I’ve been to most of the top destinations through out the Caribbean, plus a few different parts of Mexico. My wife and I had always fantasised about retiring in Mexico, until we visited Panama.
We found the people to be very friendly. Although my Spanish is very rudimentary, everyone I tried to communicate with seemed willing to put in a bit of effort, probably because they could tell that I was really trying. I think that, if someone comes across as not being patient with you, it’s because they’re just not yet used to dealing with non-Spanish speakers. I consider this to be one of the country’s charms, since they’ve not yet been “assimilated”. (Though that’s not completely true, due to the long U.S. occupation: the older generation typically can speak English because of this, and the kids can because of the new global realities. It’s the middle demographic that didn’t need to learn English.)
I find the history and culture of the country fascinating. Panama City is the economic hub of Central America, due largely to Canal traffic. As such, there are over 150 banks located there, with a corresponding economic infrastructure. (Since there is virtually no risk of earthquake, tsunami, etc., there are many high-rises in the city. It’s quite a surprising sight.) The country’s geographic position means that it has always been a crossroads of sorts, even before the canal was built (and also because of its construction). Panama City has a Chinatown! From Spanish Colonial times to France’s canal attempt, to Noriega’s reign and the fallout of that, the country has seen some interesting times.
The way Panama has preserved its indigenous cultures is very remarkable. Many national parks have been created so that the tribes can continue to live as they have for hundreds of years. An excursion available at the resorts gives you the opportunity to visit one of the (slightly Disneyfied, but just barely: women still topless for example) tribes and have them cook, dance, and visit with you.
One of the guides we had on a couple of our excursions was originally from France, and had spent the past ten years in Costa Rica. About two years ago, he visited Panama for a week, and immediately moved there. In his opinion, it’s still unspoiled by tourism, but has everything to offer that Costa Rica does in terms of natural wonders (albeit with a limited infrastructure).
Even though we stayed at an all-inclusive, I felt that in Panama we were really getting to see Latin American culture, not just what the tourists are supposed to see. This has pros and cons, and I’m sure it will change over time. My advice to any and all: visit Panama before there is no difference between it and everywhere else!
(Sorry for the long-winded ramble. With what’s been going on in Cuba – someplace we haven’t yet visited and were planning to this winter – we’ve been considering Panama again. Maybe I’m just trying to talk myself into it! ;D)