In this article:
- Panama is full of gorgeous natural landscapes, friendly people, and great food. But it has its quirks that can be confusing for first-time visitors.
- The multicultural nation is home to a diverse population and equally diverse culture to match.
- Keeping these 5 things in mind will make your visit much better as you learn to adapt to the local way of life.
After spending a large portion of the last three years traveling through the Central American nation of Panama, I’d like to think that I know more about this country than the average backpacker.
Of course, I’m still always discovering new quirks and aspects of Panamanian culture that surprise, delight, and horrify me. But, for the most part, I’d say that I have a pretty good handle on navigating the country, even with my not-so-perfect grasp of the Spanish language.
If you’re reading this article because you’ve already booked a flight to Panama, first of all, you’ve made an amazing decision. This is a nation rich with culture, breathtaking natural beauty, plenty of adventures to be had, and some of the nicest people I’ve encountered throughout my travels.
While many of the most amazing parts of the country have become overcrowded tourist destinations, there are still hidden gems around every corner. Indeed, I’ve been to quite a few mind-blowing waterfalls and hilltop vistas and been completely alone.
But, if you’re coming from a country like the United States or Canada, there are some things about traveling through Panama that may surprise and confuse you. I don’t say this to scare you. Panamanians are typically very helpful and you’ll always eventually find the way to where you’re going. I say this to encourage you to open your mind, shed your Western expectations, and try to enjoy the Panamanian way of life. So, to prepare you for what’s to come, here are some things to know about traveling in Panama.
As I’m writing this article, I’m sitting on a bus that was supposed to depart at 12:00. Did it depart at 12:00? Hell no. The bus driver didn’t even start the engine until 12:20 and, by the time he was finished hooting and hollering at all of his buddies out the window and we were actually rolling away, it was 12:35. Such is life in Panama. Don’t get upset when things don’t run on a tight schedule because, most of the time, they won’t.
If you plan to meet your Panamanian friend for dinner at 7:00, don’t expect them to be there on time. I learned this the hard way by asking women out on dates and then sitting alone for an hour at a restaurant and feeling like a fool.
The Panamanian lifestyle is always laid-back and never rushed. When you factor in poor road conditions, unpredictable weather patterns, and herds of cows taking 20 minutes to cross the street, showing up on time is just not in the cards.
What Is a Fonda?
As you make your way across Panama, one of the words you’ll read on signs most often is “fonda.” So, what does it mean? Well, it’s a specific type of restaurant. Yes, I know you learned the word “restaurante” in your first-year Spanish class. But “fonda” signifies something slightly different.
A fonda is sort of similar to a cafeteria that you might see in an elementary school. There are a whole bunch of aluminum trays lined up with different food items that you can choose from. You pretty much just point to what you want and then they slop it down on the plate for you.
The food in a fonda has typically been sitting in those trays for hours, so don’t expect it to be fresh. Still, they are typically the cheapest places to get food and, if you want to get the experience of what it’s like to eat like a Panamanian, there’s no better place.
Vegetarians Eat Rice and Salad
Here’s another essential piece of information regarding food: Panamanians love meat. And, in terms of vegetarian options, you’re looking at some pretty slim pickings. If you’re going to a restaurant anywhere outside Bocas del Toro, Boquete, or Panama City, don’t be surprised if the only vegetarian option is rice and salad.
I’m not talking about some radicchio-cranberry-walnut salad. No. Panamanian salad is lettuce and tomatoes, usually with no dressing. Maybe some onions or cucumbers, if you’re lucky.
It’s not all bad, though. Panama, and most of Central America, is rich in naturally grown fruits and vegetables at very affordable prices.
If you’re tired of eating bland white rice for every meal, you can stop by one of the innumerable streetside produce stands. Pick up enough papaya, avocado, pineapple, and tomato to fill your belly. Plus, it was probably all grown in the local community!
Side note: everyone should stay on the lookout for a salty fruit called “pifa.” It’s one of the tastiest treats I’ve ever tried and you won’t find it anywhere in North America.
Panama Is Multicultural
I’ve heard from quite a few travelers that Panama is fairly devoid of culture when compared to Mexico or Costa Rica. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment at all. While Panamanian culture may not be as succinct or easily identifiable as that of other Central American countries, there are certainly quite a few cultural experiences and nuances to learn about here.
Here’s a quick history lesson: Panama was originally inhabited by several indigenous groups. It was later conquered by Spanish conquistadors. Eventually, it became a major point in the transatlantic slave trade. A massive Chinese immigrant population also came to Panama during the time that the Panama Canal was being built.
As a result, the culture of Panama draws influences from Chinese, African, indigenous, and European cultures.
The diversity of Panama makes its way into the country’s culture in many ways. Many of the country’s festivals and celebrations are influenced by African or European traditions. A good deal of the country’s cuisine is a blend of flavors from all different parts of the world. Even the slang in the country can be traced back to foreign languages.
Some may say that this has made Panamanian culture a bit diluted. I think that this diversity has given rise to a new and interesting culture that is quintessentially Panamanian.
Gringo Is Not a Racial Slur
If you’re from the United States, someone in Panama will inevitably call you a gringo during your travels through the country. If you’re from Europe or Canada as well, there’s a pretty high likelihood that they’ll call you a gringo, even if it is historically inaccurate.
Don’t be mad. It’s not a racial slur. And any Panamanian who calls you a gringo is not saying it maliciously. It’s just what you are. They’re a Panamanian and you’re a gringo. Just smile, wave, and keep on doing your gringo thing.
Sure, the historical meaning of “gringo” may come from the phrase “green go home,” which was a way of telling the United States Army to cease their occupation of Panama. And, perhaps, it may offend your delicate sensibilities to feel like someone is telling you to get out of their country.
However, considering that the United States pretty much colonized Panama in order to build a canal and then stole all of the profits made off of said canal, essentially condemning the country to economic ruin for years, I think that you can deal with being called a gringo every once and a while.