I love shopping at the vegetable and fresh fish stalls in Rio Hato, a small community just a few minutes from where I live in Coronado. The vendors post signs down to the minute letting you know how long the fish have been out of the ocean and when the broccoli was cut that morning. You can’t really make a grocery list, you just buy and prepare what they have on offer that day. It’s hard to go wrong.
The other day, as I was leaving the small market and I couldn’t help but notice a group of passengers disembarking from a giant Boeing 737 jet at the new Rio Hato International Airport. You have to remember Rio Hato is not an airport like those found in most cities. It’s just there. You drive under the one runway of the airport via the Pan-American Highway and there are no jet ways. People simply walk down steps and into the Panamanian sun. It’s a new sight since the airport just started welcoming flights.
When it was announced that the former US military base, used in the defense of the Panama Canal, was going to be revitalized to accommodate international flights, almost everyone was thrilled. Visions danced in our heads of not having to account for rush hour traffic in Panama City, when flying to or from Tocumen International Airport.
[thrive_text_block color=”green” headline=””]If you time the traffic right and select the appropriate bridge to go over (Centennial Bridge vs. Bridge of the Americas) it takes about an hour and half to get from Tocumen to Coronado.[/thrive_text_block]
I was thrilled at the idea of flying in and out of Rio Hato, a mere 25 minutes away with no rush hour to work around.
Only One Flight A Day
But, true of many things Panamanian, Rio Hato is taking a little longer than anticipated to get up and running, Rio Hato International Airport is open and it is now accepting one flight a day—from Canada on Sunwing Airlines. They advertise flights from four Canadian cities including Toronto and Montreal, but in reality, there is only one flight from Toronto. The others require a Toronto connection. Each flight brings in 160 passengers and they primarily shuttle everyone to the all-inclusive resorts dotting Playa Blanca about 10 minutes away.
Most of the passengers are part of the vacation packages that cost around $1,400 per person for a seven-day all inclusive vacation. There are, of course, some Canadians who simply purchase a round-trip ticket, but they are, by far, the minority. The tickets run between $600 and $1,000 depending on the season. It’s a great option for Canadians because the flight is direct and lands close to the heart of the Gold Coast area of Panama (i.e. the luxury beach communities), but for Americans and Europeans, direct Rio Hato flights haven’t materialized.
Waiting For Governmental Approval
Sun Country, a low cost United States based airline, has their website ready to take reservations for flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Playa Blanca but the US Government isn’t ready to give their approval because of safety concerns. It seems the fuel tanks are located too close to the runway to allow approvals from any government other than Canada.
A Spanish airline has an agreement with the hotel chain RIU, and their Playa Blanca property specifically, to pack in the tourists but they have also not been able to gain government approval. Everyone knows Rio Hato needs stronger safety measures to truly offer an alternative to Tocumen, but it’s not clear who is going to pay for the expensive, physical improvements including moving the fuel tanks.
“An in-room liquor dispenser”!
To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about the new airport. I absolutely want to be able to utilize an airport much closer to home, but I don’t see it accommodating my needs any time soon. When the Rio Hato International Airport plans were announced they indicated that international flights would be often and regular. Now the advertisements call the Rio Hato airport “built for international vacationers.” Nothing about residents who actually live in the area and need to fly in and out from time to time. The single airline utilizing Rio Hato boasts that the route from Canada to Panama, includes champagne toasts at take-off and complimentary wine during the lunch service.
The all-inclusive hotels such as Wyndham Grand Playa Blanca, Hotel RIU Playa Blanca, Sheraton Bijo Beach Resort, Playa Blanca Hotel and Resort and the Royal Decameron Beach Resort are quick to point out that part of their amenities include “a welcome cocktail upon arrival…unlimited alcoholic drinks throughout the day…an in-room liquor dispenser…a fully stocked mini-bar and a signature cocktail happy hour daily.”
[thrive_text_block color=”green” headline=””]I’m thinking the people who are signing up for these charter flights are not simply looking for a flight and a way to avoid Panama City traffic.[/thrive_text_block]
Growth And Development Is Good
For the numerous Canadians who live at least four or five months a year in Coronado, the new flights are certainly something worth investigating. Sunwing does allow one checked bag for free, which is more than I get with some of the mainstream airlines going out of Tocumen.
It’s two completely different crowds who are attracted to the beautiful beach communities of Panama—the all-inclusive 7-day vacationers and the families and retirees who gravitate to Coronado and luxury residences like Coronado Bay, Coronado Golf, Punta Vela and Royal Palm.
[thrive_text_block color=”green” headline=””]Nonetheless, what I am absolutely sure of, is all this growth and development is good. It’s good for the locals who are finding well-paid jobs and for local business’ growth because of an influx of capital. It also introduces people to the wonderful lifestyle afforded to so many who come to call Panama home.[/thrive_text_block]
Rio Hato is definitely not a pipe dream for Panama. The new airport is finding its feet and will continue to add more value to tourists and residents alike.