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Dear Travelers to Panama, Please Don’t Come Visit Until You Understand These 6 Things

Panama Insider Guides
by Habla Ya Spanish Schools Jul 4, 2016

1. There is no single stereotype of someone who “looks Panamanian”.

Panama is a small, but diverse country of only about 4 million with a large mestizo, African, Asian, expat, and indigenous population. Panamanian indigenous groups maintain their autonomy, culture, traditional dress, and languages. There are also various Afro-Panamanian communities descended from enslaved people brought from Africa by Spaniards, Cimmarons who escaped and lived among the indigenous people, and laborers and indentured servants brought over from the West Indies to build the Panama Canal during the 1900s. Generations of Asians have also successfully settled in Panama following their contributions to the construction of the Canal. There are a growing and influential number of Venezuelan and Colombian immigrants in Panama as well as Jewish and Arab merchants attracted by the opportunities presented by the Panama Canal. This mixing of cultures has created a hybrid in which Panamanian identity continues to evolve in a way that’s inclusive of others.

2. No one cares about your schedule.

Time doesn’t function as a constraint here as it does in the West. Printed times can often merely be suggestions for things like performances or boat departures. Things move at their own pace in Panama and people are likely to stop to chat or catch the end-tail of a soccer game on TV in a bodega when you’d like them to hurry up. If you have a meeting or a date, it’s likely that the person will be late. Just relax. Things will get done. Eventually!

3. U.S. influence is big in Panama.

After a series of treaties and public protests, Panama won the right to manage and own the Panama Canal from the U.S. in 1977. The transfer of the canal to Panamanian authorities was completed in 1999. Despite those rocky periods, Panama maintains close ties to the U.S. to this day and the people hold no animosity towards North Americans. American music, television, movies, brands, and fast food are hugely influential in Panama. American English also peppers Panamanian slang with words like “pritty” “ofi” and “fren” commonly used.

4. Few people speak English outside of tourist areas.

Although U.S. influence is evident in Panama, that doesn’t mean everyone speaks English. A basic Spanish phrasebook or Google Translate can do wonders to enhance your travel experience in Panama. A lot of foreigners are fearful of making a mistake and butchering Spanish, but locals will appreciate the effort you’ve made to speak the local language.

5. Partying is taken quite seriously.

A party isn’t a party in Panama unless the entire neighborhood can hear the music and festivities, and the sheer amount of holidays in Panama in hard for many outsiders to believe. The country literally closes for a series of national holidays in November, Christmas, New Year’s, Carnival, and Holy Week, leaving you with little option but to join the party. .

6. Not all tourism is created equal in Panama.

Due to corruption, it’s not hard to find business that evade tax laws and environmental regulations in Panama, or use foreign “volunteer” labor to avoid hiring Panamanians. These types of businesses hinder the socioeconomic growth of communities that largely depend on tourism to survive and don’t invest in the local economy. By doing some research online ad asking the right questions, you can help give back to the local economy by frequenting businesses, hotels, and companies that aim to integrate the community rather than take resources out. Your dollars can go so much farther in keeping Panama beautiful when you focus on buying local and staying local.

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