Panama Culture: A Breakdown by Province and Ethnic Group Panama is a country of Caribbean cowboys, isolationist indigenous, and Afro-Antilleans who speak backwards on purpose. For a country roughly the same size as South Carolina, Panama is incredibly culturally diverse, and you’re likely to get a little taste of all the varieties on even a […]
Panama is a country of Caribbean cowboys, isolationist indigenous, and Afro-Antilleans who speak backwards on purpose. For a country roughly the same size as South Carolina, Panama is incredibly culturally 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 everything can change so quickly, even when it’s all so close together. In this post, I give you an overview of the different sub-cultures you will experience throughout the country, what’s unique about each province, as well as how food and music are infused into everyday life.
Preparing for a typical Panamanian dance
Each province has its own distinct latino culture (which is why I have a breakdown by province below), ranging from cowboys, to suburbanites, to farmers. 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 (when Cristiano Ronaldo had a fohawk, I think every third young Panamanian male had a fohawk as well). Since the majority of Panamanians are latino, their trends tend to permeate the rest of the country. But there are also significant indigenous and black populations in Panama, each with their own distinct history and culture.
The Ngäbe are an indigenous group native to eastern Costa Rica and western and central Panama. Pre-coquest, 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 Ngäbes 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 Ngäbes struggled to make their land a semi-autonomous region; they succeeded in 1997 and their area is now known as the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé (Comarca meaning ‘semi-autonomous’ and Buglés being another smaller indigenous group that share physical traits and heritage with the Ngäbes but speak a different language).
The majority of Ngäbes now live in moderate poverty as subsistence farmers, many of whom supplement their farming with small businesses, or migrant work on the wealthy farms in the neighboring Chiriqui province of western Panama.
Since the early 60s, Ngäbe women wear full length dresses called naguas. Naguas are typically brightly colored and decorated with a geometrical diente (teeth) pattern that is said to represent, depending on the legend, mountains, animal teeth, the flow of a river, or dragon scales.
Traditional Ngäbe jeki dance
Ngäbes have their own traditional dance and sport. The jeki dance is a line dance of at least ten people meant to imitate nature. Ngäbes 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.
On first contact, Ngäbes 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 stand-offish at first. We’ve found you can easily disarm them with a smile and some friendly small talk.
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 Ngäbes, in the 1970s, the Embera were incentivized by the Torrijos presidency 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 in Panama 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.
Traditional dance in an Embera Village
The Embera are also famous for their current style of dress. The women often go topless and wear brightly colored and patterned skirts called perumas. The men may wear nothing but what we would refer to as 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 however, 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.
The Guna 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 semi-autonomous region (Comarca) that extends down the northeastern coast of Panama, until the Colombian border. The islands are popular tourist destinations, as they are an appealing combination of small, rustic, private, and surrounded by nothing but pristine Caribbean sea. While mostly known for receiving tourists to these islands, the Guna have a complex and often strained relationship with the rest of Panama and with their identity as a destination.
The Guna 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 (who were also forced to migrate west).
In 1925, the Gunas revolted against the government (attacking the colonial police), who was 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 Guna are famously photogenic, as their customary dress includes brightly colored molas (blouses) and skirts, and beaded anklets wrapped up about halfway to their knees.
An island in the Guna Yala; By Mónica J. Mora (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tourism is a significant economic driver for the Guna, 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) and generally discourage tourists from taking pictures of them. Which is understandable – they have a unique look, but that’s also just the way they dress, and I’m sure it would be strange and annoying to have people constantly take pictures of you while you went about your daily business. They also have certain islands designated specifically for tourism, which they keep in good condition, planting grass and maintaining clean beaches.
Each of Panama’s provinces have distinct cultures and they are proud of their differences. Following is a breakdown of the unique parts of each province’s culture.
Chiricanos are so proud of their province that they claim they could be their own country. The vast majority of Panama’s produce comes from Chiriqui, as well as some of the world’s best coffee. Chiriqui also has some of the most-visited destinations in the country, in Boquete, Volcan, Cerro Punta, and the Gulf of Chiriqui, so you can see why Chiricanos puff their chests. This makes for an intriguing blend of cowboy/farmer/entrepreneur and for entertaining reactions if you ask a local about how important Chiriqui is to the Panamanian economy.
Composed mostly of dense primary rainforest, and divided into semi-autonomous regions for the Guna 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 latinocampesinos are farmers and cattle ranchers and the indigenous Embera largely live along the rivers and on the borders of the jungle.
Relaxed and slow paced, Bocas is arguably the most culturally diverse province in Panama, mixing indigenous Ngabe, Afro-Antillean, indigenous Bri Bri, and latino heritages. For a long time, the banana companies had the most significant influence over the area, dominating the port space and employing thousands of Bocas Panamanians in atrocious work conditions. The area is now most famous for its tourism along the Caribbean coast. Much of that tourism is centered around Isla Colon (more often called “Bocas Island”) – a party town that doesn’t accurately reflect real Bocas culture. For a more accurate feel, visit one of the dozens of islands and small towns on the coast.
An indigenous village in Bocas del Toro
This 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 essentially 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.
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, so 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, often juxtaposed, the friction of which creates both tension and interesting cultural phenomena. In Panama City in particular, you’re apt to 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 now live in Panama province, many have roots outside of the city and are always happy to talk about their family’s hometown in the interior if you engage them about where they’re from. Panamanians also love to talk about politics, and I’ve found cab drivers in particular are excellent sources of political opinions and gossip.
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!
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 run down of Panamanian cuisine, we had a foodie Peace Corps Volunteer write this post about food in Panama. We had another list her five favorite roadside restaurants in the country. I have a few highlights here:
Some classic Panamanian dishes, including fried fish and patacones (fried plantain)
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 (on cross-country buses, there will either be a bad movie playing, or a collection of music videos). Although there are multiple national radio stations, and each province has a couple of its own, they all basically play one or a combination of the following four styles:
This 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, and I’ve met a lot of travelers that feel it adds to the ambiance of their trip when they hear it on buses and other public spaces. The provinces in the center of the country are hotbeds of tipico, so if you’re interested in a live performance, you can easily find one in Cocle, Veraguas, Herrera, or Los Santos.
Samy y Sandra – arguably the most famous Panamanian tipico band
Bachata began in rural Dominican Republic as folk/country music with blues themes (i.e. heartbreak, love, 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, to the point where, in 2014, they were still consistently playing something like 8 out of the 10 popular songs from 2010.
Like in most countries in the world, whatever music is popular in the 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. Bieber is inescapable.
For such a small country, Panama has an incredibly diverse population, which has resulted in numerous sub-cultures. There is ancient indigenous heritage, combined with Afro Antillean and Caribbean populations, and a latino majority that changes in each region and mixes classic cowboy culture with modern fashions and music. So go local on your trip to Panama and experience its diverse culture wherever you go.