This article was written by Hugo Slimbrouck, our Director of Strategic Partners.
It is a common belief that the Panama Canal connects west with east but reality shows that it connects the Caribbean Sea in the North with the Pacific Ocean in the south. It’s only when you focus on it that you see that the country of Panama is a long stretch that goes from Costa Rica in the west to Colombia in the east. Although the canal was only completed in the 20iest century, Panama has been an important dot on the global map since the 16th century. Its strategic commercial location.
Panama la Vieja and the Casco Antiguo, the old town of Panama City has seen it all: earthquakes, fires, pirate invasions and even the plague. But like a phoenix, it always rose back from the ashes. Most recently, Panama has grown as an important hub in the financial world connecting Latin America with the North and the rest of the world. The historic old town is still the place to be after hours for exquisite fusion cuisine and dancing the night away at one of its many clubs. During daylight hours it is the place to connect back with the glorious past, visit the vaults and old churches and the canal museum.
The industrial revolution and intercontinental trade called for the construction of the Panama Canal. After the French had given it the first try, the project was taken over by the USA who concluded the titanic work in 1914. The locks are impressive, not just from a technological and mechanical way. The newest set of locks, which now allow for even bigger ships to pass than the traditional Panamacs, were created in the past decade used a lot of Belgian know-how in terms of dredging.
The cultural diversity of the country and its tropical climate make the city of Panama a surprise to the thousands of visitors who find much more than shopping centres and majestic skyscrapers. In addition to hosting a major financial centre for the Americas and the world. One can easily get lost in a tropical universe that portraits an exquisite type of chaos offered by the local folklore.
On this trip, I combined the city of Panama with the western province of Chiriqui, most known for its volcanoes, its agricultural richness and diversity. But also, its pristine beaches and sea live be it on the Caribbean side (Bocas del Toro) or the Pacific Ocean Site (Boca Chico). Panama is a paradise for beach and island lovers with plenty of choice in the area.
There are plenty of flights from North America and Europe into Tocumen International Airport. With Copa Airlines, a Star Alliance member one can easily fan out in the entire Central and Southern Americas as well if you want to combine two destinations. After my early evening arrival, I was whisked to the JW Marriott Hotel. Here a long-time industry friend and former minister of tourism, Liriola Pitti, now in charge of Promtur Panama was waiting for me for dinner. Seafood tastes great after a long journey and shared in good company!
Under the volcano
A short half-hour domestic flight took my host Lorena Correal of Promtur Panama and me from the capital to the city of David where we were met with our driver for the next two days. On we went on a discovery of some unique venues and hotels, ideal for small and luxury incentive groups. First stop was Boca Chico where we boarded a small boat that took us to the Isla Palenque resort. A small luxury hotel, consisting of individual beach villas overlooking a pristine white sandy beach where we had lunch.
After lunch, we drove up the volcano to higher ground. Chiriqui is a very rich province in terms of agricultural production and is also known for its stud farms, one of which is the Harras Cerro Punta where a unique horse show entertains incentive group guests. The area is famous as well for its strawberries and an afternoon ‘Strawberry and Cream’ is not exclusive to Wimbledon as I was able to experience. After this, we continued to the beautiful city of Boquete where we stayed and had dinner at the historic Panamonte Hotel.
As this was not my only trip last year on higher volcanic ground, I knew what was coming: coffee plantations! But what a unique experience it was to be taken around the grounds and the plantation of the Elida Estate. It is one of the only coffee estates in the middle of a natural reserve where the coffee plants were carefully planted in the half-shade of the forest trees. Today the third generation is taking over this unique enterprise. With the dedication to excellence, it is not surprising that their unique Geisha coffee is now the most expensive coffee in the world.
After visiting the hanging bridges and zip lines we drove back to Boquete for lunch at a new but unique restaurant serving only local produce, but with an Italian touch. Both food and service were top because the place is run by one of Panama’s most interesting catering families.
Due to technical error, our flight back to Panama was cancelled that evening so we took to a five-hour road trip back into the capital. The roads are in a very good state and there were many stops for a coffee or snack. With my personal DJ next to me, we had a lot of fun as well.
Back in Panama, our Ovation Strategic Partner Ana Royo and her staff of Experience Panama and Promtur’s Isabella Zebede took over to give me a full immersion of what Panama City, the Canal Zone and the Gamboa tropical forest have to offer. First stop was at the Gamboa Rainforest where we switched from the van to a small boat on Atun lake to visit the Embera Indigenous Village. On our way there I learned a lot about the ‘making of’ the Panama Canal and how with locks, local rainforest rivers a lake and clever engineering one can now elevate ships from sea level to + 450 meters and down again on the other side. The many islands in lake Atun have lots of wildlife; one is even called Monkey Island because of its abundance of Capuchin and Howling monkeys.
In the Embera indigenous village we were welcomed by the local tribe and my dancing skills were challenged (again) by the women in the group. Lunch consisted of fresh fish, called in the lake together with fresh vegetables, fish and fruits collected and prepared by the tribe and very tasty indeed. No plates or forks needed, nature provides wonderful leaves and plants that do the work as well. I was also offered an indigenous tattoo, but I passed on that one. After this we went tracking with the tribe through ancient paths, created by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th and 17th century which they used for their gold trade.
When one says rainforest, it means animals and trees so a visit to the Rainforest Discovery Centre seemed to be a great idea. It delivered more than I had hoped for because our guide taught us so much about this natural habitat. We saw loads of birds Toucans and Quetzals as well as several types of Colibri’s whilst being closely watched by sloths hanging in trees. Ecological luxury is a much more unique and better experience than shopping in Panamanian malls!
After an eventful and tiring day, dinner was served in Gaucho’s, Liriola’s and Ana’s favourite steakhouse in downtown Panama. I could go back at any time!
The next morning, I was told to dress more sportive, get some extra clothing as well because things could get wet. Indeed, the notion of rain forest includes a word that is very wet indeed. But rain forests have rivers as well, so we set out for a true rainforest experience but this time not on foot by canoeing on the San Lorenzo River. It was a great experience and again, we experienced a lot of wildlife on the shores of the river that was used by the Spanish to transport their gold to the Caribbean side. There we ended up at the San Lorenzo Fortress, a unique world heritage building which is a great location for a group picnic. Our journey had taken us to the Caribbean side of Panama. I returned into Panama City by the Panama Canal Railroad. A unique steam train journey that is probably the best way to discover the Panama Canal and Lake Atun that only takes an hour.
The last day of my discovery trip started really early, at five o’clock in the morning, where we were picked up from the jetty at the JW Marriott hotel (formerly known as Trump Tower) to be taken to a set of islands known as Las Perlas by high-speed ferry. The islands are dotted with small luxury beach resorts competing with each other to offer the best of the best. One island has even a huge beach club for corporate entertainment but also for the local community in holidays season. Isla Contadora, Isla Saboga and Isla Veveros (the beach club island) were the 3 islands we discovered on this excursion. We had left Panama with sunrise and sailed back into town under a beautiful sunset.
For dinner, we went back to the Casco Viejo where two years ago we had celebrated the SITE International Conference farewell dinner. Now the area was extremely festive with the Christmas decorations up. It’s fun to be on a rooftop venue, with warm weather and surrounded by Father Christmas and reindeer.
The last day in Panama was for me to give back to the meetings industry community and so I conducted a masterclass hosted by Promtur and attended by all the main players from the hoteliers, tourism and DMC community. It’s always nice to have a full house when you go and speak around the globe 😉. Before conducting the seminar, I had been given the privilege to visit the new Amador Convention and Exhibition Centre that will open in early 2020. This new centre will definitely be a gamechanger that will attract major international associations and institutions to hold their conferences and exhibitions in Central America.
On the way back to the airport we stopped for lunch at Santa Maria (explain venue), a fantastic conference and events venue and hotel midway between the airport and the city of Panama. It was choc-a-block with corporate meetings, events and team buildings.
A special thanks go to Liriola Pitti for hosting me once again in Panama, thirteen years after my first visit. It’s a destination that continues to innovate. With Promtur they help to promote and educate the meetings industry community up to a level that they cannot be denied anymore as a global hub for conferences, events and incentive programmes. The other person I want to thank is Ana Royo of Experience Panama, a strong Ovation partner that holds top service and delivery high in her beliefs. Ana, Liriola and their respective teams know everyone in Panama and will deliver beyond expectation.
Find out more about what Panama can offer here