Like many people who have never visited Panama before, I didn’t know what to expect before arriving in the country for the recent AdventureWeek, and I wasn’t the only one. Prior to their arrival, the 15 tour operators and five media from North America, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, and China who joined me on this discovery trip also didn’t know much about Panama beyond its famous canal. In fact, when I asked the group on the first day of AdventureWeek Panama (27 May-3 June) what they were most interested in learning about and experiencing, the Panama Canal was the most obvious answer, though some also mentioned the world-class coffee reputation the country has acquired in recent years. What none of us expected is what the days ahead would reveal.
For AdventureWeek participants, exploration began in the eastern part of the country with kayaking the Panama Canal. We could not believe we were sharing the same body of water as vessels transporting goods between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Every day, 45 boats pass through this artificial, 51-mile (82-kilometer) waterway. But in addition to seeing the huge ships pass right in front of our kayaks, the Panama Canal had amazing wildlife: We spotted toucans, small alligators, and howler monkeys while paddling through the water.
We went from water to air with a helicopter ride along the Chagres River, one of the Panama Canal’s main water sources. “The flight up the River Chagres was the most thrilling helicopter ride of my life! It was an incredible experience to fly so low through the gorge under the rainforest canopy,” said Tom Sargeant from KE Adventure Travel.
Following this jaw-dropping helicopter ride, we rafted down the river, which combined relaxing class II ripples and adrenaline-inducing class III+ waves. As this particular exceptional experience came to an end, the skies opened up and a heavy rain fell on us, which made the surrounding mountains seem cinematographically epic. With the tropical rain falling, we contemplated this uniquely wild place. I have never felt so close to nature. Judging from the reactions of AdventureWeek attendees, who frequently said one activity or another was the best experience of that sort in which they’d ever participated, I wasn’t alone in my wonder and astonishment.
One of Panama’s most endearing features is that it is filled with adventure activities but also has a dynamic culture. While visiting the eastern side of the country, we spent the night in the old town known as Casco Viejo, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Panama City. All of the colonial buildings are very well preserved, retaining the same facade since the late 1600s, and staying there gave us the feeling of traveling back in time. Nights in Casco Viejo are a special Panamanian experience combining historical and cultural aspects with the more modern, vibrant nightlife of restaurants and rooftop bars.
To experience another part of Panama, AdventureWeek participants spent the second part of the trip on the western side of the country in the Chiriqui region, which required only a short 50-minute flight to reach. This area is known in particular for its coffee production. At Don Pepe Estate, we learned about the coffee production process of the famous Geisha coffee beans and ended the tour with a lovely coffee tasting that warmed us up during a chilly day in the mountains.
In this part of Panama, we also hiked on Baru Volcano, which is part of the mountain range separating Panama from Costa Rica and the tallest peak in Panama at 11,500 feet (3,500 meters). At this amazing vista, travelers can see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As we hiked to the volcano’s crater and then to hidden waterfalls, we once again felt like we’d walked onto an extraordinary film set. “The cloud forest experience was mind-blowing and really gave me an idea of the hidden gems of nature that Panama has in store. It was during that hike that Panama truly became a place I had to show to the rest of our audience because seeing four majestic waterfalls during a quick hike is not something you see in many places,” said Eric Aguirre of Under30Experiences.
In addition to the beautiful landscapes and deep-rooted cultural traditions, our Panamanian hosts and tour companies provided an elevated quality of service. Our tour guides were fluent in several languages including English, were outfitted with new equipment, and had detailed knowledge about every aspect of our activities.
AdventureWeeks organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) are an opportunity for destinations like Panama to showcase what they have to offer to outbound tour operators, specialized travel agents, and international travel media. There is also built-in time during an organized Marketplace for AdventureWeek attendees to meet with local operators and ground suppliers to discuss professional partnerships and story ideas. In the case of Panama, this is often not the first destination that comes to mind when people think about adventure travel in Central America. However, through AdventureWeek experiences and meaningful meetings, participants discovered Panama not only delivers with a wide variety of adventure activities, but it’s also easy to explore the country because it is so small and mobility is simple.
Having explored just a fraction of what Panama has to offer, AdventureWeek attendees eagerly met with 25 Panamanian companies, including tour operators and accommodation representatives, during the Marketplace. “It was great to meet with so many specialized suppliers. It makes it easier to market Panama to clients,” said Hallie Bates of Lost World Adventures. “I made multiple connections that have immense partnership potential in the near future.”
“The attending suppliers were of high quality with a wealth of knowledge, who represented a wide range of activities and services. I found them amazingly savvy in communicating with us, along with their understanding of Western expectations and their readiness to serve this type of clientele. They were well-prepared for every question I had,” said Haybina Hao, an AdventureWeek Panama media attendee. “I’m fully confident that they have the motivation and capabilities to provide services at the level that our operators need.”
Panama’s diverse landscape means it is easy to hike in the mountainous cloud forest in the morning and soak in the sun on the Pacific coast in the afternoon. Near the end of AdventureWeek Panama, participants took to the water once more for a snorkeling excursion through the reef. We stopped at a small, completely deserted island for a small snack and a chance to talk about how Panama is primed and ready to receive adventure travelers. I am certain this is an up-and-coming — and very worthy — Central American destination.
Having received feedback from AdventureWeek attendees, I know I’m not the only one. “I felt Panama. I reached out and touched it, every day. I experienced the people and the culture and the food and the dance and the life — just a piece of it, but still, a piece that I’ll carry with me forever. And that’s not hyperbole,” said media attendee Hannah Lott-Schwartz. “ I didn’t know that there was much to really feel in Panama, as for me, travel is so much more about feeling than seeing different sites, like old castles and all that. I was allowed to press my hand to Panama’s heart and feel it beat — and that’s a story I’m eager to share with my editors and their readers.”