An overseas trip is supposed to be fun, not an exercise in political consciousness. But visitors will get more out of Panama , and help keep it an enjoyable destination for others, if they make at least some effort to get to know the place and how their actions may affect it.
Start by reading up on the fascinating history of Panama, which for hundreds of years has earned its reputation as the “crossroads of the world,” and by learning a bit about its flora and fauna.
It would be nice to think it goes without saying that buying souvenirs made from the body parts of endangered animals — jaguar teeth, tortoiseshell jewelry — is a big no-no. If not, remember that possessing these products is a serious crime in Panama, punishable by fines and jail time. Trafficking in vida silvestre (wildlife) is punishable by six months to two years in jail.
Note this includes all animals found in the wild, not just endangered species.
The same thing goes for possession of pre-Columbian pottery and other historic artifacts. Collecting these is known as huaquería (roughly, “grave robbing”) and is illegal. Obviously, it’s also illegal to eat endangered animals; do not partake of tortoise eggs or the like. Do not buy jewelry made from coral, which is being severely damaged in Panama. Leave intact shells on the beach; they’re potential homes for a variety of sea creatures.
Think about what you eat in Panama. Lobster, for instance, has been terribly over-harvested in the San Blas Islands  (Kuna Yala). You’ll be tempted to try one on the islands, but bear in mind that what was once a subsistence food for the Kuna is now in danger of extinction, which would have serious consequences for the Kuna and their environment. And it’s not just in the San Blas you should consider this: Poor lobster divers sell their catch to fancy restaurants in Panama City .
If nothing else, avoid lobster during the mating season, which runs March–July. Consider that a female lobster carries thousands of eggs, but divers scoop up the expectant moms right along with the other lobsters. It’d be a shame if your dinner meant the end of a whole generation of baby lobsters.
Among the many other reasons not to eat beef is the fact that cattle ranching is not at all sustainable in Panama. It has led to massive deforestation and the destruction of entire habitats. Carnivores should cut down in Panama.
Personal recreational watercraft (Jet Skis and the like) panic marine life, shatter the tranquility of other beachgoers, and pollute the environment. Resist the temptation to go for a spin.
Be skeptical of tour operators and hotels that advertise themselves as eco-conscious. Ask them exactly what they mean by that, and what kind of environmentally conscious services they offer.
Because hotels and tour operators know that “eco” can spell money for them, they have an incentive to exaggerate just how ecologically conscious their operations are. This has begun to happen in Panama, with just about any place that has a view labeling itself an “eco-resort” no matter how many resources it gobbles. To help readers make informed decisions about who to go with, this book attempts to highlight the features of a place or an operation likely to appeal to a low-impact tourist (e.g., small-scale, locally-owned hotels that tread lightly on their surroundings) as well as those features that may be off-putting (e.g., a private zoo on the property).
Environmentally sensitive tourism is so new to Panama it’s hard for tourists to be entirely pure about where they stay and how they travel. Probably the most useful thing to do is to seek out those that are on the right track, and through our own actions to encourage those qualities we like and discourage those we don’t. Most of the best operations are owned and run by intelligent businesspeople who take great pride in what they’re trying to accomplish. Don’t be afraid to give them feedback, including criticisms. They’re all still trying to figure out just what it is low-impact tourists want, and they’ll likely be eager to hear your comments.
Nature tourists to Panama in the next few years may well play a critical role in shaping the future of Panamanian tourism. If entrepreneurs see a demand for responsible, low-impact nature travel, and they are shown that it can pay, in a few years there may be more simple eco-lodges and fewer sprawling five-star resorts.