Panama as a health destination? Warning about pesticides in fruits and vegetables
After 2 amazing weeks in Costa Rica, we decided to head south to Panama to see what it had to offer. With the same Caribbean beaches, mountains and tropical landscape, I expected a cheaper and less touristy version of Costa Rica. I wanted to explore what raw food and/or detox options were available and thought I would get some nice time in nature and sun to boot. It seemed like a good idea…or so I thought.
All information in this article is for educational purposes only.
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition. Everything started out great when we arrived to Panama City and stayed in an awesome funky little hotel, the Lemon Inn, run by 2 young Panamanian brothers. What a treat to get a modern clean hotel room after paying so much for accommodation in Costa Rica. Thanks to one of my twitter followers, I managed to find Ajonjoli on my first day in the city – a health food store and raw food meal service offering home delivery with a different daily raw food meal. I was very impressed to see such a service in Panama, and the food was great!
More time in the city allowed us to explore the old part of the city, Casco Viejo, which I loved…and as we walked through the streets I could almost feel I was in Paris or Belgium. Well, except for the armed policemen on every corner. At least you feel much safer in Panama than in other Central American countries. In the afternoon, we took a taxi out to see the Panama Canal and were lucky to arrive just as one of the container ships was moving through the docks. It’s definitely an example of some fine engineering.
After 2 days in the city, we headed out to the mountain town Boquete, famed as one of the top retirement destinations for Americans. We thought it would be an organized town with some nice restaurants and cafes, but were surprised to find what looked like an abandoned town from the Wild West with local Panamanian women in traditional dress and lots of SUVs with grey-haired gringo elders. Lots of SUVs. There seemed to be no interaction between the expat retiree gringo and the locals; in fact we met many Americans who lived there for 5 years or more and spoke no Spanish. We found that to be very strange and I realized that this was not a cohesive community. But our worst discovery by far was in the fruit and vegetables.
Reaction to Pesticides in Fruit and Vegetables
After buying fresh cabbage, cucumbers, tomato, onion, papaya and banana at the local market we were excited to go back to the hostel to make some yummy raw food creations. That night, I developed a horrible headache (something I never get)…and for days I had headaches, felt tired and even had a burning sensation in my throat, like a chemical burn. It finally occurred to me that it might be a pesticide reaction from the food. It didn’t take me long to make some Google discoveries about pesticide use in Panama and how the local farmers are using carbofuran, a very strong pesticide which is currently banned in Canada and the EU (in addition to many other banned pesticides as well). This was my first ever reaction to a pesticide as such, but it really scared me, especially the burning in my throat. We did not use any olive oil, salt or spice of any kind and still, I had horrible headaches daily. This discovery wound up crossing off Panama from my list of tourist destinations, well at least for anyone who is health-oriented or chemically sensitive. We did our best to make the most of the time we had, but our overall morale and feeling about Panama remained low for the remainder of our stay.
How to clean pesticides out of fruits and vegetables
For anyone who is traveling to Panama, I highly recommend bring Activated Charcoal Powder to pull the chemical pesticides out of your produce. This is how it’s done: Fill a bucket with water and add 2 tsp. of loose “activated charcoal powder” (in Thailand this is sold in health food stores specially as a vegetable cleaner). Soak all fruits and veggies for 10 minutes in the charcoal/water mixture, then rinse. Be sure to peel all vegetables before eating, even tomatoes. This will significantly reduce your exposure to these harmful pesticides and should minimize any reaction.
Please note: I have seen some websites that wrongfully promote Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) as a way to pull pesticides from produce. While GSE is great for killing bugs and harmful bacteria, it does NOT pull pesticides out of fruit and vegetables. Charcoal is an absorbing agent, like a sponge; while GSE is a cleaner of bacteria. Ideally, if you have the time and patience, you should first soak your produce in a Charcoal/Water mixture for 10 minutes, rinse, and then soak in 12-15 drops of GSE/water mixture for 10 minutes to clean any bacteria and eggs.
Boquete and Bocas del Toro
We decided to stay a few days in Boquete and take advantage of the one good thing we found: a 1-week membership to The Haven Spa; for $50 USD per person we had access to the gym, swimming pool and far infrared sauna for the week…so our daily ritual was to leave the backpacker hostel at about 11am each day and spend the whole afternoon relaxing in the quiet nature of the Spa. It was a bit strange that all the other members seemed to be 60 years old or greater and on most days I felt like we were in a re-make of the Ron Howard movie ‘Cocoon,’ but as tired weary travelers, we were most grateful for the tranquility of the place and I really enjoyed my daily far-infrared treatment, know to be a great detoxifier of heavy metals and chemicals (needed even moreso due to the circumstances!).
From Boquete, we ventured north to the Caribbean islands at Bocas del Toro, a famous destination in Panama for beach, sun and nature. A highlight for me was searching for red frogs on the island of Bastimentos and finding them ourselves, without a guide, and in nature…it was a small discovery but it felt so cool to find such a beautiful creature! Overall. I found the availability of raw food to be very bad on the islands. The grocery stores are owned by a Chinese mafia and the vegetables are black with mold and the lettuce and cabbage are wilted (and with heavy pesticides to boot). We initially thought to spend a few weeks in the islands but after a few days, we felt starved for real food and fresh produce so we headed back to Panama City and flew north to Guatemala.
My suggestion for Panama is this:
Definitely check out Panama City as it is an interesting place and there is plenty of fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. From what I read, the villages are using more potent mixtures of pesticides, and most likely, no one is regulating how much or what mixtures should be used. More mass-produced supplies in Panama City should be better (and I did NOT react to any produce in Panama City; only in Boquete and Bocas). That said, I did find a local expat, Kirk Floeck, owner of Organic Harvest, who is currently working on an at-home delivery service of organic fruit and vegetables for Panama City, so if you do live there, contact him for details: kfloeck [at] hotmail [dot] com. Also, sign up for the at-home delivery of vegan, raw food, gluten-free meals with Ajonjoli, another great healthy option for people in Panama City:
FB page: http://www.facebook.com/ajonjolinatural
Calle 65, San Francisco, Panama City, Panama.
telephone +507 394-8024
There are better choices for organic raw food, vegan and gluten-free health holidays in Central America in Costa Rica or even Guatemala.
More on Traveling Raw:
- Gluten-Free, Raw Food and Detox at Pachamama, Costa Rica
- Why I left Koh Samui, Thailand and Why I moved to Tel Aviv, Israel
- Fasting Retreat, Organic Raw Food & Total Relaxation at Farm of Life in Costa Rica
- Reconnect with Nature in Guatemala with Fresh Juice, Raw Food, Mayan Ruins & Volcanoes
- Find out where I moved to….! HINT: It’s a healing place