Exploring eco-tourism in Panama and Costa Rica

Scotland on Sunday travel

An aerial view of the Bridge of the Americas at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal with Panama City in the background

They have a saying in Costa Rica, “pura vida”. You hear it everywhere – from the taxi driver, the barman, the shop assistant, even just the folk on the street. Everything is pura vida.

But it’s not just a handy catch-all term of greeting/farewell/thanks, it really is more of a way of life.

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The Spanish translation is “pure” or “simple life”. In essence: slow down, appreciate the natural wonder around you, be thankful for what you have, and, while you are at it, have a bit of fun. Recognise that we are merely the current custodians of this planet and have a responsibility to nurture the natural resources all around us.

Sailing through the Panama Canal

In 2019, as the world faces a climate emergency, it seems to me we could all be a bit more pura vida.

Long-haul luxury travel and sustainability are not easy bedfellows of course. Logic tells you that travelling halfway around the world to be wined and dined in opulent surroundings would give you a carbon footprint to rival Gulliver in Lilliput.

But eco-tourism is big business and increasingly brands are finding a way to reconcile the two. Dutch national airline KLM is leading the way in all things green and allows passengers to effectively travel “carbon neutral” through contributing to its reforestation project in Panama.

The project is transforming former pastureland for cattle into new tropical forests, while the airline is also investing heavily in cutting food waste, plastics from its operations and developing new, greener aviation biofuels.

Hot springs in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, near the Arenal Volcano

My flying visit to Costa Rica and Panama was courtesy of KLM and the similarly eco-conscious Small Luxury Hotels of the World, visiting first the bustling Panama City, dropping in on the Embera Indigenous People on Gatun River, taking a night flight to San José and travelling deep into the wondrous Arenal rainforest.

I always think the best way to visit any new place is to arrive with no preconceptions. In this case, it was easy. I knew little about either Panama or Costa Rica. Of course I’m aware there was an ill-fated attempt by Scotland to colonise the Darien region in 1698 and remnants survive today in place names like Caledonia and New Edinburgh. My knowledge of Costa Rica, meanwhile, stems likewise from a national embarrassment in the World Cup of 1990 when the left foot of a player by the name of Juan Cayasso brought yet another Scottish campaign to an end before it had even started.

And so as I boarded the early morning KLM flight from Edinburgh to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam to connect with the flight to Panama City, it really was a trip into the unknown. Travelling KLM world business class is hardly a chore. The fact that I was already aware my trip was being carbon offset allowed me a guilt-free 11 hours of sublime travel on a lie-flat bed, with top notch entertainment system and excellent food and drink.

First stop in Panama City was the American Trade Hotel, an imposing colonial-style building in the Casco Viejo or Old Quarter neighbourhood, a Unesco World Heritage site. The luxury boutique hotel is a restored 1917 building and combines old world elegance with contemporary design, fine dining and a popular jazz club. It feels like it has been here for 100 years, but it’s a relatively recent development as it, along with all buildings in the area, are gradually taken over and restored to their former glory.

Lush landscapes make for exciting ziplines and nature treks

Apparently not so long ago, this area was home to rival gangs. The only trace of them now is a wall dedicated to their graffiti tags, preserved during the evictions. It feels like much of Panama City... a bit edgy.

I loved it and wished I had longer to explore the winding old town streets, the fabulous sights, sounds, and smells of the traditional fish market and the super modern skyscrapers of the new city.

A short drive out of town takes you to perhaps the country’s most famous attraction – the Panama Canal. There is a huge visitor centre and cinema, and a viewing platform which provides a fabulous vantage point from which to watch ships, passing very...very... slowly through one of the locks.

It was packed. People jostling for space, taking selfies and shooting endless video of the boats crawling along. Proof if needed that Panama really is geared up for tourism.

A visit to the indigenous Embera tribe which involved a canoe ride along the Gatun River in the Chagres National Park, was memorable and highly recommended, not least for the traditionally cooked fried fish and plantains served in a banana tree leaf. The tribe still live simply and traditionally on the banks of the river in thatched huts as they have done for centuries.

And so to pura vida and Costa Rica. The flight from Panama City to San José is a short hop. From there, we transferred to the stunning Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa in the rainforest Arenal region.

Set in the shadow of the majestic Arenal Volcano, Tabacón has the largest network of natural hot springs in Costa Rica. The temperatures in the various pools range from 25C to 50C. A truly unique and magical experience.

Relaxation here is the only option, and to be honest, if they had shown me to a camp bed under a tree, it still would have been heaven on earth.

What they actually have is a five-star resort and spa which blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. It has eco at its heart but refuses to compromise on luxury.

Everything is geared to sustainability – from the water in the taps and showers which comes direct from the hot springs – to encouraging all guests to plant a tree on their departure. More than 3,000 have been planted so far, and over 50 per cent of the 872 acres owned by the hotel is under protection as secondary rainforest.

The rooms are sumptuous, filled at night with the incredible sounds of the rainforest.

The food is out of this world. I tried the gastronomy experience – half a dozen courses of whatever the chef fancies from octopus on toast to perfectly cooked fillet of beef, all paired expertly with the best of the wine cellar.

A short drive away and you can, as I did, appreciate the area from above with a thrilling zip-lining trip through the forest. Not for the faint-hearted, as you hurtle hundreds of feet above the trees, it was nevertheless an unforgettable experience… and completely safe. “How many tourists have died doing this?” I enquired before embarking on the first of seven ziplines. “None this week,” was the reply from our instructor with a twinkle in his eye.

For those less energetic, there are day trips aplenty in the area including spectacular nature treks on hanging bridges through the forest, or coffee and chocolate plantation tours.

But as stunning, relaxing and occasionally exhilarating as all that is, the resort is not the reason to come here. The real luxury is the natural wonder of the place. Exploring the lush rainforest with an expert guide who can spot a viper napping in a tree at 20 paces, or who squeals with excitement as a colony of ants crosses our path.

Or just floating in the hot springs, doing nothing but drinking in the atmosphere. I could have stayed there forever. Oh for the pura vida.


American Trade Hotel, Panama City and Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa, Costa Rica are members of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, www.slh.com

American Trade Hotel offers 50 rooms, starting from £207 per night

Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa offers 103 rooms, starting from £259 per night

KLM flies year-round to Panama City and seasonally to San José, Costa Rica, from Edinburgh Airport via its multi-award winning hub, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Return economy fares from Edinburgh start from £639 including taxes and charges. Business class fares start from £1612. Passengers can book online at www.klm.co.uk or by calling reservations on 0207 660 0293