The District of Tierras Altas has been growing and developing its tourism in an outstanding way in recent years, being one of the destinations with a tourist vocation where projects that soon be carried out will multiply the efforts that has been made. For this reason we have a Special Guest who has led the development of this region, a Panamanian and professional who has been president, regional and world director in multinational companies, having worked in Panama, Brazil, Dubai, Switzerland, the United States. He has also been a World Director of financial projects, as well as a member of the board of directors of pension funds, with extensive experience in the transformation of companies and corporate governments.
Today, Luis Gonzales-de la Lastra R. is the President of Tierras Altas Chamber of Tourism, Commerce and Industry, vice president of the Tierras Altas Tourist Destination Management Committee and member of the board of directors of the coffee circuit.
Our distinguished guest, who runs a consultancy company, and has transformed the Ceriana farm in Tierras Altas into an agro-tourism destination, talks to us about tourism in Tierras Altas and where this thriving region is headed.
How is Tierras Altas different from the rest of the country and why is it so important not to confuse it with the Boquete region?
“You have to be careful not to confuse Tierras Altas with Boquete because both are two totally separate Districts, you cannot say I am going to Tierras Altas Chiriquí and think of Boquete. However, the Chiriqui Highlands not only includes Boquete and Tierras Altas but must also include Renacimiento.
The biggest difference between Tierras Altas and Boquete is basically that we have a product that we call Eco-Agro Tourism. What drives this region us agro production, as many know, 70% of the vegetables consumed in the country come from Tierras Altas, while just over 40% of grade A milk is produced here as well. Apart from that we have the largest coffee production in the country, we are a purely agricultural District. That yes, although we are different when the Districts are seen separately, although Parque Volcan Baru circuit unites us.
The biggest differences of Tierras Altas as a destination compared to the rest of the country are, first of all, our climate, which is very pleasant since temperatures here are between 18° and 22° Celsius, of course, there are places that are at zero degrees, such as the peak of the Baru Volcano located in the Tierras Altas District. The other difference is our three valleys, which are flat and large, specifically at the head of the District, which is the town of Volcan. It is a place that invites you to walk, ride a bicycle, exercise, enjoy the culinary offer of the area that is very healthy since its ingredients are almost all fresh products from the region.”
What are the most important strengths of Tierras Altas?
“To talk about the strengths it is important to talk about Chiriqui. The province is privileged since here in a very short time you can enjoy a wide variety of tourist products: beach, fishing, mountain, extreme sports, bird watching. From the context of the province, it has all these advantages. Now, Tierras Altas, within the Eco-Agro Tourism concept, completes the circle of all this green experience since we have access to the Volcan Baru Park and La Amistad Park, where there are wonders of nature such as waterfalls, spectacular natural settings, and you can even watch the Quetzal easily. Then, in the poultry part, you also have access to high-quality products grown right there and it’s something that people come looking for. Another is that in Tierras Altas the finest meats in the country are produced, such as lamb. As for fruits, strawberries and red plums are produced, among many others. We also have the lagoons that are another place to visit, and we are one of the most important regions in the world for bird watching with nearly 600 species. The Visitor who comes is sure not going to be bored.’
Which projects will benefit the community and tourism; And what is needed to place this destination in a preferential place?
“A few years ago I came across an investigation and survey in 2105 carried out by the Smithsonian of the United States about the reasons why a small town is attractive for tourism. The list was as follows: number of cultural attractions, historical sites, facilities to visit nature, gastronomic offer and commemorative days of the place. Tierras Altas basically has everything mentioned, however a little more investment is needed in the area of historical sites, places like Sitio Barriles in which we have been working together with the Foundation and the Panama Tourism Authority to develop a museum. However, in Tierras Altas there is an investment schedule that will cement these five points that I described above. The main avenue has already been finished to make it a very friendly street full of trees and sidewalks for walking and a bicycle path for the enjoyment of residents and visitors. As part of the project is the Highlands Visitors Center, which will include an exhibition that the Biomuseum is developing to expand the exhibition they have in Panama related to this region, as well as a theater. Likewise, the Central Park is going to be completely redesigned since it will have an open-air amphitheater for the summer season, and in this way enhance the cultural life that is currently lived in Tierras Altas. What we lacked as a tourist town was a center where all these groups and movements could converge so that they can exhibit their art and culture on weekends, and this will be covered by the remodeling of the central park that is already under tender. As a person who has been a tourist around the world and has lived in multiple attractive destinations I have never seen a place that people want to visit that has not been first developed by their own people.
Another element that I feel is needed is investment in hotel infrastructure, but one that truly respects the culture and nature that we have in Tierras Altas.”
And what is needed in all of Panama’s destinations to develop their tourism potential?
“In general terms in Panama, what is most needed in all destinations is unity and trust. Since I came to Panama after many years of living abroad and I have already lived in Tierras Altas for 10 years, I realized that there is enormous mistrust between the population and the authorities (local or ministerial). This has been caused by our history and political situations. The difference that I noticed in Tierras Altas once we joined here was that the staff of the Panama Tourism Authority that runs this program is highly qualified and I can say it with certainty after having managed large companies around the world, they are people who technically speaking are of the highest quality. And I think that the problem that other areas have had without knowing the details, taking the reality that I experienced here as an example, is that in other places the mistrust has not been overcome. When a project is started and this element is still latent, a lot of time is lost trying to clear up that mistrust by delaying all the projects. In our case, we identified this early on and the Chamber of Tourism worked hard to unify everyone by holding workshops, gatherings, exhibitions, inviting people from the Tourism Authority to present and answer all concerns. From day one, we managed to fix all those things and we started working. I believe that there has not been a District more consulted in all its parts in all these tourist projects than Tierras Altas. Of course, we must support tourism without losing our identity, that is very important, because the moment we lose it, we become like any other place and nobody will want to visit us again.”
How do you see residential tourism in Tierras Altas and how would it be managed in the medium and long term future?
“People come to the Highlands from all over the world, we have an interesting community of Germans, South Africans, French and Americans. What happens is that the people who are coming here are people who want to have the life that we have. They do not want to have that cosmopolitan or city life as has happened in Boquete, but people come here who buy their land, sow, produce, we see many young families who bring their children and school them at home. A community of simpler people who want to live a life surrounded by nature and on a small farm is being assembled.
The Tierras Altss Tourism Chamber has the objective of promoting this type of Visitors here since it is what keeps our way of life. Of course, it is inevitable that other types of people with a different vision of tourism want to come here, for this reason the main road is made in such a way that businesses can be established but without losing our way of life. Right now the territorial ordering plan is being drawn up that goes a long way in that direction, which is an urban-rural development. The great advantage is that the Terralteño does not want to change his lifestyle and that is a great asset, people prefer to stop earning a lot of money elsewhere and stay and live here well with what nature offers and their own lands than to move to another place.
If you had the opportunity to create a project out of your imagination to develop tourism in Tierras Altas, what would it be?
“I actually have two projects in mind, the first would be a high-level market for the small producer in the area who often can’t place products in other areas because there is an intermediary, yes, with a beautiful infrastructure in which the Visitor also can enjoy a restaurant area. A market where the stalls rotate and more vendors have the opportunity to display their products, and it would be on the weekend to attract local and international tourism.
The other project would be a regional center in the township of Nueva California for horse racing and rodeos similar to those that take place in the United States. This idea comes from the fact that in Tierras Altas there is a very important cowboy culture. The Terralteño is a cowboy since very high level meat is produced here, as well as milk among others. The contact between the Terralteño, the horse and the grazing animal is part of our culture. A place where wild horse competitions, barrel racing, among other competitions with national and Central American participants are held. It is a part of our culture that if we do not rescue it now, it could fade away. There are people in the region who carry out small rodeos, but if a stadium for rodeos could be built, it would be very important for Panama, the Highlands and the culture of cowboy riding. With these projects we cold really position Tierras Atlas as an Eco-Agro Tourism destination.”