I’m currently in Santa Catalina, Panama, a surfer magnet on the Pacific Coast. I’ve got Panama listed as an “honorable mention” in my book because some things are a bargain, especially outside the capital, but this is a country with a booming economy—as in 10.5 percent growth last year. Most people aren’t rich here, especially outside the capital business district, but the middle class is large and getting bigger each year. Plus half the wealth of pre-Chavez Venezuela has seemingly landed in Panama City.
You could come to Panama and do nothing but kick back and party on the cheap. This is, after all, one of the cheapest places in the world to knock down some drinks. Almost nothing is taxed heavily here, including booze. But if you want to do the things most leisure travelers come here to do, you have to splurge a little now and then.
Back to Santa Catalina, where you can get a hostel bunk for $10 or less a block from the beach or get a private room for $15-$25. The thing is, if you want to get out to Coiba Island, where all these photos were taken, you’ll pay $50 a person for a boat of six people. It’s not that they’re ripping you off: it’s 37 miles to the island and gasoline is a tad more here than it is in the U.S. You need a few guys along as well, including at least one who can speak English. Plus park permits.
So if you want to get the full experience, you need to pay more than the proverbial $50 a day that Nomadic Matt lays out in his book I reviewed a while back. As he admits, sometimes you’ll go over for a good reason, so you need to make up for it later (or, I would add, have a splurge budget in addition to start with).
Being here brought me back to an experience I had as a round-the-world backpacker in the late 1990s. My wife and I had spent nearly six disappointing, sometimes grueling weeks in the Philippines, with only flashes of good memories to show for it. Overall, we were dejected and ready to high-tail it out of there to somewhere more attractive. When we finally got to El Nido in Palawan though, our moods brightened considerably. Beauty, better food, a decent cheap hotel. But the price for a boat tour of the islands and lagoons—$40 each in late 90′s dollars—was really going to thrash our budget for the week.
We debated, we hesitated, but in the end we threw down the cash and went out on our boat tour. It was by far the highlight of our last month in the country. A day of unsurpassed beauty and one postcard-perfect stop after another. Thankfully we had the sense to step up and go.
You won’t remember what you did with the $40 or $50 you saved once by skipping something when you’re 80 and looking back on your life. Or probably even what you spent for the splurge. You will remember the great times you had.