The 11 Most Amazing Sustainable Activities in Panama and How to Enjoy Them
- by Alden Wicker
- Sep 10, 2018
We were almost done packing our suitcases when the deluge started. We peered out of the safari tent flap at the wet jungle and looked at each other. The boat pick-up was scheduled to arrive on the other side of the island in 30 minutes, so we couldn’t wait it out.
I ran to the eco lodge’s main desk and requested a couple of trash bags and brought them back. My husband looked at them and then said, “That isn’t enough!” and stomped back to the desk to get more. We wrapped our suitcases, then an employee loaded them into a wheelbarrow for the 20-minute journey over the gravel road to the dock. Our umbrellas were worthless, we were soon soaked through from running through puddles. As we approached the dock, we saw a small boat there already filled with people, with two seats left at the very front. “Espera! (wait!)” we yelled, grabbing our suitcases and sprinting down the slippery dock. The boat paused a few feet away from the dock, then puttered back, the driver rolling his eyes. We hauled our suitcases onboard with as much elegance and can-do attitude as we could muster, then climbed in the front for a half-hour boat ride with monsoon-style rain stinging our faces and soaking our stuff.
When we got to the dock, my husband tried to figure out our next boat connection, but even in his native Spanish, he struggled to comprehend when exactly the next boat was coming, and whether we would make our van that was supposed to take us to our destination, Playa Venao, on the other side of Panama. I changed in the bathroom into dry clothes and bought us two ponchos. Finally, the next rust bucket arrived, thankfully with a rain cover, and we climbed inside, our luggage stowed at the front. When we got to the next port, we dragged our stuff up onto the dock, my husband fretting over his damp DJ equipment. The van was there. We counted the number of other tourists waiting, then counted the seats in the van. It was overbooked. Everyone climbed in. I was the last person, and the driver unfolded a mini unpadded seat for me, with a seat back that was so short it dug into the middle of my back. This would be my seat for the next nine hours.
Panama Doesn’t Pander to Tourists
This Central American country is a land of shiny high rises that devolve immediately into jungle. It’s expensive, yet – once you leave the capital – underdeveloped. A lot of the roads are bad. The boats are tiny and frighteningly shabby.Panama really only accommodates two types of travelers: adventurous backpackers who are prepared to deal with some serious discomfort, or luxury and business travelers who can shell out for all the best. Click To Tweet
As “in-between” travelers, or middle-class digital nomads, with carry-on suitcases instead of backpacks with rain covers, laptops and other professional equipment, and a normal budget for a young married couple with freelance jobs, we often felt completely out of place. We tried to plan our own travels, but kept being flummoxed. Where were the fairly affordable, fairly comfortable options for us?
(Read my guide to one day in Panama City.)
I consider myself a fairly low-maintenance traveler with realistic expectations for our budget. I want a private room but I’m happy to share a bathroom. I’ll take the bus, as long as it’s safe. I have a suitcase, but it’s carry on-sized and has practical things like a travel clothes-drying line and Teva’s.
And I was shocked by Panama’s gulf between the super basic options, and the options available to a traveler who makes an income of more than $200,000 a year.
You’ll search for options, thinking, “Surely, there must be a way for me to pay $50 more and not have to endure this hellacious journey.” But you won’t find them. At least, not without help.
Update: A commenter below says that in order to find the fairly affordable, fairly comfortable options, you’ll need to book with a Panama travel agency. Check out her suggestions below.
For example: If you can afford to hire a private sailboat for you and your friends to explore the San Blas islands, you will have a relaxing trip gently sailing from island to island with a private chef. If you can’t, then you will endure from one hour to eight hours of getting slapped in the face by ocean water on a tiny motorboat. If you can afford to stay at a high-end resort in Bocas, then you’ll get a proper boat transfer (or even sail in on your mega-yacht) where all your needs are anticipated. If not, you will struggle to figure out the boat transfer system and always feel like you’re on the verge of getting ripped off, stolen from, capsized, or simply left behind on the island. If you can take a helicopter from one beach area to another, wow, I’m jealous. Because the nausea-inducing, seven-to-12-hour van rides over poorly-maintained roads are the only other option to get to some places. (You could also rent a car, but that is expensive as well.)
This dichotomy is also reflected in the type of experiences, food, and accommodations available to you. There are backpacker hostels, and then there are luxury hotels and resorts catering to the jet set. There are really expensive sushi restaurants and steakhouses, and there places serving hot dogs or rice and beans.
But despite all this, I persevered, trying my hardest to find mid-range eco-friendly accommodations, sustainable food, and authentic experiences.
There are little sustainable and authentic gems hidden Panama’s jungles. Here’s what I found:
Visit the Famous Kalu Yala Eco Village
When we were on our way to Panama, a friend of ours linked us up to the founder of a famous eco village in Panama, Jimmy Stice. After the 2008 recession, this idealistic good ol’ Southern boy convinced his dad the real estate developer to let him take land in the jungle two hours from Panama City that had been slated to be developed into a typical high-end vacation village for Americans, and instead experiment on building the, “world’s most sustainable town”: Kalu Yala.
A decade on, and what you’ll find is a summer camp for environmental visionaries. College and graduate students study abroad here in rustic accommodations, convening for classes held by creatives at the top of their field, then test out their crazy sustainability ideas – farming, media, architecture, outdoor recreation, culinary arts, and more – for their semester projects. They also host mini festivals and conferences with socially conscious entrepreneurs.
We spent four days there immersed in the life of the village, hiking and swimming in the local swimming hole, eating fancy farm-to-table hor d’oeuvres and enjoying organic cocktails (interspersed with typical camp food) and having exciting conversations with the professors and students alike. When I got there, I had a feeling of, my people.
When we visited, it was on the invitation of Jimmy. But since then, they’ve opened it up for bookings, and anyone can spend a few days deep in the jungle amongst bright minds who are puzzling through how humanity can live lighter on the earth. Like I mentioned, the accommodations are rustic – a tent with a blow-up mattress. But there are flush toilets, a coffee shop, and a distillery! What else do you really need to survive?
You can book here.
Don’t Miss the Eco-friendly Paradise of the San Blas Islands
If you are a traveler like me who wants an eco-friendly, authentic experience, then you cannot miss the San Blas islands. This archipelago of 365 islands is a world unto its own, a glimpse at what could have been, a parallel universe where white people never exterminated indigenous people, and instead respected their sovereignty, let them keep large tracks of land, and allowed them to continue with their traditional way of life.
It’s a separate state from Panama proper that is independently governed by the indigenous Guna Yala people, fierce Caribbean warriors who staged a revolution in 1925. Their shelter is stick-and-thatch-roof huts perched on tiny white-sand islands. For food, they dive for lobster and other seafood, collect coconuts, and harvest root vegetables. The women wear brightly colored handmade clothing and beaded jewelry. The men sail in wooden dugout canoes from island to island (though motorboats are becoming more popular). It’s a matriarchal society. They’ve fought hard against foreigners who try to build resorts on their land, managing to expel them. But unlike most indigenous people, they will generously host you in their paradise – just on their terms. You pay cash directly to them, and in return get to spend a few days in a place free of wifi, cell phone service, ATMs, and obligations.
That’s what we did. A woman we met at Kalu Yala hooked us up via Whatsapp to a tiny all-inclusive hostel situation on a small island. We were given instructions to take out $540 in cash for the two of us, and a Guna driver picked us and two other tourists up at 5 a.m. from Panama city for the two-hour drive to the coast. You’ll see on outdated websites that this drive used to take much longer/be almost impossible, but the road that takes you there was newly paved last year, thankfully. We passed through a border checkpoint where they checked our passports, and finally pulled up to a tiny, busy port, where small boats came and went ferrying supplies, tourists, and Guna people between the islands and the shore.
I immediately laid eyes on several gorgeous young Guna women wearing sarongs, floral blouses, head kerchiefs, and beaded anklets that covered their legs up to their knees. I had been warned that the Guna people think that photos take a piece of their soul, so you need to ask permission, and they will often demand a dollar or more. Fair enough. I had my dollars ready, but the few women I asked shook their head shyly, so I backed off.
We gave our cash to our driver, but got nervous because he never gave us a receipt, just told us we should look for a boat for us to arrive soon, and wandered off to hang out with some friends for 45 minutes. Thankfully, he was telling the truth about passing our cash payment onto the right people, because the boat finally arrived, the driver wrapped our luggage in a tarp and stowed it in the front, and motored us out into the ocean. The ride was only an hour and it was within the gentler, protected waters of the archipelago, so we only got a little wet this time.
We pulled up to a small wooden dock jutting out from the white sand of a tiny palm-bedecked island that probably measured about 100 meters long. A young, blond Swedish woman, the hostel’s hostess, greeted us at the dock, checked us in inside a tiny shack that served as the hostel desk and dining room, and then showed us to our accommodations: a stick and thatch hut with a sand floor and five cots. The bathrooms and showers were in a concrete structure 25 meters away. There was no electricity during the day, just for a short time starting at dusk until 10 pm, and no wifi or cell phone service. We had no choice for our meals, which were mainly rice, beans, plantains, and fish prepared by the Guna kitchen staff at set meal times. We had to pay extra to buy beers or a snack from the convenience hut down the beach. On the other side of the island was a Guna Yala village of probably 25 people.
We loved it.
I’ve never felt so close to having a true deserted island experience, even though it was very much inhabited. During the day, we snorkeled and looked at pink sea stars, read and napped in the hammocks, or sunbathed. At night we played board games with other tourists, and slept. The Guna villagers never performed for us, or asked us for anything. It was a mutually respectful relationship of largely leaving each other alone, except when we would politely ask to buy a beer or a coconut. (You are asked not to pick up coconuts, because they are all designated for certain villagers.)
One day our Swedish hostess piloted us by boat to some neighboring islands, where Guna women beaded bracelets for sale and sewed the traditional molas – exquisitely quilted squares of fabric that they attach to their blouses – and the men sold us several freshly-caught spiny lobsters. On our way back, we stopped at one other islands for more coconuts, where I finally convinced a woman to let me take the above picture. That night, we devoured our lobsters with gusto.
And that was it! That’s all there is to do. It’s enforced relaxation and introspection, which is getting harder and harder to find.
Get your zero-waste tools ready.
Actually, there was one other sustainable activity we did: picking up trash. One day we nicked a trash bag from the kitchen and started walking down the beach, picking up bottle caps and other plastic trash. When we got to the end of the island, I turned the corner to start in on the village side. We stopped short. Stretching in front of us was a plastic wasteland. Plastic of every size – gasoline jugs, bags, bottles, straws, even polyester clothing – was everywhere. It was piled against a fallen palm trunk and strewn across the sand, mixed in with normal ocean debris and half buried.
It wasn’t from the Guna Yala, even though their convenience hut sells potato chips and other plastic-wrapped items. It was all washing in from the sea. The village side of the island faces out towards the Dominican Republic and Haiti, whose waste washes up in relentless waves. We looked out into the crystal-clear water and saw more plastic creeping through the seaweed like tiny zombies coming to eat the island. We filled our bag and then dejectedly walked back around the to clean tourist side, completely overwhelmed and sad for what the Guna have to deal with on their side of the island, while we tourists frolic on the clean side, unaware.
I suggest if you’re visiting the San Blas islands, you pack light and bring your zero waste kit, and also pack a few trash bags so you can pick up some plastic trash that you will find during your time there.
Getting to the San Blas Islands
There are other ways to get to the San Blas islands. One popular route for long-term backpackers is to take a boat from Cartagena, Colombia. One evening, as we were waiting for our lobsters to be cooked and split in half for us, a pair of bedraggled young women dragged themselves out of a small boat and up into the dining hut, collapsing into the deck chairs. They wilted over the table, lifting their eyes forlornly to tell us their tale. They had taken a small motor boat from Cartagena – two back-to-back days of nine hours slamming into the waves of the open ocean and being slapped with salty water in the face so relentlessly that they couldn’t even pull their granola bars out of their backpacks to eat.
One of them pulled some money out of her pocket and went to get a beer. She came back close to tears – they were Sacagawea dollars she had gotten in Ecuador. “Oh!” I said, peering at them. “I remember these. They released these in the U.S. in like 2005 or something. They were a total flop. I guess they sent them all to Ecuador.” I felt so bad for her – there’s no ATM on the island – I exchanged my dollar bills for her Sacagawea coins and stashed them for our eventual stop in Ecuador.
Other people opt to take a sailboat with bunks, whose stifling interior will protect you from the waves, but also makes everyone on board nauseous. You can also book a flight on a tiny plane from Panama City, but you need to book well in advance, and since you’re going to some islands that will soon be submerged under rising ocean waters, it seems like a cynical choice to make.
We never got the name of our little island, and we planned the whole thing through an acquaintance, so I can’t share her contact information with you. But there’s plenty of information available on the internet for various all-inclusive experiences similar to ours. They’re all about the same, as far as I can tell. Some are over-water huts, some our dorms like ours. Some include snorkeling around a shipwreck. Some have slightly newer boats. But the tour companies are just hooking you up, serving as a liaison between Westerners and the Guna Yala. They don’t run the transportation or accommodations, so don’t be surprised if your boat is late or something goes wrong. It’s just the Guna Yala, who have limited resources, treating you like a friend that they’re hosting on their slice of paradise. That’s part of the price you pay for a unique experience. In essence, you’re just going to have to do as much research as you can, pick a tour group, go in without expectations, and enjoy the ride.
Or at least, enjoy the destination, which isn’t hard to do.
What to Pack for San Blas
- Your passport – they will check it at the border
- Extra dollar bills – they won’t have change for your $20, so stop by a bank before you go to get lots of $1 bills for cold beer and ice.
- A lot of reef-safe sunscreen – there’s hardly any shade.
- A hat
- Towel or sarong
- Beach cover-ups/light clothes for three days – it never gets cold, even at night, and it’s not really an Instagram scene. So pack light!
- 1 pair of sandals
- Non-toxic/biodegradable toiletries
- Solar-powered lamp or headlamp
- Rum and mixers – Nobody gets wasted or really parties, so bring enough for one or two drinks at sunset.
- Dry bag and waterproof case for your camera and cell phone
- Hand sanitizer
- Extra toilet paper – in case they run out
- Bug repellent
- SPF chapstick
- Snacks – On our first day when we arrived at 10 am, they were confused that we expected breakfast. We hadn’t had any and had woken up at 5 am. The snacks available at the convenience hut are all unhealthy and plastic-wrapped.
- Several trash bags for beach clean-up
- A zero waste kit: reusable straw, napkin, and utensils
- Anti-nausea medication if you are coming from or going to Cartagena
- A hand-held fan – if you go on one of the enclosed boats from or to Cartagena
- Small first-aid travel kit
Snorkel and Surf in Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro, another area of islands, is the party town of Panama. It also has some of the most beautiful snorkeling and excellent waves to be had. There are still some indigenous people living in the area, but these islands are more developed and westernized. The main focus is eco-tourism, surfing, snorkeling, and drinking. The crowd skews young.
We flew in from Panama City and got a taxi to the dock of the main island. The light was failing fast when we found a boat to take us to our destination, Isla Bastimentos. The driver was adamant that we all – us and another couple – had to put on life vests, which we thought was a rather odd adherence to the rules for a Latin American country. We drove away from the music and lights of the hostels on Isla Colon and into quiet nature, with soft waves breaking on jungle beaches all around us. Our boat dropped off the other couple at a gorgeous over-water cabana after a half hour wasted trying to figure out where exactly they were supposed to go, then we took off into the night. Fifteen minutes later, the driver slowed and halted the boat, while a wave passed in front of us, then carefully restarted it and went forward.
We found out later that it had been raining so heavily and so long, that the tides had become high and rough, and a boat had capsized the week before. A family of five drowned. Hence the insistence on life jackets.
We reached our destination, a dock servicing the luxury Red Frog Beach Resort. But we were staying at Selina, a digital nomad/backpacker hostel where my husband was DJing, so we pulled out our headlamps and walked up the gravel road.
Red Frog Beach is a fascinating but slippery story. A surfer who had fallen in love with the area convinced some buddies to go in with him on purchasing a large portion of Isla Bastimentos, much of which had been deforested by cattle ranching, with the goal of turning it into a real estate resort community. That is, receiving down payments from investors on the construction of large vacation homes and a golf course. They named it Red Frog Beach, after the native red frog that lives there. It was all going along swimmingly until the 2008 Recession hit, and the project ran into trouble with the local government, who was either trying to extract bribes or demanding the resort come up with more sustainable plans (or both) depending on who you ask.
With the project close to failing, a group of investors took it over and the scope of the resort was downsized to focus more on nature. Almost 70% of the island property was set aside as a nature preserve, a state-of-the-art waste treatment plant was installed that purifies the sewage on five levels, a large solar array was also installed, the land was reforested, and an organic jungle spa was constructed. I wouldn’t call this an eco resort exactly. The solar array, as large as it is, can’t fully handle the air conditioning units and pool pumps for these large homes, so a generator has to pick up the slack. And it does have a clubby vibe, even if there isn’t a golf course, with a yachting facility with mega-yacht berths on one side. So, that is the ultra luxury option for you.
But we stumbled on another more humble eco resort on the other side of the island, called Palmar. This off-the-grid lodge and hostel has a nice little beachside restaurant, a yoga shelter, safari tents tucked into the jungle, shared bathrooms and semi-outdoor showers that are fed with purified rainwater, and is fully powered by a solar array. We did yoga, hung out at the beach in between the rain showers, and then sat by the fire and drank beers with the owner and other tourists in the evening. We couldn’t have asked for anything nicer!
I’m sorry to say that it continued to rain for the four days we were there, and we didn’t get to experience really any of the Bocas magic or even island hop, which is recommended. But the eco activities are easy to find – all hostels and hotels provide the same short menu of activities: snorkeling, surf lessons, visiting a bat cave, hiking, spending the day on a deserted island, taking a tour of an indigenous-owned chocolate farm, and zip lining. Also, see if you can get yourself a plate of shrimp that are locally caught by the indigenous people in Bocas.
Surfing and Dancing at Playa Venao
From Bocas, we took a van across the country to Playa Venao (the harrowing journey described in the intro). For the last two hours, we crept along slowly, painfully bouncing through the the potholed road. This is why people take helicopters from Panama City if they can afford it.
Playa Venao, a peaceful and remote beach, is famous for its surfing, though not really for its natural beauty. It’s basically a mini Israel, with several Israeli-owned resorts ranging from luxurious (El Sitio) to hostel (Selina again). There’s even an Israeli restaurant. My husband was DJing at El Sitio, so that is where we stayed. They have an Ibiza vibe, with a large beachfront dance floor and a stylish clientele of international surfers. It was quite comfortable, with air conditioning and a pool. But there is also a luxurious eco-resort Eco Venao, which comes highly recommended.
More notably, arguably the best farm-to-table restaurant in Panama is located here, the New York Times-reviewed Panga Restaurant. The cuisine is hyper local: foraged berries and fruits, the fish that local fisherman normally throw back, and produce from the garden situated right next to the open-air restaurant. The afternoon we went, it was almost empty. We sipped cocktails out of papaya-stem straws. It was hands-down our favorite meal in Panama.
We also took a jungle hike on a trail that starts at Eco Venao and had an up-close encounter with a large family of howler monkeys napping next to the trail, swam in the ocean, and enjoyed a cocktail at a boat-shaped bar on the beach, which serves its drinks without straws in mason jars. It’s ridiculous that we never went surfing, because that is what Playa Venao is for. But that was a calculated choice – we knew we would get another chance in Nicaragua, where we were going next.
All the Eco-Friendly Things in Panama
So, there you have it: all the little eco-friendly corners of Panama. If you’re coming from Costa Rica, you might feel a little bit let down with how un-eco-friendly and un-spiritual Panama is. But if you look at it another way, it’s actually pretty darn authentic, once you leave Panama City. Because it’s either very challenging, or very expensive, it’s not Disney-fied at all, over-touristed, or crawling with fashion influencers. It’s just Panamanians doing their thing and challenging you as a traveler: either pay up, or get in and shut up. The reward is empty beaches and beautiful, peaceful moments.
And isn’t that what you’ve been looking for?