9 Real reasons to like Panama

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Photo © Okke Ornstein


WE DON'T know about you, dear reader, but we are so fed up with expats who tell each other on expats blogs and forums and advertising rags constantly how great ("awesome!") Panama is. It is as if they don't really believe it, and they have to reaffirm their choice for their new homeland by incessantly babbling at each other about paradise, crystal clear water, lush vegetation and rolling hills, the cosmopolitan capital and how English is widely spoken and oh, those great real estate deals! And then they go on about how Panama City is just like Dubai, and the Azuero is just like Tuscany, and the Caribbean coast is just like the Caribbean and Bocas is just like Key West while Casco Viejo is really just like old Havana - it all has to be just like something else. It can't stand on its own.

Of course there is nothing wrong with liking Panama, but these expats and the expat promoters like it for made-up reasons, turn it into a fantasy land, a place that doesn't exist other than in their tortured minds and in the endless brochures and websites that all copy each other.

So, let's burst that stupid bubble and offer you some real things we like about Panama:

  1. Calidonia and Santa Ana. Forget Casco Viejo. It's overrun by yuppies, snobs, yeye types, real estate hustlers and tourists. It's full of fake classy restaurants, bars and clubs that charge too much. Instead, we like the Avenida Central, the pedestrian area. Here you meet normal people, mostly Panamanians, some of the buildings are really cool in terms of architecture and the Plaza de los Aburridos is a diamond in the rough. The side streets when you walk towards 5 de Mayo are full of obscure bars. Once at 5 de Mayo, with a bit of luck you run into one or the other demonstration in front of the National Assembly so you can get an idea of what really bothers Panamanians - or they will happily explain it to you. When you continue into Calidonia, there is a street market where they sell everything from fruits and vegetables to fake designer sunglasses and contraband cigarettes. Pirate taxis and minivans compete for passengers to be brought to Arraijan and La Chorrera. It's one of the few areas in Panama City where real life goes on instead of a tourist brochure or gentrified version of it, and where the city doesn't try to be "cosmopolitan" or anything else it isn't.
  2. Panamanians are anarchists. Yes, the culture is one of complacency with whatever abuse those in power dictate, but a lot of that is just appearance. They will do their own thing anyway. Whenever some new law is implemented, foreigners will worry about the implications; Panamanians will be busy finding a way to ignore or sabotage it long enough for it to be forgotten about. Then they'll make up their own rules. For example, they sign a trade deal with the gringos which includes excessive protection of copyrights, yet pirate movies are sold everywhere and you can freely go to any torrent site you like to download music, software etc. Try that in the "developed world". Similarly, if the authorities forget to build a road or a highway exit in a place where Panamanians believe they need one, they will simply make it themselves. Last but not least, another example comes from the island where your reporter lives. When the mayor issued new rules about dogs having to be on their leashes all the time and owners having to collect dog shit or face hefty fines, the only thing that has really been respected about those rules were the signs that were put up. Other than that nobody cares. New rules about garbage collection caused panic among expats, but the locals didn't raise an eyebrow, knowing that everything would be back to normal in a matter of just weeks if they just ignored it. Which indeed it did.
  3. Driving is fun and efficiently self-organized. You can legally decorate your car with as much neon and flashing lights and other automotive bling-bling as you like, and many Panamanians prefer this over spending money on boring things like maintenance. This is possible because in Panama there are no rules for emissions for cars, and in fact as long as it runs and lights and brakes a sort of work you're considered perfectly roadworthy. Maximum speeds are only rarely enforced by the police, because leaving the roads in a state of disrepair is a much more effective deterrent for excessive speeding. Speed cameras and other such evils from the developed world don't make much sense in Panama because the registration system is a mess and cars often have no license plate at all. The result is freedom. Especially in the cities it's a constant game of chicken between drivers; who gets to put his car in front at traffic lights or cross intersections first. A constant real life video game.
  4. La burla. The Spanish burlarse means "making fun of", and Panamanians are champions at that. Every politician has an often less-than-flattering nickname, and Panamanians will mercilessly mock those who screw up in public life or the media. The gossip columns - daily exercises in sarcasm - in the papers are invariably what people read most, and they are not about celebrities and their love troubles but usually about the capers of our political class and its rabiblanco supporters.
  5. Poor but happy. Panamanians, as in most Latin cultures, have an unsurpassed ability to be happy or party without having money, plans for the future or job security. Expats, notably gringos who are after all from a culture that encourages hard work and competition, often see that as a handicap instead of an asset. They think that progress means that Panama follows the same path as they have, and they should stop being so lazy and work and compete and start businesses and do stuff all the time. Panamanians don't see it like that at all. They live in the here and now and tomorrow is another day. This has made them, much to the surprise or even dismay of expat gringos, the happiest bunch in the world.
  6. Outside the capital, people are really friendly. Panama City is mostly a town for hustlers where juega vivo reigns. Go to the interior and things calm down and become friendly. People invite you into their homes. They're happy to show you around. Your reporter has traveled all over the country, from the Darién to Bocas del Toro, and been offered places to sleep, meals, a beer and even a horse to use for transportation by people who wanted nothing more than to share and be helpful.
  7. Ethnic diversity. No other country in the region has so many prominent different ethnic groups, cultures and languages in such a small area. There is no such thing as one unified Panamanian culture, and we think that is great. This diversity may also be the reason that Panamanian Spanish is really something else, with lots of invented words or Panamized foreign terms.
  8. Beautiful countryside. Forget all the bull about "rolling hills" and "crystal waters" and how it is just like Tuscany or Key West. Panama is just Panama and it is a beautiful country. The towns are not. Forget about picturesque colonial villages and small towns in the interior like you have in Colombia - most Panamanian towns are ugly collections of strip malls and prison-like residential developments. But once you get away from that - and most of the tourist areas - there is a lot of beautiful places to enjoy.
  9. Things happen here that you can't explain back home. Sometimes Panama seems a weird experiment in absurdist theater. Like just this week, when we saw an accused terrorist act as prosecutor of a disgraced corrupt Supreme Court judge who had been on the run for a couple of days. Former presidents who survive murder attempts. The whole country up in arms about sex education in public schools. Naked carnival dance girls cause national scandal. You know, the stories that when you tell them anywhere else will be met with disbelief. It can't be true, people think. But in Panama, it is.

So there. Have anything to add to this list? Leave it in the comments!

3 thoughts on “9 Real reasons to like Panama

  1. Wow Okke, 6 articles in row? I don’t think I have ever seen you fill the site with so many updates before. But I like that, and I like this article too.

    Expats also make these kinds of lists but some things they talk about don’t resonate with me even when I grew up in Panama. When they like to mention how good the public transportation is I can’t help but imagine these guys are disconnected with the reality or richer than the average Panamanian. I don’t feel any spite towards them though, it’s nice to see a foreigner enjoying our country despite all the crap it has in it.

    You know I got more stuff I can add to your list too, and this comes from someone who has been going to college in the US for 4 years now. To be specific I have been living in San Francisco and moving back and forth between Panama and Los Angeles. People always tell me that I will eventually want to stay in the US because “it’s better” but so far I have found that there are many things I enjoy more in Panama.

    Some of these things are:

    1. Panama is still a lot cheaper than the US:
    I know you have made articles before complaining about how overpriced buildings can get compared to what you get in exchange with them. I can’t talk much about that because I have had the advantage of living in my family’s house but it’s pretty obvious many things that get advertised to tourists are the most expensive ones.

    However you do end up getting more out of your money when it comes to food, clothing and other expenses. While I find places where I can spend 5 dollars or less for a dish of rice, meat and salad/potatoes in Panama I need to shell out 8 to 12 dollars on some tacos, chinese food or a “refined burger” in the US. In the end I have to live out of Subway sandwiches because I don’t want to eat other types of fast food everyday.

    Things that you do for fun like going bowling or going to the movies end up costing a looot less too.
    While I can get away with paying 3 dollars on a Wednesday for a movie in Panama I can’t watch anything in the theater in the US without spending 12 dollars or more! (Although you can get to pay 9 dollars if you go in the morning). When I talk to people about that in San Francisco they just can’t believe it.

    And let’s not forget about phone plans. How easy it is to get in and out of one in Panama without spending too much on extra things like data unlike in the US where you are tied to a single contract for 50 dollars a month. Of course the constant ads you get with Movistar or other phone companies are annoying as hell but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

    2. The weather is great, if you like the heat: And I do, it’s a shame my friends and everybody else doesn’t feel the same way. I would rather have summer everyday than have the need to carry a jacket with me at all times even when it’s hot because I never know if it’s going to get colder at night. I guess you always have Chiriqui as a better choice for weather though.

    3. Apparently there are less homeless around the streets than the US: This could be a thing from California but I have seen WAY too many homeless people and wackos walking around the streets in LA and San Francisco. Turn every corner and you will get somebody talking with himself or a guy asking you for change, the things they do about it can get pretty bothersome like when they open the doors for you in the supermarket in order to nag you for money. At least I haven’t gotten chased or threatened for change like some of my friends have. All of this is more outrageous when you find out these people get benefits from the government like food stamps yet still keep living in this way.

    But hey maybe we don’t have many of these because they find other ways to make money, like the “bien cuidaos”. But in general I heard it has to do with the cost of living.

    I got other reasons I can list but I feel these are linked to my personal experiences. Like how I find it harder to make friends with North Americans, some of them appear to be less cheerful or social than my Panamanian friends. In other cases it’s harder for me to keep in touch with them because they don’t use any free phone chat services like whatsapp but I guess there are some people who know how to get around that.

    I liked how you talked about “la burla”, for me it’s a sign of how Panamanians don’t take everything so seriously and can distinguish a simple joke between “bullying”. It took me a while to learn how to deal with those situations while growing up though.

    Also even though in Panama we have a lot of xenophobia, on the US I have noticed… How can I say it? A lot of racial tension between whites and blacks. But you can expect that considering the US history no? However things get really weird when you get somebody who thinks you are racist because you never talked to him in class (even though he never showed interest in talking to you either) or when you see blacks treating you with a lesser friendliness than people of their own race.

    Anyways that’s all for now, sorry for the long essay. I could keep writing more things about this but we can’t ignore all the bad stuff we have to deal with in Panama and in my opinion we can’t deny how much we need sites like yours that put the truth out to the light instead of painting everything with rainbows and kittens. I know sometimes it’s easier to say good things about a country like this when you grew up in it and you got used to all the shit it has but you always need to listen to other people’s opinions, specially foreigners who know different ways of living.

  2. I think you pretty much nailed it. In natural disasters and emergencies, Panamanians in el campo always manage to make do. Recent landslides in the mountains of Chiriqui made roads impassable. But for short time. Folks in old Landcruisers always seem to have a machete, rope, shovel and someone always has a chainsaw. Roads are quickly cleared for at least one lane and life goes on. And if you don’t have a state-of-the-art vehicle, almost every campesino can fix up your vehicle. Baling wire, a piece of inner tube, duct tape and you are on your way. I love Panama for all it’s rough edges. That is what is beautiful to me.

  3. It is not exclusive to Panama but I was surprised that you did not mention the weather. I love warm and humid all year weather.

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