Havana versus Panama City skyline
Sometimes I think it’s interesting to compare travel destinations. Today, I thought I’d compare Cuba and Panama. Traveling to either in a package will cost about the same, except that it may be cheaper to fly to Panama from Dallas since you currently have to fly to Cuba through Miami.
First, obviously, Cuba is a communist state. All aspects of tourism are tightly controlled by the Cuban government. There has been some opening of entrepreneurial ventures focusing on the tourist market but insignificant amounts to date. Panama, in contrast, is very capitalistic. It’s the fastest growing economy in Central America. In fact, its economy is much stronger than ours. In Cuba you are taken around by government guides. It’s difficult for Americans to wander off on their own. During my travels in Cuba, European visitors told me that they wanted to take the public bus — but weren’t allowed to. They wanted to visit certain national parks — but the parks were restricted to Cubans with reservations. In contrast, in Panama you can wander wherever you want, although roads tend to be sketchy once you get off the main roads.
Souvenirs are more costly in Cuba than Panama. Hotels — price-controlled by the government — are also overpriced. You pay the same that you’d pay in Panama, but you get a much inferior product and level of service in Cuba. Cuban supermarkets are all government-run, crowded, with poorly stocked shelves, and items priced higher than in the U.S. In Panama, the supermarkets are similar to the U.S.
Both countries suffer typical third world problems with electricity outages. In Panama, the water system was built by the Americans during the period of their control of the Canal, and the water is drinkable. In Cuba, you must stay stocked with bottled water, even for brushing teeth.
Cuba has Panama beat if you want to drive around as there are few cars and no traffic problems. Panama is a mess to drive in.
As far as tourist attractions are concerned, Panama has it all, from developed mountain resorts to beaches that are among the best in the world. Cuba is still trying to figure out what tourists should be shown. During a recent week trip to Cuba, I was shown three schools — not generally on my list of tourist destinations.
Panama has several indigenous communities that maintain their own cultures. You can visit them and feel like you’re in Africa. No indigenous people survived in Cuba. Panamanians seem to have a festival every week or two somewhere in the country. Cuba doesn’t have many unregulated crowd gatherings. In both places, the nicest beaches are difficult to access from the capital city.
The food is not memorable in either country. Rice is common with many dishes, meat quality is low in both places; pork and chicken are main staples.
Finally, the two countries have remarkably similar old cities in their capitals. The one in Havana is being restored very slowly by the government. The one in Panama is letting capitalism take on the restoration, and it is happening quickly. Panama’s old city is about one fourth the size of Havana’s, but they both date from the same time period and share similar architecture.
Money is more convenient in Panama, since it uses the U.S. dollar and accepts credit cards. For Americans, for now, cash is the only thing that works in Cuba, and the exchange rate is not good.
Panama used to have “diablo rojos,” artistically painted school buses for its public transit. But modern upgrading has eliminated this colorful remnant, except in the countryside. Cuba retains its very unique old American cars, operated mostly as taxis — a reason in itself to visit, if you are a car lover. The old cars of Cuba will probably disappear as it modernizes.
Panama appeals to jetsetters attracted by the Panama Canal. Cuba appeals to nostalgia of Hemingway admirers. Both places are unique and worth a visit. Let me know which you prefer.