Practical and Inspirational Guide To Visiting Panama
Panama has it all! The beautiful tropical country is considered one of the best tourist-friendly destinations in Latin America. It offers travelers paradisiac beaches, delicious local food, adventurous ecotourism, and unique urban experiences.
A Spanish immersion trip to Panama presents an excellent chance for travelers to elevate their language skills while experiencing a fascinating culture and dreamy places.
Keep reading for a practical and inspirational guide to visiting Panama. We’ll discover its history, cultural highlights, best destinations, useful travel recommendations, and more!
A Brief History of Panama
Panama’s strategic geographic location has served throughout history as the bridge connecting North, Central, and South America.
The country was first inhabited by the indigenous Cunas, Chocos, and Waymis. These groups sustained commerce with populations from Mesoamerica and South America.
The first Spanish explorer arrived in 1501. Panama City was founded in 1519.
As the Spanish colonization unfolded in Panama, the indigenous populations were heavily affected by disease and slavery. The Spanish conquistadors used Panama as an entry point for gold and resources exploited from South America. Panama has access to both the Pacific and Caribbean coast. It was a territory of great commercial interest to Europe and it drew the attention of British colonizers too.
Panama remained under the rule of Spain until 1821. It was annexed to Colombia along with Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
In 1846 the United States signed a treaty to build railways across the nation. The French made the attempt to build a canal that allowed connectivity between both oceans but were unsuccessful.
The United States showed interest in finishing the construction of the Panama Canal and the Colombian authorities refused. This sparked a need to become independent from Colombia for the Panamanian people. Finally, in 1903, the Panama Republic was consolidated.
Panama sold the rights to the Panama Canal to the United States. The massive infrastructure was completed in 1914 and served as an advantage for reducing long trips around the continent. The Panama Canal was officially opened in 1920.
Panama maintained a tense relationship with the United States due to the rights over the Canal area. There were riots, coup d’etats, and occupations as proof of the Panamanians resistance to foreign intervention.
A treaty was signed in 1977 by US President Jimmy Carter which promised Panama control of the Canal by the end of 1999. Once this treaty was fulfilled, Panama focused efforts on enlarging the canal between 2007 and 2016.
The investment in ground-breaking infrastructure has allowed Panama to grow and develop rapidly. The country’s economy is one the largest growing of Central America and stands out for having a highly productive population.
Panama’s currency is the balboa. Still, the United States dollar is widely used as legal currency. This makes it super easy for travelers as there’s no need for them to exchange money.
The population of Panama is close to 4.5 million people, of which 70% identify as mestizo (mixed), 14% as West Indian, 10% as white, and 6% as Amerindian. There are seven major indigenous groups who speak their own native tongues, but Spanish is the official language of Panama.
The majority of Panama’s population is Christian Catholic, which ties holidays and festivities closely to religion. Panama has a diverse and interesting cultural heritage. The traditions of Panama’s indigenous and Afro-Latino heritage boasts rich gastronomy and folklore.
The country stands out for celebrating special events with immense pride, music, dance, colors, and the Panama flag in every corner. Here’s a list of the Panama festivities you can’t miss.
Panama’s Carnival (Carnaval de las tablas)
El carnaval de las tablas is celebrated before Ash Wednesday in March. It commemorates a traditional rivalry between religious groups of the 19th century. The feud is long gone and is now celebrated with traditional songs, dances, and colorful parades.
Carnival in Panama is a family-friendly event with delicious foods, drinks, elaborate costumes, joyful dances, and symbolic happenings.
Read more about Mardi Gras in Latin America in this entertaining blog post full of curiosities and fun facts.
Independence Day (Fiestas Patrias)
Las fiestas patrias celebrates Panama ‘s independence from Colombia and flag day. It’s an immensely patriotic holiday held every November.
The Panama flag is honored and the unique culture is visible to admire all around. Panamanians hold a massive and flamboyant parade in Panama City. There’s dancing, marching bands, music, and performances by people from all over the country.
Learn more about Panama’s Unique Independence Day Celebrations in this insightful blog post.
Panama Jazz Festival
Music is a quintessential part of Panama’s culture. The annual Panama Jazz Festival attracts visitors from different nationalities. It’s held in January in a range of different music and concert venues.
The festival hosts talents from all over the globe. It is meant to create awareness on Panama and Central America’s social dynamics and issues.
Black Christ Festival (Festival del Cristo Negro)
The Black Christ of Portobelo is celebrated annually every October 21st. Faithfuls make a pilgrimage on their knees to the Church of San Felipe to visit the Black Christ’s altar. The festival is followed by a procession and a special mass. It’s been celebrated in Panama since the seventeenth century.
Discover another highly memorable holiday from Panama by reading this fascinating article about El Festival de la Mejorana.
Music and Arts
Panama’s folk music comes from the rich traditions in the country. The accordion is one of the most used musical instruments. Its melodies are accompanied by string instruments and classic drums. Panama’s folk music usually has vocals and is often combined with modern styles.
Reggaeton, dancehall, and rock music are also highly popular among Panamanians. The country’s arts scene is known for having notable talent and fine pieces.
Indigenous groups produce valuable crafts and handmade pieces. The distinct molas (handmade textiles) made by the Guna are sought out by art collectors and enthusiasts from other countries.
Panamanian literature centers around identity and history. The country has produced award-winning performers and well-known artists like:
- Rock Band Los Rabanes
- Poet Ricardo Miró
- Artist Brooke Alfaro
- Painter Guillermo Trujillo
- El General, considered one of the forefathers of the reggaeton genre
UNESCO declared Panama a Creative Gastronomic City in 2017. Panama’s cuisine is authentic, unique, and flavorful. It carries Afro-Latino, Spanish, and indigenous influences. Panama city is home to exclusive restaurants and top-rated chefs.
The use of fresh seafood, citrus, and spices create unique and refreshing flavors. Panama’s also home to exotic tropical fruits and ingredients. The cuisine stands out for its use of rice, maize, plantains, and meats.
Here’s a list of some of Panama’s well-known dishes:
- Ceviche: fresh fish, citrus fruits, and vegetables.
- Ropa vieja: a beef platter with spices.
- Sancocho: a traditional soup from Panama.
- Yuca frita: fried cassava.
- Hojaldras: fried pastry with powdered sugar.
Traveling to Panama
Travelers from the United States and the United Kingdom are exempt from requiring a visa to enter Panama. They’re free to enter the country and remain for a period no longer than six months.
Panama has six international airports that connect to every corner of the world. Panama City’s Tocumen Airport offers daily flights to large cities in Europe and the United States.
Many travelers access Panama by road and drive from neighboring Costa Rica. There are also cruise ships and boats that connect Panama with Cartagena in Colombia.
Read this inspirational blog post about What You’ll Find in Your Trip to Colombia and make your holiday an unforgettable trip to both countries.
What To Do
Panama has all sorts of activities and destinations for travelers of all ages and interests. The amazing Panama weather makes it an ideal travel destination to move away from winter.
The best time to visit is between January and mid-April when the dry season kicks in. . The rest of the year is known for its intense humid and tropical climate which is just as appealing due to the abundant vegetation and warm temperatures.
Panama offers travelers the chance to experience some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. The connectivity between central and South America makes it incredibly rich and resourceful. Panama is the most forested country in Central America with a coverage of 63% in its territory.
Panama is home to off-the-beaten path islands, paradisiac beaches, green jungles, charming mountain villages, and vivid cities.
The Panama Canal is a landmark of the country you can’t miss. The powerful machinery and infrastructure are a display of astonishing manpower and design. It runs between Panama City on the Pacific side and Colon on the Atlantic.
It’s a well-known productive shortcut between two oceans and is a marvel of engineering. Travelers are able to witness the Canal in action and how ships travel from one side to another.
Panama’s capital is the largest and most developed city. It is known for having impressive skyscrapers with high-end resorts and shopping centers.
The historic center, known as Casco viejo, has colonial architecture and can easily be explored by foot. Panama City is surrounded by rainforests and offers incredible natural landscapes.
Bocas del Toro
The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is a collection of islands and cays in the Caribbean Sea. It has a bustling nightlife and cultural landscapes.
The small portions of land are easily connected by boats, water taxis, airports, and ferries. The region of Bocas del Toro is well-known for its vast biodiversity in national parks. Bocas del Toro is home to 95% of the coral species in the Caribbean.
It’s a perfect destination for snorkeling, diving, surfing, trekking, and relaxing.
The San Blas Islands are also known as Guna Yala. The archipelago is an indigenous-run territory controlled by the Guna people.
Visiting this region of Panama is unlike any other experience. Out of all of San Blas’ 365 islands, 50 are inhabited by the Guna. Many travelers visit San Blas by sailboat.
The tourist infrastructure and facilities are rustic. San Blas is an ideal destination for experiencing community-based tourism. You can surround yourself with tradition, local cuisine, nature, and a warm-welcoming culture.
Boquete is a charming village in the Chiriquí province. It’s on the slopes of Barú Volcano and has a fascinating ecosystem of coffee fields and water. Barú is the tallest peak in Panama and the hike takes from five to eight hours. It takes you up to 3,474 meters above sea level.
Boquete has pleasant weather and offers travelers the opportunity to enjoy ziplining, hiking, trekking, birdwatching, white water rafting, and more.
Panama’s isolated Pearl Islands hosted three seasons of the reality television show Survivor.
The islands are known for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. They acquired their name due to the Spanish conquistadors’ interest in harvesting pearls.
The islands welcome travelers who wish to disconnect and relax. They’re also known for offering travelers unique whale watching experiences, windsurfing, paddle boarding, sailing, and hiking.
Valley of Anton
The Valley of Anton is unfamiliar to travelers who follow mainstream travel advice to Panama. This hidden gem is a volcanic area that offers travelers a completely rare and unconventional experience. The valley is known for the local’s slow and relaxed way of life. The chosen mode of transportation is bicycles and there’s little infracture for tourists.
El Valle de Antón is well-known for being a nature sanctuary with over 10,000 plants and hundreds of birds and amphibians.
Going to Panama Now
Panama made headlines in international news for its strong vaccination efforts. In comparison to other Central American countries, it’s been able to contain the Covid pandemic and the situation is stable.
Panama is currently open to international tourists. Unvaccinated travelers need to present a negative Covid test for entry. If you’re visiting Panama and have spent time in high-risk countries ahead of your trip, you’ll need to be quarantined for 72 hours in a hotel at your own expense.
Panama is working hard in ensuring safe travels for everyone who visits. Mask use is mandatory at all times and social distancing is encouraged both indoors and outdoors. There’s a curfew but the majority of tourist attractions have accessible schedules.
My best advice would be for you to find out more about Panama’s travel restrictions prior to traveling.
¡Vamos a Panamá!
Let’s go to Panama!
If you’re set on becoming a confident Spanish speaker, a trip to Panama will reward you with plenty of engagement opportunities with locals where you can practice conversation.
Panama’s culture makes it an ideal destination for you to improve your Spanish through unique experiences and sceneries. Sign up for a free class with our certified teachers from Guatemala and allow them to prepare you with the most useful Spanish vocabulary and conversation.
Learning Spanish ahead of a holiday prepares you for easy-going travels. You learn how to move around on your own, how to order food, and how to shop for the best souvenirs. It also sets you up for building strong friendships with people from different backgrounds and cultures.
Speaking Spanish expands your understanding of diversity. Don’t miss out on the chance of enhancing your communication skills to a whole new level and improving your knowledge of the world.
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