Whether you’re a fresh off the boat expat, or here for an exploration vacation, there are a few things you should know before venturing outside of Panama City and into the more rural and culturally traditional “interior”. Being married to a Panamanian and living in a rural surf and cattle pueblo on the Pacific coast for the past 4 years made me learn pretty quickly the do’s and don’ts of being part of Panamanian culture. I’ve put some of them to paper for you, to avoid any cantina faux pas or simply to make more friends and experience the beautiful culture of Panama for what is, not just the beach view from your hotel room.
First things first, always , always, ALWAYS greet everyone. Coming from a culture and generation where a nod to an acquaintance from across the room when entering a party is “cool”, this was one that took me some getting used to . Whether looking for just one beer after a surf session, entering the doctor’s office, or checking out at the Chino grocery store a “buenas,” “buenos dias”, or “hola” is absolutely necessary to be a part of polite culture. If you know the person or are being introduced a handshake is a MUST.
Unlike European cultures, a kiss on the cheek is only really acceptable when it is a woman greeting another female friend, or between family members. When arriving at a “matanza” or quinceanera or large gathering of people, going around to shake hands with 50 plus people may seem exhausting at first, but the impression and connection you’re making will make it worth it in any small pueblo throughout Panama.
Clearly here I am stating the obvious in that it will be easier for you to immigrate and become part of your new country or the country of your chosen vacation if you are able to communicate in the national language. But here’s the thing , no one is demanding fluency.
I moved to Panama with an intermediate level of Spanish, and found that people were incredibly kind and grateful for the effort that was made to speak to them in their language instead of assuming it was their responsibility to cater to me in English. Google translate is your best friend! Download the app and keep it handy, also keep a small notebook with you and write down at least 5 new words you learn every day. Slang is also important. Even if you’re only in Panama for a week or two, learning where to properly throw in a “chucha” will break the ice and bring you some laughs and smiles, setting you both at ease, even when communication is stressful.
In every small pueblo and beach town across Panama you will find a church, a tienda or two, and MINIMUM one cantina. Cantinas are social hubs and backbones of any small community throughout the interior. National beers are Panama, Balboa, Atlas, and Soberana. Pricing tops out around $1 unless you’re in a major tourist hub, and alcohol content goes no higher than 5%. You can find some crafty brews from place to place or Mexican or European imports for a higher price occasionally in some cantinas.
My advice, find a local brew you like and stick to it. When frequenting your local pueblo watering hole, you know what you want and know it will be there. You are also ordering a beer that makes you available to be able to be part of the “round buying“ experience. Panamanians are generous people, even more so at the cantina. If you wanna make friends, accept the cerveza, and return the favor. Stick to national beers and enjoy them while you’re here. You won’t find these anywhere else.
Looking for a bite to eat that won’t break the bank? Find your local fonda! Don’t let appearances fool you, I have had some of the best comida tipica tucked behind gas stations, under a small rancho in front of a family home, or from a barbeque set up under a tent during a rodeo. Between $3 and $5 will fill up your stomach and your heart knowing that you are supporting a small business and local family that is sharing their tradition with you on your plate.
Now, to be warned, fondas are no places for dieters, vegans, or picky eaters. You will normally be presented with two or three options of “comida del dia” or “comida corriente”, but you will rarely be left disappointed, or with space for dessert.
Don’t forget to ask for a “chicha”, a fruit juice, normally coming from the proprietor’s backyard or close by, for an extra 50 cents to a dollar for a perfect refreshing accompaniment.
Okay, so maybe this one is a little surf specific, but as much of our tourism industry here along the coast revolves around the sport, it’s worth mentioning. The easiest way to alienate yourself from a normally welcoming line-up of locals is to start going on and on about how much better your home break is in California or the amazing waves you just came back from riding in Bali. Locals are fierce defenders of their home break here, although welcoming to beginners and travelers. But nothing will make your would-have-been new amigo roll their eyes more dramatically than you complaining about conditions and bragging about expensive trips and boards you’ve had.
DO give priority to locals in the lineup at first, and they will return the favor.
DO give a hello and chat in the water, you might make some friends that will bring you to some secret spots off the beaten path.
DO have an amazing time, enjoy the beauty and nature of the place you are in, surrounded by good people and good vibes.
Claudia Phillips is an American citizen and nationalizing Panamanian, living in a tiny surf town on the Pacific coast in the province of Los Santos. By trade a licensed massage therapist and yoga teacher, she runs a small business, traveling along the coast to work with private clients, hotels, and surf retreats in the area. The rainy season slows down and gives her more time to spend surfing, off-road exploring, and green season discount traveling throughout the country. If you ever find yourself between Cambutal and Venao, be sure to look her up for a massage, a guide, or a friendly face to share a surf and beer. You can find her business page on Facebook : Moon Gate Health : https://www.facebook.com/moongatehealth.