Ranging from the sparkling Caribbean to the roaring waves of the Pacific, dotted with mist-topped volcanos and cut-through by the great Panama Canal, there are few things that unify this small nation in Central America on the geography front. However, there's plenty to unify the place when it comes to Panama culture. Yep, with everywhere from Panama City to the smallest hamlets of the rainforests all joined together by a love of good rhythms, hearty food and a shared past, the destination is a truly fascinating one.
Check out this guide to the ins and outs of Panama culture, which ranges from the multi-ethnic character of the nation to the plantain-scented kitchens of its cities…
Panama is a multicultural melting pot
Thanks to Panama's place right at the join of South America and North America, it's long been a point of contact between different peoples, cultures and creeds. In the days before Columbus, it's thought that the great ancient civilizations – the Incas of Peru, the Mayans of Mexico - of centuries gone by passed through the country, trading and talking diplomacy. When the Spanish came, another wave of traditions came with them, and so did slaves captured from Africa. This imbued the east coast with a Carib-Creole vibe, but gave the cities the look of Andalusian masterpieces. Finally, the modern boom of big business and banking in Panama City has attracted people from all over the globe, and today the age-old tradition of this pint-sized nation as a real melting pot of folk and culture continues.
Fiesta and festival at the Carnaval de Las Tablas
Panama's most famous carnival is now a real hit right across the globe. It takes place once a year, and draws travellers from across the region and the planet to its colourful shows and displays of folk dancing. The whole thing started way back in the 1800s, when two feuding groups of worshippers attempted to provoke each other with artistic displays. Today, the feuding is a thing of the past, but the tradition of doing flamboyant shindigs and boogies continues. The little town of Las Tablas – the place where it all began – is the top spot to go and celebrate Panama's famous carnival. Just be careful you don't get doused with water (it's just another of the curious customs performed during festival days!).
Food, food and more food
The budding foodie and the gourmand traveler about to set off on that Panamanian adventure will be pleased to hear that this Central American country is big on cuisine. Yep, by fusing the cooking traditions of Africa and Latin America, Spain and the Caribbean, the folk here have forged a new and unique smorgasbord of flavours that are simply to die for. You can start the day with a bout hojaldras dough cakes and cheese curd, move onto a lunch of mouthwatering maize tamales, and finish the evening slurping on yucca and chicken broths or arroz rice in the Andalusian style. Oh yea, and let's not forget those gorgeous plantain crisps for munching on in-between either!
Folklore galore at the Festival de la Mejorana in Guarare
Another hugely popular festival in Panama is the Festival de la Mejorana in Guarare. It has taken place in a small and sleepy town on the Azuero Peninsula since the 1950s, and is considered the prime celebration of all the old stories and customs that coalesce in the country. Visitors passing through Guarare at this time (September) will get to see bull dances and oxcart processions, theatrical performances and re-enactments of oral folk tales that have been passed down through the generations.
Tipico and pindin for dem' rhythms
Panama's most traditional and iconic forms of music are known as tipico and pindin. These are a lively fusion of North American jazz rhythms, blues and colourful Latin beats, and make for a truly great show in the evenings amidst the bars of Panama City – just don't be surprised if you hear an overload of accordion and some heavy drum slaps! That said, Panama is riddled with oodles of other musical traditions too. There are loads of reggae artists here, churning out the off-beats of the Caribbean world. There are salsa and samba artists, performing in the cantinas with all the panache of a Rio carnival. There are prog rock banks and awesome jazz quartets too, all following in the footsteps of the revered bandleader Luis Russell. (Be sure to check out the Panama Jazz Festival if you're interested in that sort of thing.)
Religion and beliefs in Panama
Although there are no official statistics to prove it, most estimations guess that Panama is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic when it comes to religion – no doubt a fact heavily influenced by the Spanish here. However, the country also enjoys freedom of religion, and – just like with peoples, music, food, art and geography – has a truly eclectic mix of faiths between its borders. Take the fact that Panama is thought to be the home of one of the largest Bahá'í Faith communities in the world – a curious monotheistic come humanist religion that's based in Israel. And then there are the Rastas, with their close connections to the nearby Caribbean, along with countless other Christian and Muslim and Hindu denominations to boot!
Warm welcomes abound
One final thing to note about Panamanian culture is the warm welcome that's extended to visitors who pass this way. Panama's people tend to be humble, laid-back folk, who enjoy a good balance between work and play. They also love meeting and chatting to newcomers, and sharing stories about their country (of which they are very proud). They are open and will often not shy away from discussing issues like politics and religion, but will always go out of their way to accommodate requests (Panamanians will famously answer 'maybe' instead of just 'no' to many questions!).
Can you think of any more interesting aspects of Panama culture worth mentioning here? If so, we'd love to hear about it in the comments below. Or, if you think it's time you booked your odyssey to this Central American nation of tipico, carnivals and friend plantain pancakes, be sure to check out the offering of trips to Panama from LBW.
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