Many people are aware of the incredible growth in tourism, especially ecotourism the Costa Rica enjoyed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Although tourism is actually declining in Costa Rica (a 15% decrease in each of the last two years) (1) their earlier success brought about a heightened awareness of Central America to North Americans and Europeans. Even with the decline in tourism, investment in Costa Rica continues to increase, a healthy sign for all of Central America. While Panama’s beauty and value are still a secret, the secret does seem to be getting out. The number of tourists visiting Panama in 1996 increased by 21% to approximately 400,000(2). There are several reasons why I believe this trend will continue:
- This archipelago on Panama’s northwest Caribbean coast was discovered by Columbus on his fourth and final voyage to the new world. The area has witnessed a wealth of history from old world pirates to turn of the century robber barons.
- Prior to the opening of the Panama canal, the island of Bocas del Toro (technically Isla Colon) was the center of commerce for Central America and still reflects the colonial influence resulting from worldwide activity in the once booming banana, coconut and cocoa business.
- Laguna Chiriqui and Bahia Almirante, the principal waters defined by the archipelago to the north, the Peninsula Valiente to the east and the mainland to the south and west contain a micro-ecology consisting of jungle islands, hundreds of mangrove keys, white sand beaches, virgin coral reefs and pristine waters against a dramatic backdrop of the 10,000 foot peaks of the Cordillera.
- This region, considered the most geographically diverse in the Caribbean, is abound with potential eco-tourism attractions, jungle tours, river tours, island tours, bird watching, beach combing and it is home to at least two tribes of indigenous Indians. Opportunities also exist for the more traditional recreational activities including camping, hiking/trekking, sport fishing, diving, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, whitewater rafting and boating.
- Once the domain of the research biologist or the exceptionally adventurous traveler the area has become easily accessible due to a modern airport featuring a 4,000 + foot paved strip and inexpensive daily service from the international hubs of Panama City and San Jose, Costa Rica.
- The town of Bocas del Toro, population 3,500, is the only “wooden town” in Panama, the only town constructed almost exclusively of lumber. The predominant architectural style is Caribbean colonial, a Victorian style that reminds many of the Key West ambiance. It boasts paves streets, treated water and sewer systems, electricity, telephones, cable TV, a hospital and ambulance service and a fire department.