During a visit to Costa Rica last week, I found myself mentally comparing tourism in Costa Rica to that of Panama. The following chart depicts my observations and are in no way based on research; information in the chart is based on my personal experiences in these countries.
|Panama is more expensive than I thought it would be. Prices are comparable to living in Boston or Washington, D.C. Products that are imported from the U.S. such as cereal or crackers are priced much higher than they are in the U.S. Bus prices are cheap. It’s possible to get a good deal if you look hard enough.
|Food in Costa Rica was even more expensive than Panama. A milkshake and salad from a U.S. chain cost over $20. Even outside of the capital city, food was much expensive than I thought it would be. Souvenirs were a steal at the local craft market. Handmade wooden cutting boards, boxes and other things were less than $20.
|Taxis are readily accessible and moderately priced. They charge you whatever they want and do not have meters. The cheapest and best way to get a “cultural experience” is to ride a Diablo Rojo (old school buses from the U.S. that were no longer safe to transport children). The bus network is extensive and you can take a bus basically anywhere you want to go. The Diablos are slowly being replaced with the new, nicer Metro bus system. A subway system is set to open in the next few years.
|Taxi prices were very inconsistent. Taxis that were allowed to wait outside of the hotels were double the price of the ones that used meters. I had no experience with the bus system but from what I have heard from others: the buses are less updated than Panama’s Metro buses/nicer buses. The bus network is also larger in Panama. There is limited train service to get around the capital city and the country.
|Panama really offers something for everyone. They have activities that would be attractive to an adventure-seeking tourist like hiking, surfing, white water rafting, zip lining, and biking. There are also many cultural excursions available to places like the Embera Village and the San Blas Islands. The capital city and Portabella have historic ruins for those interested in history. Panama also has hundreds of different species of animals available for tourists to view; but they do not focus on their wildlife offerings as much.
|Costa Rica really has similar product offerings. They have the same activities available to an adventure traveler. Since Costa Rica is far more developed in terms of tourism, in some parts of the country, there are too many of the same products available. Both countries also have beautiful beaches and mountainous regions. Costa Rica does a very good job of protecting its land and natural habitats and therefore they have wide diversity of butterflies, reptiles, birds, plants and mammals.
|Service in restaurants in Panama is bad. This is not only true in the capital city, but in most restaurants I have eaten in. On the organized trips that I have taken part in, drivers are always friendly and on time, and the trips have been very well organized. Hotel employees (for the most part) were friendly and accommodating. Panama is just starting to put a real emphasis on attracting tourists. As tourism continues to grow, service will improve.
|Service in Costa Rica far surpasses that of Panama. I believe that this is due to the fact that Costa Ricans really rely on tourism as a huge economic generator for their economy. Everyone I met was very helpful and accommodating. The restaurants had great, fast service. The drivers were very friendly and had comment books for feedback. Everyone at the hotels was also very nice and welcoming.
|The food in Panama is very good. I can basically get anything that I would ever want to eat here. My new favorite food is Patacones which are fried plantains. Typical food is rice, beans, and meat.
|Costa Rica’s typical food is called casado. This technically means married in Spanish. This includes rice, beans, plantains and the choice of chicken, beef, pork or fish. Every type of food I could have wanted was available there too.
|Recycling & Trash
|It is hard to recycle in Panama. There are recycling bins on the Cinta Costera boardwalk near our house, but they do not seem to be used correctly. In order to recycle, we bring our items to the local grocery store. Hotels do have recycling bins. There is trash all of over the city. I have seen many people simply throw their trash out the window.
|Compared to Panama, it is very easy to recycle in Costa Rica. There are recycling bins everywhere. All of the hotels I stayed in had bins. Costa Rica is very clean. The importance of the environment is taught to children at a young age and they really take ownership in keeping their country clean.
|In the capital city, you can find someone who speaks English. It is not nearly as widespread as Costa Rica. Most people in the tourism industry know some words, but are not fluent. As tourism continues to grow, along with service training, it is my belief that English training will become more prevalent.
|The majority of people I met in Costa Rica spoke English. The guides spoke impeccable English. Even the cab drivers were trying to learn and were happy to practice during the ride. I believe that Costa Rican Spanish was easier to understand than Panamanian.
|Panama is just starting to really promote tourism. From a U.S. perspective, people think that there is a huge difference between traveling to Panama and to Costa Rica. As infrastructure continues to be built and Panamanians are educated in the service industry, I believe that Panama could become one of the best destinations in the next 10 years. The country has already had a huge increase in terms of international arrivals in the first two months of 2012 when compared to 2011.
|Costa Rica has put an emphasis on promoting to the United States because the U.S. and Canada are where the majority of their travelers come from. Commercials can be seen on television on the states. Therefore, when the economy of the U.S. was bad, Costa Rica was hit very extremely hard as well. It is a country that most people from the U.S. think of as safe, and a great destination to visit.
|Traffic is Panama City is awful. It is just about as bad as Washington, D.C. Despite the good network of buses, there are still too many cars on the road. Hopefully, when the subway is opened, people will be encouraged to take public transportation.
|Traffic also backs up for miles in San Jose. When we were trying to leave the city at 8:30 in the morning, the traffic was completely stopped.
|Impression of Capital City
|Panama City is one of the parts of the country that is growing the fastest. When I look out my window, to the right I can see Casco Viejo, the old city, and to the left I can see all of the new high rise office buildings. As far as tourist product, there really is not too much to do here other than go to the canal, walk around Casco Viejo and visit a few museums.
|San Jose also struggles to provide great activities to tourists. There are a few museums, and a great handicraft market, but this will not keep visitors occupied for more than a few days. I did not spend much time here, but the downtown did have a lot of beautiful old buildings. There were also many local shops.
|Despite the protests last week, overall, I feel very safe here. There are definitely parts of the country that I would not feel safe traveling to, but overall it is a safe country. Armed guards stand guard outside all banks, and on the corners of many streets.
|Costa Rica is also a very safe country. Due to the fact that there are no armed forces, hardly any people carry around guns. There are also armed guards outside all banks, and major buildings.
|The weather is Panama is the same 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit year round. It is a little cooler in the mountains than by the beach. There is a rainy season and a dry season.
|Surprisingly, it was considerably cooler in San Jose by 10 or so degrees. Nights were a lot cooler and in the mountains. The country also has a rainy and dry season. Similar to Panama, it can rain all day one day, or rain part of the day, or be sunny all day. Always be prepared with an umbrella!
Despite Costa Rica and Panama having similar historical and natural attractions, their economies are made up of different industries. Costa Rica’s economy relies on the exporting of fruits like bananas. Panama relies on the economy and banking sectors. Both countries are trying to attract similar types of travelers.
I was very impressed with the way Costa Rica has developed tourism. The country has implemented a few policies that were of particular interest to me. By 2020, they aim to be a carbon neutral country. In many of the vans we took for transport between destinations, there was a sign in the back window that said the trip was 100% carbon offset. It is also illegal to cut down trees. If someone wants to cut one down, the person needs to obtain special permission.