Panamanian Culture & People
Many refer to Panama as a melting pot of people and culture. The geographic location of the country made it a magnet for explorers and travelers and the cultural impacts continue to mold and shape the country. From Spanish colonization through the building of the railroad and canal, each of the visitors left remnants of their language, customs and goods.
Indigenous Panamanians, Spanish colonizers, African slaves contributed to the majority of the composition of today’s Panamanian fabric. Panama’s first people, the Cueva and Cocle tribes were lost to colonization, disease and war. The Spanish influence remains significant years beyond emancipation.
Spanish is the official language of Panama. Free, public education in Panama serves 87% of the population, preschool begins at four years through middle school. Secondary school academic and vocational tracks are optional. Though quality of education is dependent on location and impacted by teacher and resource shortages, overcrowding and non standard curriculum, literacy rates in Panama (94.09% per UNESCO) are substantially higher than neighboring countries at 54%.
In addition to private English schools in Panama, there are schools in Japanese, Chinese and French languages. Jewish, Catholic and Muslim schools are also available. Most private schools are in the city, Coronado is also home to an international school.
Public university is free for all including international students. There are over ninety institutions of higher learning in Panama though many are private.
Panamanians are friendly, talkative and often eager to share their traditions and customs. Panama culture is diverse and based in family values, male and females in traditional roles. Though a machismo culture, Mother’s Day in December is highly honored and indicative of the role of women in society.
Spanish influence in religion is significant, more than 60% are Roman Catholic, 25% evangelical Protestant. Islam, Jewish and Buddhism are also practiced though in much smaller numbers.
Panamanian people are socially polite though handshakes, hugs and kisses are common greetings. When entering a room, a general greeting is usual. Panamanians may be more direct and less likely to tend toward political correctness. Titles are important, dress is conservative in the city, surprising to see men in suits and ties in the tropical climate but that is the standard. Women in hose and heels is predominant.
The national outfit for women in Panama is the Pollera, handmade big skirts and off shoulder tops embellished with embroidery, often taking six months to craft and very pricey. Gold jewelry and ornate hair combs and headdresses known as Tembleques complete the costume. Pollera Day is celebrated July 22nd annually. For men, the Montuno, consisting of an embroidered shirt and pants or shorts. Contrary to popular belief, a real Panama hat is not fedora style but a straw hat with a distinctive turned up brim and black patches called a sombrero pintado.
The traditional music, tipico, is augmented by Latin and Caribbean influences. Socializing over holidays, birthdays, Carnaval, with family and friends includes food, music, dancing, drink and fireworks. Celebrations are both peaceful and noisy, often lasting long into the night. To get a firsthand knowledge of Panama people and culture, make certain you include at least one festival in your list of Panama sites to see as you explore this fascinating isthmus.
Panamanian cuisine is largely chicken and rice based, fish and meat heavy diets prevail. International cuisine has expanded the epicurean choices and UNESCO named Panama a creative gastronomic city in 2017. Seco and Abuelo are local alcoholic favorites along with the national beers, Atlas, Panama and Balboa.
Panamanians love baseball, football (soccer to North Americans) and boxing. Irving Saladin won the first Olympic gold medal in long jump in 2008. The Panamanian national football team qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and scored their first goal against England. It was a moment of national pride.
In Panama, the perception of time is more relaxed and less stressful than the usual North American lifestyle. Many find a healthier work/life balance with the slower pace though adjusting can be a challenge.
Many cultures coming together in one country has led to a mosaic of cultures often mingling to become distinctly Panamanian. Rather than a melting pot where separate parts become one uniform thing, a mosaic allows the pieces to remain together but distinct. Throughout its history, from colonization to the canal transition to start the new millennium, people come and go but those who remain manage to live peaceably.
Learn about the people and culture in Panama, experience the natural beauty as you travel the country and you will develop a new appreciation for this Central American wonder.