Panama is a country of Caribbean cowboys, isolationist indigenous groups, and Afro-Antilleans who speak backwards on purpose. For a country roughly the same size as South Carolina, Panama culture is incredibly diverse, and you’re likely to get a little taste of all the varieties on even a short trip. I lived in Panama for almost […]
Panama is a country of Caribbean cowboys, isolationist indigenous groups, and Afro-Antilleans who speak backwards on purpose. For a country roughly the same size as South Carolina, Panama culture is incredibly diverse, and you’re likely to get a little taste of all the varieties on even a short trip.
I lived in Panama for almost three years, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural indigenous reservation, then as an expat living in a nice part of Panama City. I’ve been to all ten provinces, always trying to experience the culture at the local level, and I learned to love how the culture can change so quickly, even when it’s all so close together.
In this post, I first give you an overview of Panama ethnic groups, specifically the major indigenous groups in Panama. Then, see a breakdown of Panama culture by region. Finally, I cover cultural aspects you can expect to find throughout Panama: food and music.
Preparing for a typical Panamanian dance
The Ngobe are an indigenous group native to eastern Costa Rica and western and central Panama. Pre-conquest, they lived in small chiefdoms or nomadic family units and were famous for being warriors. Conquistadors, banana plantations, and latino cattle ranchers successively pushed them into a mountainous area in western Panama, where the soil is less arable and farming generally more difficult.
During the Torrijos presidency of the 1970s, the Ngobe were incentivized to consolidate geographically around schools and clinics, thus beginning the end of their nomadic tradition. To protect their own rights and be taken more seriously as a group, the Ngobe struggled to make their land a semi-autonomous region. They succeeded in 1997 and their area is now known as the Comarca Ngobe Bugle (Comarca means “semi-autonomous”). The Bugles are another smaller indigenous group that share physical traits and heritage with the Ngobe but speak a different language.
The majority of Ngobe now live in moderate poverty as subsistence farmers, many of whom supplement their farming with small businesses, or migrant work on farms in the neighboring Chiriqui province of western Panama.
The Ngobe are also known for their high-quality chocolate production. In this local tour, learn from Ngobe women about the entire process from cacao bean to the delicious chocolate bar.
Since the early 1960s, Ngobe women have worn full length dresses called naguas. Naguas are typically brightly colored and decorated with a geometrical diente (teeth) pattern that is said to represent mountains, animal teeth, the flow of a river, or dragon scales – depending on the legend.
Ngobe have their own traditional dance and sport. The jeki dance is a line dance of at least ten people meant to imitate nature. Ngobe dance jeki for special occasions, such as cultural celebrations and naming or coming-of-age ceremonies. Their sport, balseria, involves throwing a four-foot length of balsa wood at an opponent’s legs, while the opponent attempts to dodge. Balseria is played as a challenge between towns and is just as painful as it sounds.
A Note on Interactions
On first contact, Ngobe are generally stoic and reserved. Many have had limited interactions with foreigners in their lives and aren’t exactly sure how to deal with them, so they may appear standoffish at first.
The Embera people are indigenous to western Colombia and eastern Panama and mostly migrated into what is now the Darien province of Panama in the 1700s, following Spanish colonization in Colombia. They traditionally lived in extended family units along the banks of rivers and rarely had established villages.
Like the Ngobe, the Embera were incentivized by the Torrijos presidency in the 1970s to consolidate into more conventional townships in order to centralize efforts to distribute education and infrastructure to the population. They gained a Comarca (semi-autonomous region) in the 1980s, which is split into two parts in the Darien province of eastern Panama.
Rivers have historically been a central part of their culture, as most families lived along the banks of a river. As such, fishing and canoeing have been critical activities, and tasks like digging out a canoe have been rites of passage for young men.
The Embera are famous for the distinct style of their houses. They are typically made of wood, circular in shape, and raised 6-12 feet off the ground, with thatched roofs and no walls.
The Embera are also famous for their style of dress. The women often go topless and wear brightly colored and patterned skirts called perumas. The men may wear nothing but a long loincloth, although modern men are more likely to wear pants or shorts and no shirt, saving the cloth for ceremonies. Both men and women also often paint patterns on their bodies using a jagua nut, which can be manipulated to create black dye. The dye can last on the body up to a couple of weeks.
In recent years, the Embera have begun to take advantage of the surge of tourism to Panama, leveraging their photogenic traditional dress, unique houses, and cultural traditions (such as dance and song) to receive travelers in their villages. If you are interested in visiting an Embera community, it is important to either go directly to the village, or use a responsible source – many tour operators and cruise lines take commission of up to 90% for bringing groups of tourists to Embera towns, leaving the people to do most of the work and receive a small fraction of the benefit. Learn more about visiting an Embera village and responsible travel in our other blog post.
The Kuna people are arguably more famous for where they live than for who they are. Most of them live on a few dozen islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama, though they have a Comarca that extends down the northeastern coast of Panama, until the Colombian border. The islands are popular travel destinations, as they are an appealing combination of small, rustic, private, and surrounded by nothing but pristine Caribbean sea.
While mostly known for receiving travelers to these islands, the Kuna have a complex and often strained relationship with the rest of Panama, with their identity, and with the status of their Comarca as a travel destination.
The Kuna originally occupied many parts of what is now Colombia and the Darien jungle in eastern Panama, but were pushed west by Spanish invaders and conflicts with the Embera.
In 1925, the Kuna revolted against the government, who were trying to suppress many of the indigenous cultural traditions around the country. They succeeded in winning a peace treaty and taking the first steps towards having their current semi-autonomous region. They still celebrate this revolution every year and remain distrustful of the government.
The Kuna are famously photogenic, as their customary dress includes brightly colored molas (blouses) and skirts and beaded anklets wrapped up about halfway to their knees.
Tourism is a significant economic driver for the Kuna, but they are careful to keep it under control and receive travelers on their own terms. They have their own checkpoint when you enter their territory which requires a passport or local ID card in order to cross. They have a unique look, but generally discourage travelers from taking pictures of them.They also have certain islands designated specifically for tourism which they keep in good condition, planting grass and maintaining clean beaches.
Since the majority of Panamanians are latino, their trends tend to permeate the rest of the country. For example, fashion trends quickly become homogenous in such a small country and it’s common to see latino youth in particular emulate the styles of famous footballers and musicians.
At the same time, there are also significant indigenous and black populations in Panama, each with their own distinct history and culture. Each province also has its own culture, ranging from cowboys to suburbanites to farmers. The people of every Panamanian province are proud of their differences. Following is a breakdown of the unique parts of each province’s culture.
Almost half of the population of Panama lives in the Panama province (which includes the capital), and most of the government’s attention is focused there. There is definitely a mentality that the country is split between Panama City and “everywhere else.”
The province has a dramatic mix of wealth and poverty, the friction of which creates both tension and interesting cultural phenomena. In Panama City in particular, you’ll see street vendors hawking beneath the Trump Hotel, or bankers descending from glass towers to roll up their sleeves at a greasy lunch fonda.
While most people you meet now live in Panama province, many have roots outside of the city and are always happy to talk about their family’s hometown if you ask them where they’re from. Panamanians also love to talk about politics, and cab drivers in particular are excellent sources of political opinions and gossip.
Bocas del Toro
Relaxed and slow paced, Bocas is arguably the most culturally diverse province in Panama, mixing indigenous Ngobe, Afro-Antillean, indigenous Bri Bri, and latino heritages. For a long time, banana companies had the most significant influence over the area, dominating the port space and employing thousands of Bocas Panamanians.
The area is now most famous as a travel destination along the Caribbean coast. Most travelers go to Isla Colon (more often called “Bocas Island”) – a party town that doesn’t reflect real Bocas culture. For a more accurate feel, visit one of the dozens of islands and small towns on the coast.
Chiricanos are so proud of their province that they claim it could be its own country. The vast majority of Panama’s produce comes from Chiriqui, as well as some of the world’s best coffee. Chiriqui’s agricultural prowess makes for an intriguing blend of cowboy-farmer-entrepreneur inhabitants. If you ask a local about how important Chiriqui is to the Panamanian economy, you’re sure to get an entertaining reaction.
Chiriqui also has some of the most-visited destinations in the country: Boquete, Volcan Baru, Cerro Punta, and the Gulf of Chiriqui, so you can see why Chiricanos puff their chests.
Central Panama, encompassing the Azuero Peninsula, Veraguas, and Cocle, is cowboy country. The men of these areas are famous for wearing cowboy hats, denim, large belt buckles, and sporting mustaches. Men and women are famous for gritar-ing – which is like yodeling. These provinces are also the homeland of tipico, Panama’s local folk music, which is accordion-heavy and always involves gritar-ing. This part of the country is loud and boisterous and always ready to dance.
About 10% of Panamanians are black, but you wouldn’t know it traveling through most of the country, where you will see mostly latino or indigenous people. In Colon, however, the population is predominantly black and proud of their Afro-Antillean heritage and traditions, including coconut-infused foods and congo music unique to the province.
The overall feel in Colon is extremely laid-back and Caribbean, and Colonenses have their own ways of being counter-culture, including speaking a slang that involves saying words backwards, which Panamanians from other provinces sometimes confuse for English!
Composed mostly of dense primary rainforest and divided into semi-autonomous regions for the Kuna and Embera people, Darien is sparsely populated and largely ignored by the government (except to heavily police its only road in order to prevent drug smuggling from bordering Colombia). Darien has thus developed a reputation as the “wild west” of Panama, whose residents are fiercely independent and proudly self-sustaining. Most of the latino campesinos are farmers and cattle ranchers. The indigenous Embera largely live along the rivers and on the borders of the jungle.
Panama is not famous for its food culture, but there are some gems that not only taste good, but give you a deeper look into Panamanian lifestyles. For a more comprehensive rundown of Panamanian cuisine, we had a foodie Peace Corps Volunteer write a guest blog post about food in Panama plus her five favorite roadside restaurants in the country. Here are a few highlights:
Wherever you go in Panama, you’re likely to hear music blasting from speakers. Almost everyone has at least their own small, battery-powered radio, and on local buses, it’s a near-guarantee that the driver will have the music turned up loud. Although there are multiple national radio stations, and each province has its own, they all basically play one or a combination of the following four styles:
Tipico is Panama’s popular national folk music. It is accordion-heavy and features a female singer who essentially yodels at multiple points during the song. I personally never came around to enjoying it, but most Panamanians do. A lot of travelers feel it adds to the ambiance of their trip when they hear it on buses and other public spaces.
Tipico is most popular in the provinces in the center of the country. If you’re interested in a live performance, you can easily find one in the regions of Cocle, Veraguas, Herrera, or Los Santos. Samy y Sandra are arguably the most famous Panamanian tipico band.
Bachata began in rural Dominican Republic as folk/country music with blues themes of heartbreak, love, and longing. Blasted into the mainstream by bands like Aventura and Prince Royce, bachata is now one of the most popular styles in Latin America and you can expect to hear a lot of it on the radio in Panama. Note that if you want to dance bachata, it is extremely sensual, so be prepared for your partner to stick their hips right up against yours.
There are a few artists and songs that you will inevitably hear a lot wherever you go in Latin America. At the time of this writing, songs by Pitbull, Calle 13, Michel Telo, and Gente de Zona (feat. Enrique Iglesias) dominate the airwaves. In Panama, the popular Latin Pop songs tend to have a long shelf life compared to what we’re used to in the States.
Like in most countries in the world, whatever music is popular in the United States is generally also popular in Panama. This is particularly true in clubs and bars in Panama City, and you will tend to hear less American pop in the interior of the country, but it will still be part of the playlist.
For such a small country, Panama has an incredibly diverse population, which has resulted in numerous subcultures. There is ancient indigenous heritage combined with Afro-Antillean and Caribbean populations and a latino majority that changes in each region, mixing classic cowboy culture with modern fashions and music. So go local on your trip to Panama and experience its diverse culture wherever you go.