The biggest names in entertainment seek the seclusion of far-flung locales, private islands and remote hideaways for both their pleasure trips and their permanent homes. Perhaps the best example of the lengths to which celebrities will go – and the prices they will pay – to get off the grid is Chris Blackwell’s GoldenEye, tucked into the Jamaica coastline and visited by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and, more recently, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
The mind leaps to conclusions about paparazzi avoidance, but I’d argue that the world’s wealthiest actors, musicians and filmmakers favour these hidden places for more than just a chance to escape the flashbulbs. In emerging destinations such as Panama, there are also excellent opportunities for genuine local connection and creative stimulation – the bread and butter of entertainers who earn a living by communicating the human experience through the arts.
Fortunately, these benefits of travel off the beaten path are not exclusive to the rich and famous. How? Sometimes you have to abandon traditional definitions of “luxury” to truly appreciate an off-the-beaten-path destination.
Explore the Local Ambience
I learned this firsthand in my visit to Panama, a country that remains relatively “undiscovered” – for now. Of course, the Panamanian people and government welcome growing tourism with open arms and infrastructural improvements, but much of the interior is still wilderness, dotted with indigenous communities living much as they did centuries ago.
Upon my arrival in the capital, Panama City, I was met by a proud Panamanian guide, Efren, who spoke with excitement of the positive developments underway in “his Panama” (most notably the Canal Expansion slated for completion in 2015) during our road trip through the chartreuse highlands of Chiriqui Province. I was immediately drawn in by this passion of Panama’s culture.
Savour Local Experiences
Rather than dine in one of the many trendy restaurants cropping up in Panama City, my travel companions and I ate at an old-fashioned diner frequented by locals. I don’t think I have enjoyed authentic Panamanian cuisine quite as much in any other atmosphere. I will not soon forget the taste of those carimañolas on the little porch of El Trapiche.
Another perk of the off-the-beaten-path travel in Panama I enjoyed: the sense of peace I found in Boca Chica, a tiny fishing village overlooking the Gulf of Chiriqui. Here the locals live by their daily catch of fish and the occasional traveller’s business. During one idyll in the weak light of pre-dawn, on the veranda of Boca Chica’s one and only restaurant I practiced my Spanish with the local fishermen as puppies frolicked between our legs and the camarera offered us coffee. The moment was also bittersweet, for I stared seaward at the incredible place I had just left, the place further off the beaten path than any other I had visited in Panama – Isla Palenque.
Sample Island Life
My time to Panama was bookended by exploration of the capital and Chiriqui Province, but for five days in between I lived on a remote island where the natural environment has been preserved through the conscientious efforts of an eco-development company. Once completed, the eco-development will cover just five percent of the island’s 400 acres, blending harmoniously with its surroundings through native landscaping, LEED-certified buildings and a range of sustainable tourism practices. Through the developer’s careful stewardship of the island’s five ecosystems – mature tropical and littoral forest, lagoon, mangrove and beach – Isla Palenque has maintained its wild look and feel.
What this meant during my stay was that I could take to the trail and within minutes meet some of this Panamanian island’s “locals”: Swainson’s hawks (like me, a visitor on Isla Palenque), howler monkeys, iguanas who confounded my efforts to photograph them and tropical birds I knew only as a snatch of song or flicker of colour amid the dense green leaves. Wilderness survival practices long observed by indigenous Panamanians remain relevant in these environments: I toed the trail cautiously in grassy areas where snakes discreetly slither and I carried adequate water supplies on long hikes.
Traversing portions of the volcanic coastline required that I channel my inner mountain goat to find sure footing. I maintained this slow and careful pace while hiking emerald passageways through the jungle too. A native Panamanian biologist informed me that many of the plants I admired for their brilliant colour possess medicinal properties, such as Lantana camara, which is traditionally used by locals to treat respiratory infections. The jungle jaunts that filled my days filled my pages by nightfall as I scribbled down everything I had learned until the waves crashing under the stars said “hush,” and I set my notebook aside.
Reflect and Recharge
In the months that followed my trip, I periodically revisited these notes and discovered that time had cultured the creativity borne of my experience in Panama. Panama’s people, creatures and wilderness remain with me as vibrant memories that deepen the perspective I achieve through extensive reading and writing about sustainable travel.
Engaging with all five senses in an authentic place is a pure source of inspiration for practitioners in virtually any profession. Actors, accountants and even adventurers like me are all certain to find creative renewal on their next journey off-the-beaten-path.