We visited Panama as part of our big trip around Latin America, celebrating Stefan’s birthday at the gorgeous Bocas del Toro.
Panama is the most southern of the Central Latin American group of countries, sitting just above Colombia. Interestingly, it is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic. Also, the famous canal generates one-third of the country’s entire economy (as does the massive US expat population living there!) We’ve put together our 5 favourite interesting facts about Panama you need to know to give you a flavour for this fascinating tropical Central American country.
The Panama canal
The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel. It was initially built by the French in the late 1800s and then completed by the Americans until formally opened on 15 August 1914.
The Canal is a 50 miles (80km) waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Vessels take around 8-10 hours to cross it. It has 3 locks, each with 2 lanes. The easiest to visit is the Mira Flores lock in Panama City, which has also been turned into a visitor center.
At the Mira Flores visitor center you can see the canal live in action: ship comes in, pays the toll, waits, water drains out to lower ship to sea level, canal doors open and ship continues on its way. Watch our time lapse of it here:
Balboa balboa balboa!
Just like Nguyen in Vietnam, this is a common name you see everywhere in Panama. It derives from the Spanish conquistador, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who is credited for discovering the Pacific Ocean in 1513.
Every other street name has Balboa featured in it in some way, and statues of him also appear in most cities. The most popular beer in Panama is called Balboa and even the country’s official currency is called balboa, which is used interchangeably with the US dollar. Balboa is also a port city in Panama and the name of a region.
The Panama Hat
The Panama hat is in fact made in the city of Cuenca, not Panama – check out our interesting facts about Ecuador to read more.
It was however popularised by President Roosevelt who bought one in 1906 during an inspection tour of the Panama Canal construction. As such they are now called the Panama Hat and you can buy them in almost every souvenir shop in the country.
Panamanians are very proud of this straw hat, and some take it to a whole new level, like this guy we spotted at the airport in Panama City:
The national dress of Panama
For special festivals, carnivals and folklore events, Panama has its own national dress, inspired by the Spanish during the colonial times.
For women, they wear the pollera, which is a blouse and long skirt, with multicoloured cloths and embroidery, decorated with jewellery over the blouse. They also wear a tortoise shell comb on their heads called peinetas.
For men, the traditional costume is more plain. It consists of a white long sleeved shirt with a closed neck called the Camisilla, black long trousers, a traditional straw hat with black lines called the Sombrero Pintao, a small bag hanging on the left side of the body called the Chacara, and black and white shoes called Chinelas.
The pollera is so important to Panamanian culture that it even has its own national holiday: Pollera Day is celebrated every year on 22nd July.
Indigenous people of Panama
Panama has 6 indigenous groups: the Ngöbe-Buglé, Emberá-Wounaan, Naso (Teribe), Guna (Kuna), Bri Bri and Bokata. In total, they make up around 15% of the Panamanian population.
The indigenous people of Panama usually make a living via subsistence farming, hunting, fishing and selling handicrafts. More recently, some have delved into eco tourism, most famously, the Guna in the beautiful islands of San Blas along the Eastern Caribbean coast.
Sadly, most indigenous groups in Panama are extremely poor with health problems and high illiteracy rates. But they are nonetheless very proud of the traditions and cultures they have maintained for centuries.