If you check in with my blog occasionally, you know that I just spent last week on our Panama Family Journey with a total of four families (8 adults and 8 kids, ages 8 to 18). We were joined by our two exceptional local guides, Beny and Christian, who made all of the rain- and cloud-forest hikes, kayaking, zip lining, mountain biking, snorkeling and cultural explorations go seamlessly.

Two things they didn’t plan really provided an opportunity for me to share why Panama is so worth seeing…now. You see, it’s an incredibly authentic place, even in a world that is so touristed that many once-great places have become homogenized. Panama is one of those destinations that’s still authentic.

Ok, some details…

Take the Boquette Women’s Garden Club as an example. It’s a group of ladies that meets every month in the dining room of our little country inn. (Good choice by them, as Condé Nast Traveller has rated it as the #1 restaurant in Latin America.)

This past week, we returned from a day of hiking through a stunningly scenic cloud forest, past indigenous Indian families and waterfalls, and visiting a coffee plantation, to see that the garden at the hotel had been set up with four tables of 10 for the ladies. What caught my attention was that they were all wearing beautiful hats that reminded me of opening day at our famed Del Mar race track. When I paused to ask why they were dressed so beautifully, they informed me it was hat day for the garden club. Then they went on to ask about our day, how we were enjoying their town, and even asked me to retake the photo because one of the ladies blinked on the first picture.

Boquette Women's Garden Club

The next day, I was returning from a walk along a scenic valley having just seen several Resplendent Quetzals and a jaw-dropping waterfall. We were met along the footpath by a little boy and his three sisters, all native Nove Indians, whose parents work in the coffee plantations nearby. They were dressed in traditional colorful clothes. We immediately began speaking to them through our guides. Perhaps since they are not accustomed to Americans coming through on this footpath, they speak no English. (In fact, they didn’t speak Spanish either; instead they spoke Nove, which our guides are able to speak as well.) They willingly allowed us to take their photo, and were thrilled when we showed them their images on the digital camera. I’m sure you’ve been in this situation before and the friendly locals ask you for money, in English. Our encounter was a little different. They thanked us for taking the photo, and only then, sort of sheepishly, did they ask if we had any candy with us. One of us had mints, and shared them with the kids. Their faces lit up.

The next day, I was walking along the main street of the village with my oldest son, Jack, when he told me that what he liked best about Panama was that the villages we visited had “real shops and restaurants, not just Bennetton and McDonalds”. We stopped and I took a look around the village. He was right. There were many more locals than tourists, real people going to the market, and kids in their white and blue school uniforms walking home from Pius XII primary school. The following day, we were on a drive down to the coastal lowlands. We passed incredibly scenic stretches of valleys with very little development, just cows grazing or cashew plantations. As Christian and I talked about Panama’s rich cultural history (the native Indians arrived here 1,000 years ago, probably from South America) and its abundant natural resources like the watersheds that feed the Panama Canal, I asked him if it in ten years it will be as sweet and genuine as it is now. “We hope so”, he said. “But there are plans underway for 10 hydroelectric dams to be built over the next decade, and that is going to change some of the river valleys, as well as some of the villages, towns and cities.”

Panama countryside

I’m not a doomsayer, preferring to enjoy every place I go for what it has to offer in that moment. I know that some things I am seeing are better or worse than what they were 25 years ago or 25 years from now. But if I had my choice, I’d see Panama now, and enjoy it in this special moment in time. When local people have the time and interest to ask about your day, local kids invite your kids to play soccer with them on their pitch, and you can look down a pristine valley for miles and only hear the sound of an occasional howler monkey or keel billed toucan.

If you’d like more information about our Cultural Walking Adventure or Family Journey in Panama, or any one of our 67 other destinations around the world where we have found memorable ways to immerse you into the history and culture of the regions we visit, drop me a line at blog@classicjourneys.com.