The fourth in a series of articles comparing Central America’s two leading expat and retiree destinations. Costa Rica is the more established of the two, but Panama is the upstart new kid on the block with a full head of steam and a pocket full of dollars. Who will come out on top? Read more and find out.
Click here for Round 1: Retirement Benefits
Click here for Round 2: Climate
Click here for Round 3: People and Culture
Round 4: Things to do
If you are going to pack up (or sell) everything and move to Central America, you might as well go somewhere where there is stuff to do; after all, you can only sit on the porch and drink so many margaritas before it becomes mundane (or does it…). In this matchup, the cultural and outdoor activities of each country are looked at and a winner decided. Round four, begin!
Note: While sitting on the beach all day is fun, it can be done in both countries with equal laziness. Thus, beachbumming does not count as an activity.
Expats, retirees, and tourists wouldn’t have been flocking to CR for two decades if all there was to do was sit on the beach all day. For a tiny country, Costa Rica boasts a huge array of attractions that can keep the average gringo busy for months, if not years. Here are a few top picks, both in outdoor activities and cultural discoveries.
Into the wild:
1. Arenal volcano- Yeah, its been exploited more than Macauley Caulkin, but Arenal still is one of Costa Rica’s most impressive, and easily accessible, natural attraction. Not only does lava commonly spurt from the top, but the surrounding area is popular for hiking, fishing, and canopy tours.
2. White water rafting- This is some intense stuff. The #1 river to raft is the Pacuare River, which not only offers a rush of adrenaline but also a chance to see virgin rainforest up close, without the mosquito bites.
3. Parque Corcovado. It would be a sin to leave out Corcovado from any list. This is the absolute best place in Central America to immerse oneself in the rainforest without going “Man vs Wild” Bear Grylls-style. Far enough from the tourist trail but still within civilization, the park offers unparalleled access to plants and animals in their natural habitat. And the hiking isn’t all that difficult.
Whats a Tico, anyway?
1. San Jose museums and opera house- not many travellers or expats spend much time in the capital, but the gold and jade museums, along with the Belgian/Italian designed opera house, are worth checking out to get some background on Costa Rica’s long history.
2. Grana de oro- Coffee is big time in CR, and even non-fans of the stuff (like me) will find the coffee regions intrguing. The process, the climate, the scenery, plus the opportunity to taste and buy some of the “gold grain”
3. Craft shopping- Even the guys out there will enjoy this, as every manpad (or dining room…) should have at least one piece of badass foreign art that you can tell your friends about. Despite not having a gloried pre-Colombian past, the country boasts some excellent handmade crafts, from pottery and dolls to colorful oxcarts, that are available for a fraction of what you would pay for them in North America.
While it can sometimes feel like you are being led around by the hand by tour guides and its often hard to go five minutes without seeing a fellow gringo, Costa Rica has a ton of activitis to offer, too many to list here. The infrastructure is top notch, making even the novice traveler or expat feel comfortable.
In a country that is still being discovered by gringos, Panama has some really cool stuff for the expat, retiree, and tourist alike.
Into the wild:
1. Wildlife viewing- Rainforests and cloudforests dominate Panama, so there is no lack of opportunity to get out and see some nature. The famed Pipeline Road is close to the capital in the Soberania Park and is great for birdwatching, and the Baru National Park in Chiriqui is well known for its Quetzal birds.
2. Tree canopy adventures- scattered in forests throughout the country, these “rides” consist of a person being harnessed and attached to a zipline, then literally flying around the forest canopy from one platform to another. Really cool, safe, and a total adrenaline rush.
3. Diving and snokeling- Get off the beach and into the water. Around Portobello, Isla Grande has well-established dive programs and Bocas del Toro offers some untouched diving spots.
The canal and more
1. Panama Canal- Every tourist, expat, and retiree should see the canal in action at least once. Not only is it really a remarkable feat of engineering, but also a big part of each Panamanian; a true source of pride. If possible, book a trip from the Pacific to the Caribbean or vice-versa.
2. Portobello- Steeped in history, this Caribbean town was once one of the most important cities in the Western hemisphere. Some of the most famous pirates fought brutal campaigns in and around the town, and the ruins are quite amazing and the tourist infrastrure well set up.
3. Go native- Panama boasts some pretty unique and accessible indigenous tribes, each one being different in some way, beit customs or language. The Embera people mainly inhabit the dangerous Darien forest along the border with Colombia, but a few communities have made their way to the Chagres River by the canal area and welcome visitors daily. Along the Caribbean coast, the Kuna people make their home among the 400 islands of San Blas, so visitors are treated to an incredible setting as well as indigenous customs.
Round 4 winner: Costa Rica. This was a close one, but Costa Rica’s far superior infrasture gives it the edge. While this might not appeal to everyone, CR is just more accessable than Panama; however, given the right oversight Panama could easily equal, or even surpass, Costa Rica in terms of cool things to do. And man, Corcovado just plain rocks. Score: Costa Rica: 2, Panama: 1, 1 tie
Voice your opinion below. Agree, disagree, or have additional info thats been left out? We want to hear from you…