Large freighter ship at the Panama Canal's Miraflores locks
History, Panama

9 Things I Learned During a Trip to Panama

The unexpected is a traveler’s best friend. By exposing yourself to new, sometimes uncomfortable places and ideas, the things that separate us start melting away. Many of these items aren’t unique to just one country, but they were new to me. So, read on to learn to some super fun facts (so much fun) before your trip to Panama.

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1. Public Displays of Affection Aren’t Very Common

On my third or fourth day in country, I started to realize how little hand-holding, hugging, and kissing took place in public. Owing to its 70% Catholic population, Panama culture can be conservative. Nobody’s gonna stop you from sharing a kiss (I mean, how would they?), especially in tourist-heavy parts of the country. But this is definitely Panama, not Paris.

For LGBT and gay people, Panama travel is largely safe. This is thanks to a growing network of gay-friendly and gay-owned tour and hotel operators. And generally speaking, Panamanians keep to themselves. In speaking with long-time LGBT residents, negative experiences are rare. Gay culture however is underdeveloped, with just a hand full of gay bars and clubs in Panama.

2. Panama’s Bananas are Big Politics

On your way in and out of Bocas del Toro you’ll notice a shipping port and freight containers for the Chiquita company, each containing thousands of bananas. I haven’t done all the bananamathematics, but one ship can transport hundreds of millions of bananas. That adds up quick.

This important export is worth a quarter billion dollars every year. In nearby Costa Rica, Spanish conquistadors searched in bloody vain for gold ore. But a couple hundred years later, people realized the real gold was growing on trees.

The phrase, “banana republic” is rooted (ha) in Central America. It was coined to describe corporations like Dole and the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) who exploited a country’s natural resources. This important legacy is covered in the documentary Bananas!*, and its poorly-titled sequel, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

Today, bananas as a share of Panama’s GDP are greatly diminished. One reason being the eponymous “Panama disease”, a powerful, fungicide-resistant pathogen that destroyed much of the country’s banana crop in the 1950s.

No word on what Panama hat exports are worth.

Dogs on Playa Negro in Puerto Viejo
poochy gang poochy gang poochy gang

3. Dogs and Cats Are Everywhere

Dogs and cats often roam free in Panama’s population centers and rural areas. Some hold pet-status in the North American sense, staying indoors both day and night. But many serve a utilitarian purpose, whether it’s hunting for mice or watching the land.

In Bocas Del Toro, dogs are everywhere. And locals know them by name, some of the canines take cruises on their own, jumping aboard a local ferry to reach different islands. On more than one occasion I’ve left a dog on one island, then found it trotting past me a few hours later. There’s a hierarchy among the dogs of Bocas, so I consider myself lucky to have met the alpha herself. And I made a few catcalls too.

4. Panama Has Two Official Currencies

This is one of those interesting facts about Panama you’ll find on a Snapple cap. So, go to a cafe and give the barista $10 in USD. For change you’ll receive US currency and Panamanian balboas (coins only).

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But unlike Costa Rica, where the dollar is often accepted at a premium, the Panamanian balboa and United States dollar have a 1:1 exchange rate. Which means you can use dollars and balboas interchangeably. Panama is one of the few countries on Earth with more than one official currency.

Expats play music in Boquete, Panama
Amercan expats perform at the Boquete Brewing Company

5. There’s a Large Expat Population

Tens of thousands of Americans and Canadian expatriates live in Panama, most often for retirement. Panama has good weather, a low cost of living, and a large bilingual population.

One night, I stumbled into Boquete, Panama after an hour of riding the wrong bus. In town, I found the Boquete Brewery Company and a trio of ex-Americans performing some wicked rock and roll. Between sets, I spoke with the bass player, a woman in her 60s who moved to Panama with her husband a few years ago. Then she learned to play the bass guitar. As her spouse jumped on tables and sang the classics, she told me they’ve never been happier.

In Panama and Costa Rica, it’s not unusual to find a large number expats in one city.  After two weeks of traveling in Central America, I went to a party of American expatriates in Puerto Viejo. In a flash I was transported back to the food, music, language and accents of my home country. Talk about a culture shock.

A Panamanian girl sells food along a rural road
A young girl sells cilantro for $1

6. Panama is a Developing Country with Islands of a Developed Country

The Canal, plus a booming travel and banking industry has made Panama one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But by World Bank and UN standards, Panama retains a “third-world” status. Poverty is common and unskilled labor is in high supply and skilled labor is in high demand. In all of Latin America, Panama ranks high for income inequality.

But statistics only go so far. Bocas del Toro is a first-world island surrounded by the third-world, in the most literal sense imaginable.

Like many Central and South American countries, Panama suffered under years of colonial oppression, in which goods are extracted and shipped away by a foreign company. Thus, the people rarely get any benefit from their country’s own natural resource.

You can’t blame them for charging gringos $30 a bottle on sunscreen, I suppose.

7. Panama is Central America’s Melting Pot

Panama is at the nexus of oceans and continents, connecting North to South America and the Atlantic to the Pacific. This created a mix of colors and cultures, especially in Panama City. Spanish, French, African, Colombian and Caribbean vibes stand out in the capital city by way of food, music and markets.

The indigenous people of the San Blas Islands – the Guna – are just one of the six indigenous groups in Panama. Of this native population, some 95% still live in extreme poverty.

Panamanans protest the United States December 20, 1999 invasion.
Protesters mark the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 20, 1989

8. Panama and the United States Have a Long History Together

In 1903, after a series of wars, interventions, and uprisings, the American military helped Panama win its independence from Colombia. In exchange, the US received total control over Panamanian land which later became the the Canal.

Now, fast forward a few decades and imagine you’re living in a poor nation where your most valuable territory is controlled by a foreign country. What could possibly go wrong?

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In 1977, amid rising tensions and fierce debate, the U.S. agreed to relinquish control of the Canal at the end of 1999. This happened, but not before the United States invaded Panama in 1989, arrested their leader, installed a new one, killed or injured hundreds of civilians, and displaced tens of thousands of families. I was in Panama City on the anniversary of this invasion – and let’s just say they haven’t forgotten about it.

9. Panama Has Some of the Most Important Land on Earth

Nearly a million vessels have passed through the Panama Canal since it was first used in 1914. The 8-10 hour voyage can cost a ship over $300,000, depending on weight. But it’s a fair price for a 48-mile voyage, considering the alternative is 8,000-miles around South America.

Indeed, this connection between oceans is noteworthy. Not just for the enormous impact on trade, but for its representation of Panama as a whole. This slim piece of land rose from the sea millions of year ago. According to NASA (psh, like they know anything), It separated the oceans, which made the Atlantic water more salty, which changed rainfall patterns and the global climate.

The land bridge also allowed animals to cross between continents, so now we have opossum and porcupine in the north and bears, horses and raccoons in the south. Not bad for a little piece of land.

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