“I can find almost everything and anything here!” I said in astonishment when I found a can of ackee, one of my favorite Jamaican meals. How is this possible?
This small Latin American country, bursting at the seams with opportunity and progress, has many unexpected tricks up its sleeve. Panama is a candy store for adults—if you’re willing to tantalize your senses with something out of the ordinary.
A Little History
Even before the Panama Canal was built, everyone wanted a piece of the golden pie. It was as if this little country’s growth was strangely predicted, pushing the Spanish, later the French, and then the Americans to dwell and build here. It was the Canal, though, that really pushed Panama onto the global stage.
Christopher Columbus met groups of indigenous people here, each with their unique traditions and culture. A few hundred years later, the survival of these groups was challenged by the gold rush in the 1800s, along with the construction of the Panama Railway Company. Later on, the construction of the Canal brought people from all corners of the globe—the Caribbean, Asia, Europe, and Africa—in search of a better life.
Today Panamanians are made up of mestizos (indigenous and white European), mulatos (black mixed with white European), Chinese, and a hodgepodge of everything in between.
Caribbean culture has always been a permanent fixture in everyday Panamanian life.
Today, it’d be difficult to imagine life without plantain tarts and escabeche fish from restaurants in Río Abajo, where calypso music reigns. Whenever you’re in the mood for Caribbean infusion, this is the place to go. There are also specific hot spots, like Sabores del Chorillo, where you can get the best Caribbean-style fried fish.
May is an especially festive time of year for the Afro-descendant culture in Panama. It’s a time to enjoy all the food, clothes exhibitions, parades, fairs, and calypso and reggae concerts and parades throughout Río Abajo and at the Atlapa Convention Center. It’s truly a feast for the senses.
Afro-Caribbean language has also influenced Panamanian vernacular. For example, guial, which means “girl,” can be heard in Panamanian reaggaeton as well as fren (friend), both derived from Jamaican patois. You’ll most certainly catch a couple creole or patois phrases mixed in with Spanish, called Guari-guari, when you visit El Rey or Super 99 in the Río Abajo area. How they maneuver both Spanish and English creole is both skillful and fascinating.
Undoubtedly, the Chinese have a marked presence in the country. Sunday morning dim sum (Chinese breakfast) is a regular family outing that we indulge in at least once a month. For Panamanians, this is a welcomed delicacy.
Every year, Panamanians celebrate Chinese New Year with exhibitions and family-friendly activities. It’s spectacular to see traditional attire and music from different parts of China on display. And let’s not forget the ostentatious firework shows, which can be seen far and wide.
Although not as obvious as the others, Hindu culture has quietly made an impact on Panamanian culture, too. There isn’t much fuss and fanfare surrounding East Indians, as they generally keep to themselves. One thing is guaranteed—when you need to buy high-quality electronics, their recommendation is sound.
Panama has five indigenous cultures, of which the three biggest live in their own comarcas. A comarca is similar to an autonomous region and can be found throughout the country: From the hills of Chiriquí to those of Colón.
When roaming the city, members of the Guna community can be found walking alongside everyday folk.
Indigenous presence only increased after Rosa Iveth Montezuma of the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca won the Miss Panama crown in 2018.
Panama has a healthy group of expats from all corners of the globe due to its thriving economy and accessibility to other countries in the region. You’ll find nearly every nationality in the world gathered here, working together in varied fields.
If you’re interested in meeting expats, you can connect with them using InterNations which hosts regular “meet and greet” events. It’s also great for networking if you’re keen on building your professional profile.
The Visitor (El Visitante), a local bilingual magazine, caters to foreigners and provides detaileds on upcoming events in English and Spanish. It’s available for free and can be found throughout the city (the New York Bagel Café, La Plaza in Clayton, and others) around the city.
Welcome To… Panama?
Without a doubt, more people are coming and will continue to arrive on our shores thanks to the many opportunities Panama offers. Of course, there’s also the probability that by 2030, a panameño puro (full-blooded Panamanian) might be hard to find.
Some locals don’t appreciate all the foreign presences, and there’s been a call to implement stricter immigration regulations by some. Decreasing immigration might prove to be a daunting task; Pandora’s box has already been opened.
The cultures that are here already are here to stay, so let’s bask in the beauty and experience of it all.