For residents of Casa Bonita, one of the most popular hangouts is an open-air infinity pool with sweeping views of the Panama Canal.
Resort-style chairs and loungers allow for easy conversation and panoramic views of the ocean, mountains, and rain forest. I love relaxing there at night when the temperatures are cooler, but my favorite time to enjoy the scenery is during the rainy season: watching storms sweep over the city and the Panama Bay is breathtaking.
The other evening just as the rains were beginning to lighten, I overheard a conversation between two new residents. “Do you think it’s the mini-bar, pesticides, or just unrelated deaths due to natural causes? Is it safe?” I knew immediately that the conversation was about the recent deaths of tourists in the Dominican Republic.
I turned to see a gentleman who had recently purchased a residence in the building. In his late forties, he works for a logistics company headquartered outside Houston. Business often brings him to Panama.
“You’re in the know! Tell me the inside scoop,” he said, motioning for me to join the conversation. I smiled. “I’m a lot better at knowing what’s going on in Panama than in the Dominican Republic, but at this point I’d definitely caution travelers against breaking into the mini-bar!”
Returning to a more serious tone, I reflected on these misfortunes. A string of incidents like this would be a hot topic of conversation anywhere, but perhaps particularly so in the Caribbean where many countries are dependent on tourism. “I feel for the families of those who’ve died,” I said, “and also for the Dominican workers. Fewer people visiting the DR will undoubtedly impact many people’s living.”
My guest mused, “I think most of the deaths occurred at all-inclusive resorts. If everything is included, you’d probably be more apt to raid the mini-bar.”
“True, but what about everything going on in Costa Rica? The government recently confiscated 30,000 bottles of alcohol that had been tainted with methanol. They’re saying at least 19 people died during June and July, after being poisoned by drinking inexpensive alcohol,” I said. “These were people aged 32 to 72 and most of them were in and around the capital city of San Jose, not in all-inclusive resorts!”
I considered all the data points. At first, I assumed that these tourist deaths were flukes. It is difficult to make connections between these incidents: many of the tourists were healthy and there’s a wide range of ages. In Costa Rica, some were locals.
Neither the local governments in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, nor the US State Department have issued warnings about visiting or vacationing in either country. Costa Rica is under normal advisory warnings, and the DR was recently listed as a country where “increased precaution was needed,” but that was simply because of the presence of drug trafficking and had nothing to do with the possibility of tainted alcohol or pesticides. I couldn’t help but mention that the US State Department ranks Panama as one of the safest countries in the world, but then I started to consider other factors that could impact tourism safety.
There is of course an inherent risk in travel. Being well-traveled myself, I brought up the perhaps little-known fact that all cruise ships have protocols in place to handle passenger emergencies and even deaths. “If you’re on a cruise and hear the announcement ‘Operation Bright Star,’ followed by a location, that means there is a medical emergency at that location. If you hear ‘Operation Rising Star,’ then someone has passed away,” I explained. “Even on cruise ships where there are comparatively few risks, staff are prepared in case of incidents like these.”
My visitor wasn’t convinced. “Are you telling me you think these deaths in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica were just people who happened to be vacationing there when it was time for them to make the final passage?”
I returned to my previous stance—I’m an expert on Panama, not the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica! “It seems like a lot of deaths,” I admitted, “and I’m sure they will be fully investigated. What I do know for sure is that there haven’t been any similar deaths here in Panama. No one is confiscating tainted alcohol. We’re lucky that there are regulations in place to protect our well-being in ways that your average tourist wouldn’t think about, such as making sure our liquor is clean.”
Once I start bragging on Panama, I just can’t stop! I continued: “We’re a very advanced country. For example, Panama is now banning the use of plastic bags in all retail and grocery outlets. Even the United States hasn’t been able to ban plastic bags, but here in Panama we are actively addressing environmental issues. Clean beaches, highly regulated food pipelines—all of this contributes to Panama being a first-rate Caribbean tourist destination.”
“No plastic bags?” he responded with a smile. “Seriously?”
“By January 2020, our warehouses won’t even be able to use plastic, and we are a hub for distribution,” I said proudly.
Panama is close to the equator, so it gets dark here fairly early. It was just around 6:00 when the lights started coming on after the rain storm. Before heading inside I turned again to my visitor and added, “I will say, the Dominican Republic has some great rates for all-inclusive vacations. I saw an advertisement offering 77% off to anyone wanting to stay four nights or more.”
The gentleman laughed. “That’s a great deal, but I think I’ll stick to Panama.”