By now, most sun worshipers are familiar with names like Cabo San Lucas (Mexico), Manuel Antonio (Costa Rica), Puerta Plata (D.R.) and Negril (Jamaica), but if you rattle off “Azuero Peninsula” at a cocktail party, you’re likely to be met with wide eyed stares.
Panama is well known for it’s Canal, 80’s relic Manuel Noriega, and a bevy of big league baseball players. Until now, tourism hasn’t exactly been its strong suit, nor did the country seem to care.
When I first came to Panama over six years ago, I was surprised by how little tourism development existed outside the impressive capital city. Once crossing over the lovely Bridge of the Americas and into what is referred to as Panama’s “interior”, despite a lot of lovely locations rife with potential, there just wasn’t a whole lot to see or do.
Flash forward to 2008. Much has changed in Panama since my first visit. Once a country rarely mentioned in tourism or investment circles, Panama is now a hot spot for retirees, land bankers, surfers and other “early adopters”. The $5 billion dollar Canal expansion project has brought with it a massive wave of investment: city condos are going up at breakneck speed, commercial and industrial projects are all booming. Where there was once a blank canvas of off-white sandy coast, Panama’s Central Pacific area (Farallon, Santa Clara) is now dotted with cranes and billboards that portend numerous high rise beach condos.
Despite a massive amount of progress in recent years, the tourism industry really has not advanced much. And for those of us in the “sustainable tourism” camp, the growth hasn’t exactly been the type we’d hoped for. There is however, one section of the country that just might prove to be Panama’s saving grace: the Azuero Peninsula.
Azuero Peninsula Panama
The Azuero is the Southernmost section of Panama’s Pacific
Around 4 hours south east from Panama City, the Azuero Peninsula is the belly of land that extends southward into the big blue Pacific. Known mostly for cattle ranches and folkloric festivals, the people of the area are unique, humble and always up for a fiesta.
I was attracted to the area for a variety of reasons, most notably the weather, attractive beaches, good roads, and access to a local airports. The area is not shy on activities, including fantastic fishing, good scuba diving and quality surfing. For nature lovers, there are two island national parks within 30 minutes of each other. Isla Iguana is just a few minutes off the coast of Pedasi and is home to white sand beaches, turquoise waters frequented by migrating whales and thousands of frigate birds. Isla Cañas is closer to the popular surf spot, Playa Venao, and is a sanctuary for nesting turtles. These are two natural wonders that are still relatively unknown and sadly, undervalued by the local environmental authorities.
I fell in love with the small town of Pedasi, where a relaxed pace and friendly faces reminded me of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province years ago. My parents and I decided to convert a house to a small Pedasi Panama hotel . We’re just about to open doors. To give you an idea of just how new the tourism industry is in the area, we’re the first lodging with hot water. There’s one dive shop, one breakfast joint and a pizza shop…and we love it.
Slowly but surely, other investors are trickling into the area. They come for different reasons: some to escape or unwind, others to invest before the herds arrive, or ride uncrowded waves. A few other small hotels, homes and other businesses are in construction, although given the pace of things here, it may be a while before they also open doors.
So, COULD the Azuero Peninsula be Panama’s Pacific beach paradise? I sure think so, but plenty of time, money and luck will be required to get there. Until then, I’m happy reside in a town whose main street shuts down at 9pm, I’ll remain content to eat pizza three times a week, and have no problem being the only person jogging the beach each morning.