Panama's Culture - A Unique Blend of Life

Situated south of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and to the north of Colombia, Panama’s role as a regional crossroads has shaped its history and destiny.

Simeon Onaji
Simeon Onaji

Simeon is a Senior Editor at Tozome, an amateur wine connoisseur, and a mediocre Tennis player.

Panama's Culture - A Unique Blend of Life
Photo:Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock

You have probably heard about the Caribbean paradise of Bocas del Torro or spectacular landscapes and nature vistas across the country of Panama. But to really connect to a country, one must get a glimpse of the culture and what shaped and molded it over the years. When it comes to that, Panama’s culture is something unique, diverse with bright footprints from the ancestors and their legacy. Let‘s discover together this unique blend of life that it is beautiful Panama.

People’s Diversity

Woman with flag of Panama painted on her face - Panama's Culture

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Panama today is one of the richest countries in Latin America in terms of indigenous population, and their presence is one of the brightest and strongest in the continent. With around 400,00 people speaking an indigenous language, some can be found in Caribbean isles like Guna Yala with some tribes still living deep in the Darien Gap jungles. Add an extensive mix of European immigrants, Africans, Creoles, Mestizos, and even large Chinese communities with their backgrounds and cultures and this is where the recipe for a unique and vibrant culture is created!

More than half of the Panamanians are from the mestizo heritage (European and Native American mix) while Spanish descent known as Creole is considered an urban elite. Another large and dominant demographic group is Africans or Afro-Caribbeans originating from the iconic Canal construction times and slaves from the colonial era. Hands down, Panama is the most multicultural and diverse country in Central & South America, and it’s what makes it beautiful!

Delicious Cuisine

Rice with chicken in Panama - Panama's Culture

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Panamanian cuisine is where you will definitely see a reflection and influence from people and cultural diversity.  Traditions and techniques coming from Native American, Spanish and African cuisines blending into one interesting Gastronomy with a strong presence of seafood. After all, in 2017 the Panama City was UNESCO creative gastronomic city, thanks to the brilliant chefs of the capital city.

The main ingredients in Panamian cuisine are plantains, corn, yucca, rice, and various meats, especially beef while you will find anything from heartwarming soups, many deserts, and typical rice and meat combinations.  On the streets one of the most notable foods are Empanadas and for snacks, Gallo Pinto and Ceviche share their fame and glory respectively in Panama‘s delicious cuisine. Regarding the main dishes, you most like to encounter local vegetables like plantains, exotic fruits, rice, beans, and meat. One of the finest examples being Sancocho and Carimanola. That‘s just a tip of an iceberg, once you are in Panama, a food tasting affair can turn into a journey of its own!

Charming Arts & Crafts

A panama woman in traditional attire - Panama's Culture

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Panama‘s unique blend of life and cultures are also very visible in their very well-known and charming artworks and crafts. For example, the Kuna Indians are responsible for one of the most recognizable handicraft items out there, their famous Molas. The colorful and geometric textile patterns originally used on Kuna women‘s skirts. Today it is a freestanding art form creating different pictures and patterns which can be found all across Panama.

But that‘s certainly not it as Panamanians are also very well known for their crafts such as pottery, wood carving, and more. Anything from woven baskets, detailed miniature birds carved from tropical hardwood to artistic pottery creations. Let Panama surprise you with its charming and soulful arts and crafts, usually dedicated and worked around themes of nature.

Panama’s Culture – Colorful Folklore

An afro colonial dance in Panama - Panama's Culture

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Panama hosts more than 700 festivals each year, and that is a result of beautiful and colorful folklore that is cherished and preserved over the years. When it comes to the music part, once again Panama‘s sounds and notes were influenced and shaped by different cultures. One of the first influences came from Kunas and other indigenous populations followed by strong musical winds brought by Europeans and then black communities from countries like Jamaica. Whether it’s Latin America‘s salsa and cumbia rhythms, the modern reggeaton, long history of Jazz, or African inspired reggeaton.

Today in Panama you can hear everything. It is a soulful mixtape of past and present, heritage and cultural blend molded over the years and flourishing today. Without a doubt, attending one of Panama‘s festivals and carnivals is the best way to experience and witness their rich folklore where deep Spanish roots can be seen and traditional dances like Tamborito and Cumbia.  Even the dances are a vibrant result of Hispanic and African traditional mix! Everywhere you look, Panama will hand the example of how different cultures can blend in, live together, and create something beautiful.

Shaping today’s Panama

Panama City skyline in the background - Panama's Culture

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When arriving in Panama or even trying to take a peek at what it is all about, things like the modern skyline of dizzying skyscrapers and the iconic Panama Canal can‘t go unnoticed. And it really reflects a major portion of what today‘s Panama is all about. While the steps mentioned above, were shaped and created by cultures and traditions from the past blending together over time, modern Panama however, is strongly influenced by the presence of the USA.

It all started with the appearance of one of the most impressive engineering feats of humankind, started by France but built and opened by the US in 1914, the Panama Canal. By controlling the canal until handing it over to Panama in 1977, US presence brought not only ships here. With the canal came the culture, fashion, lifestyle, businesses, and more. Today Panama is the most Americanized and also a modern and developed country in Latin America. Mostly, it can be seen in Panama‘s City infrastructure, a modern business district bordering the blue skies with its skyscrapers and even areas like sports, where baseball overcomes soccer in Panama as a national sport.

As you can see, Panama is one beautiful puzzle composed of different pieces, all coming from different eras of history, cultures, and traditions. All blended up, mixed and ready to be served for a curious traveler gliding through Panama‘s interesting labyrinth of culture.

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