Cultural Crash Course: Top 5 Things to Know Before You Go to Panama4th February 2016
So you’ve bought a plane ticket to sunny, beautiful Panama. You’ve got sunblock and a cool pair of shades, and you can’t wait to get exploring. But time can certainly fly when you’re putting things in order at home or work, in preparation for a trip. Next thing you know, you’re boarding a plane, and you haven’t had so much as one uninterrupted hour to read up on your destination.
At least you know about the Panama Canal. Construction on the famous waterway was started by the French and completed by the United States, whose presence and influence helped make Panama the modern country it is today.
Still, you think about all those Panama-related books and guides on your nightstand at home, and sigh. But never fear, there’s hope for you yet!
The truth is, we’ve all been there. That’s why we’ve created a “cultural crash course,” just for you. Here are five quick tips that will help you make the most of your time in Panama.
1. Panama is home to several fascinating tribes:
Panama is home to sizeable percentages of rainforest—and the indigenous people that have relied on it to survive over the ages. It’s one of few countries in the Central and South America region that still has so many active tribes. You can even visit their lands, which they rule autonomously and strive to keep in pristine condition.
The Guna possess what may be some of Panama’s most spectacular real estate, as many of them make their homes on the jewel-like Caribbean isles of Guna Yala. Tourists are permitted to visit in controlled numbers. They enjoy the simplicity of white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, and seafood plucked fresh from the ocean.
Tours to the Embera-Wounaan communities of Panama are also popular. Along with the Guna and the Ngobe-Bugle tribes that inhabit the scenic Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro regions, the Embera are known for their artistic handicrafts. You’ll find Guna textiles called molas, Embera baskets, Ngobe beadwork and much, much more for sale all over the country.
2. Music and dancing are big in Panama:
If you’re a lover of music and dance, you won’t be disappointed. Here you will hear the Latin rhythms of salsa and merengue, Afro-Antillean inspired reggae and percussion, and so much more.
Panamanian folklore is a rich and well-preserved tradition, and the many dances are set to fun tipico music. It’s characterized by yodeling, accordions, and small guitars called mejoranas.
There are over 700 festivals held in Panama every year, so no matter when you visit, you should be able to find one. Dancers wear everything from flashy carnival wear to the dreamy white dress known as the pollera. The biggest event of the year is Carnival, held over the four days preceding the Catholic Lent. (Dates vary every year, but it’s usually in February.)
3. Panama is home to several World Heritage Sites:
A tiny country in Central America, Panama may not be what most people think of as a powerhouse. But this little squiggle between the Pacific and the Caribbean truly does pack a punch. It’s home to some of the world’s greatest marvels, such as the Panama Canal. And some of Panama’s oldest sites are recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
Two must-not-miss sites are right in Panama City. The first is the original Panama City, founded by Spanish conquerors in 1519. The ruins sit on a tiny plot surrounded by greenery. For the time and place, it was considered a grand city—a symbol of the wealth in silver and gold that was being plundered in the Americas and sent back to Europe.
That first city—now known as Panama Viejo —was burned down during the days of the infamous buccaneer Henry Morgan. A new attempt was made in the area now known as the Casco Antiguo. This is Panama City’s most popular tourist area, thanks to its French and Spanish colonial architecture. And let’s not forget the nightlife, with trendy restaurants, diverse bars, souvenir stalls, and a range of artsy locales. Additionally, you will find some of the best hotels in panama.
4. Biodiversity is a part of the culture, too:
If you’re coming to Panama, it helps to know that the flora and fauna have always played a crucial role.
The word “Panama” is said to mean “an abundance of fish”—an apt designation. Panama is also known for its incredible birds, with over 900 documented species. The elusive harpy eagle is the national bird and the tiny golden frog is a revered national symbol. To this day, you’ll see furry sloths and agoutis in green areas, even in the capital.
Panama is so bio-diverse that the Smithsonian established its tropical research institute here. Scientists from all over the world come to study the environment. Recently, world-famous architect Frank Gehry was enlisted to design a now renowned facility dubbed the Bridge of Life Biomuseo.
5. Fun Panamanian food and drinks:
A place of nearly perpetual sunshine and innumerable Pacific and Caribbean beaches, Panama is a place where people are always smiling. Welcoming and gregarious Panamanians love to party and have fun, especially in the great outdoors. And no gathering or road trip is complete without Panamanian food and beverages.
If it’s chip and dip you’re after, try the local version—fried plantains or yucca, often served with cold, fresh ceviche. Local drinks feature refreshing tamarind, tart limes, or even creamy corn. Food stalls sell piping hot empanadas stuffed with meat or cheese, fried corn dumplings, and green mango expertly seasoned with salt and vinegar. Every treat is fun to try. And there’s no better way to get the conversation rolling with a local than over good food and drinks. So eat, drink, be merry…and enjoy Panama!
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