May 22, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Looking for a truly remote, off-the-grid adventure? Try Panama.

5 min read

Panama is an adventure traveler’s playground, with rainforest hikes set to the soundtrack of howler monkeys and conservationist-led beach jaunts to watch sea turtles nest at night. Despite such natural draws, the country’s tourism has long centered on its famed canal and buzzing capital. However, a new community-based tourism initiative could change that.

Now, travelers can go deeper into Panama’s nature and culture with the people who know it best: Indigenous and rural communities via the SOSTUR network. The recently launched digital portal lets visitors book sustainable adventures in regions largely untouched by tourism.

Locals (chefs, artisans, conservationists) show globetrotters the country’s less-trodden side, from jungle treks and wildlife sightings to traditional cooking and art classes. Given the remoteness, visitors typically stay in village accommodations, such as guesthouses or cabins.

In turn, communities receive important tourism income that supports Panama’s rich flora and fauna. Here’s how to experience it.

A push for sustainable tourism

On paper, Panama ticks all the ecotourism boxes. The small country—roughly the size of South Carolina—lies in one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Its ribbon of Edenic rainforests, mountains, mangroves, and wetlands links North and South America, with over 1,400 palm-strewn islands sprinkled along its Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Animals such as sloths, monkeys, macaws, and sea turtles are among the country’s hundreds of species.

(There’s a new way to tour the Amazon rainforest—by crane.)

Indigenous peoples—around 14 percent of the population—live in and around these natural hotspots, such as national park buffer zones and forests. They safeguard much of the country’s biodiversity.

Even with myriad natural attractions, Panama has never cemented itself on the ecotourism map. “It’s complicated to analyze how Costa Rica has a huge, multibillion dollar tourism industry [built] on nature and culture, yet next door, a country that arguably has as much biodiversity and cultural diversity, struggles to attract travelers for these things,” says Jamie Sweeting, president of Planeterra, an NGO that supports community-tourism enterprises.

A woman in a pink dress holds a cocoa in her hand with a soft smile.

Isabel Sanchez, co-leader of the United Women Organization of Bonyic, leads a cacao workshop at the women-owned Posada Media Luna hotel.

Photograph By Stephanie Vermillion

Lush green trees surround the Inn.

The United Women Organization of Bonyic used grants to construct Posada Media Luna, a female-run inn, in 2010.

Photograph By Stephanie Vermillion

SOSTUR is a first step to building Panama’s ecotourism momentum. The program’s website includes a roster of vetted and bookable tour operators that coordinate the logistics of reaching and partaking in community-based experiences across the network’s 10 pilot destinations. The network is part of the Panamanian government’s five-year, $301 million Sustainable Tourism Development Master Plan, which runs through 2025.

The strategy’s main goal is to grow visitor numbers in a way that prioritizes people and nature. “Community tourism is a link to conservation,” says Annie Young, president of SOSTUR and the Panamanian Foundation for Sustainable Tourism. “When a community realizes their natural and cultural heritage is their asset, they know they need to support it.”

Top community-led Panama adventures

Raft, hike, and harvest cacao in a tropical forest

The Naso people have long inhabited northwest Panama’s peaks and rainforests, including present-day La Amistad International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that straddles the border of Costa Rica and Panama. Eleven Naso communities reside along the Teribe River and its tributaries; five of them have joined forces as part of the Naso Trail.

Trees fill the landscape as light cascades into the forest.

La Amistad International Park, which spills over Costa Rica’s southern border into Panama, is one of the largest nature reserves in Central America.

Photograph By Oyvind Martinsen, The Chiriqui Landscape Collection/ Alamy

Travelers use 4×4, canoe, or traditional balsa raft (tethered sticks) to bounce from village to village for jungle hikes through La Amistad Park; lunch and handicraft shopping with local female artisans; and traditional cacao harvesting and cooking classes.

The local accommodation, Posada Media Luna, lies in the village of Bonyic. The United Women Organization of Bonyic (OMUB) used grants to construct the female-run inn in 2010. Revenue generated from guest stays helps Naso women advance their formal education. “Tourism is fundamental in our community,” says Isabel Sanchez, co-leader of OMUB. “It brings income to our organization and group.”

Man cuts wood, carving raft.

A Naso man builds a traditional balsa raft for tourists to float down the Teribe River.

Photograph By Stephanie Vermillion

Watch throngs of nesting turtles

Join a real-life conservation success story in Isla Cañas, a rural community on the country’s Pacific coast. Its secluded shoreline is one of 11 places in the world to see the “arribada”—the arrival of hundreds to thousands of nesting Kemp’s ridley and olive ridley turtles. The reptiles arrive once a month from July to November, says Isla Cañas conservationist and guide Daniel Pérez. Travelers admire the twilight phenomenon while learning about local sustainability initiatives.

(Here’s how turtle-watching tours actually help conservation.)

“The community understands that the protection and conservation of the turtles is what brings more tourism,” says Pérez. The same goes for mangroves, which face threats like coastal development, nutrient runoff, and illegal coal harvesting.

In 2021, the community launched the Mangrove Route, a maze through scraggly trees and shrubs that welcomes kayakers, boaters, and birdwatchers. The path includes seven education stations where travelers can learn about the vital species. The country’s over 400,000 acres of mangrove forests hold 52 million tons of carbon. It’s what helped Panama become one of the few carbon negative countries in the world.

Take a pygmy sloth safari, then try Indigenous crafting

Rio Caña, a community in the Ngäbe-Buglé Indigenous comarca (territory), is one of SOSTUR’s most remote stops. It lies near the powder-blue Caribbean Sea and features direct access to Escudo de Veraguas—a paradisiacal island inhabited by the endemic pygmy three-toed sloth. In addition to sloth safaris, day trips to the island ( which is part of the comarca) include beachcombing and snorkeling over vibrant coral reefs.

A sloth tightly clutches the tree.

A critically endangered pygmy three-toed sloth clutches a tree on the island of Escudo de Veragua, off the Caribbean coast of Panama.

Photograph By Stephanie Vermillion

Back in Rio Caña, the local women host various cultural experiences. Craft workshops spotlight the hand-woven chacara bags made from plant fibers. Cooking classes feature traditional fare, including salad from the leafy dachín, a staple vegetable of the region. Guests stay in rustic bohíos (thatch-roofed cabins) beside the community school.

(Here’s how travelers can help protect frogs in Costa Rica.)

Once dusk descends, visitors hit the protected Chiriquí Beach with the grassroots Ngäbe-Buglé-led turtle conservation group, an organization backed by the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Travelers watch as seasoned and young scientists monitor hatchlings or nesting turtles, including the colossal leatherbacks. Conservationists believe Chiriquí is one of the most critical leatherback nesting sites in Central America and the world.

Stephanie Vermillion is a travel and outdoors journalist, filmmaker, and photographer. Follow her adventures on X and Instagram.


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