christina: A Johns Hopkins Hospital just opened up; I think it was a couple of months ago. There's actually of couple of companies that actually put together an entire tour for a person who wants to come down and do the split-travel, split-medical procedure trip.
David: It's a way for people to take a "vacation" and then come back looking more refreshed than their friends would have expected -- have a little eye lift, or a nose job. [laughter] That's really funny. I saw that there was a feature box in the book that had a comment about this as well. It went something like "Vacation call at ten, a little sightseeing, and a nose job."
Christina: Right.
David: We're just about running out of time here. I had a few questions. Where's the best place if you're coming from the United States to get a flight to get you into Panama City?
Christina: There are frequent flights to Panama City. They leave from most major gateway cities in the United States. Once you're in Panama City, there are two national airlines, which have quite a few flights, actually, all over the country. It's pretty to get in and get yourself over to the Western Caribbean and Boca Santoro, or wherever you may want to go.

It's a tiny country, so distances are very short. It doesn't take very long for you to get from point A to point B. You can actually pack a lot into even a week or two weeks of vacation.

David: Oh, that's great to know. Do you recommend taking shorter internal flights? Or is it easy enough that people can rent a car or hire a driver or take a bus?
Christina: Well, it depends. If you're going out, for example, to an island on the coast, for example, the Cuna Carmaca, which is sometimes called Fermblas, you'll need to take a flight out there, obviously.

In other cases, for example, if you're driving out to Bocete, it's a good full day drive out there. You might find it more attractive to drive and stop along the way, or you might just want to take one of the twenty-, thirty-minute flights to get closer to the city.

It just depends on how much time you have and whether or not you're interested in seeing the countryside. Actually, renting a car is not difficult. It's difficult to drive in Panama City. It's a pretty crazy place to drive, but once you're outside of the city, the Pan American Highway's in great shape. A lot of the side roads are really potholes, rugged, and when it rains, it gets pretty muddy, so I recommend a four x four.

Apart from that, a good map is definitely key. You want to buy a good map before you leave because it's hard to get a good road map in Panama. None of the streets are signed. It's easy to lose yourself. It's difficult to find your way.

David: So it's more like one trip of the Pan American Highway, a good topographical map is probably a good thing to have.
Christina: If you can find one. Unfortunately, a lot of good maps don't exist. For example, as I mentioned earlier, from Panama City to Bocete, you'll be able to find your way actually to places like that, but sometimes you can get a little lost. It's usually easy to find your way back onto the highway.
David: That should be part of the fun of travel, too. Opportunities arise out of those moments when you get lost, hopefully beneficial opportunities. Any health concerns that people should know about when going to Panama?
Christina: No, there aren't any health concerns. Sometimes you hear about that malaria was once a huge scare in Panama, but that's rare. You don't have a problem with the water. You can drink anything, and eat anything. Health concerns are usually not an issue in Panama.
David: Good to know. That's all the time that we have for today. Christina, I really want to thank you for talking to us about Panama. The first edition is just out in the stores. Hopefully, we'll have you back soon to talk a little bit more about the country.
Christina: Sounds good. Thanks for having me.
David: OK. Thanks, Christina.

[music]

Announcer: This podcast is a production of frommers.com. For more information on planning your trip or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the Web at www.frommers.com, and be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions.


Transcription by CastingWords