The Statistics and Census Bureau estimates the Panamanian population to be 3,283,959 people: 1,656,469 men and 1,627,490 women. The average age of the population was estimated in 26.2 years, and its density is 43.5 people per square kilometer. Sixty-four percent of Panamanians live in urban areas, and the province of Panama is the one with the highest urban population density (90).

Thirty percent of the population is under 15 years of age; 64 percent are between 15 and 64 years old, and 6.0 percent are over 64.

Ethnic groups

It does not take a big effort to realize that most of the Panamanian population is a melting pot. Their very skins show this mixture of races. It is a fact that is sometimes little understood but surprising all the same. Regardless of the judgments of visible heritage (phenotype), it is almost impossible to deny the presence of Indians, with 39.7% genetic contribution; of Europeans, with 27.4%, and of Africans, with 32.9% on the faces of over 70% of Panamanians. (Tomás Arias, Panamá, un país indígena mestizado, Caminos de Maíz 2003).

Indigenous groups that maintain their cultural and linguistic heritage make up 10% of the total population. But beyond quantitative data is the cultural diversity that this cold percentage points to. There are 7 human groups existing as "Indians" or original peoples. The most numerous group is the gnöbe-buglé, followed by the dule (or kuna) people and the emberá-wounaan (previously called chocoes). In smaller numbers, there are nasos and teribes (who are jointly seeking recognition of their territory), bokotas and bri-bri.

It is also not surprising to see, around the streets of Panama City, faces and skin hues reminiscent of such faraway places as India, China, Pakistan, the Mediterranean, or East Europe. Workers from many distant countries arrived for the construction of the Canal in the late 19th century, and then they stayed on and started families in the new republic. The Cantonese Chinese, Hindustani, Jewish and Arabian communities are numerically significant. There have also been large numbers of immigrants from Latin American countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Peru, among others.

This migration continues today, as does race mixing with these new inhabitants. Thus, the history of a country with a rainbow population, where everyone is a bit of everything but unique at the same time, gets written day by day.

Languages

Many preconceptions about Panama vanish when you get to talk to its people. One of the first preconceptions has to do with the language used in the country. Firstly, as you may have noticed, when talking about language in Panama we must use the plural, because it is not a monolingual country, but it is also not bilingual. Except for some Antillean descendants who inherited the language from their ancestors, English is not widely used. It is a powerful presence in the business and service sectors, but outside these, its social use is limited. The mother tongue and standard language in Panama is Spanish.

It is interesting to note that native speakers of English in Panama have developed varieties of the language (Creole manifestations) that are unique in the Caribbean. From guari-guari in Colón province to the language used in the Calidonia and Río Abajo districts of the capital city, to the one spoken in Bocas del Toro province, panamanian English is present in popular culture.

Indigenous groups keep their languages alive in their daily living, despite all the obstacles these peoples have historically had to face. Their languages that are still alive are dulegaya (of the dule or kunas), gnöbe, buglé, emberá, wounan, teribe and bri bri.

But it does not end here: you will probably hear the musical sound of other languages that have been present in the country for at least a century. In stores, you will probably hear Cantonese, Haká and Mandarin Chinese, Hindi from India, Hebrew by the Jewish community, and other languages that remain a part of the family legacy in many Panamanian homes: Arabic, Italian, Russian, Greek, or Hebrew. As you can see, Panama is also a real "language pot".

Worship

The Panamanian constitution establishes that Panama is a Catholic country. Due to this official nature, the Catholic religion has a strong presence in national activity. Jus as an example of this reality, it is worth mentioning that this religion is taught in schools, and the clergy participates in governmental official events.

As in most Latin American countries, the Panamanian population claims to be mostly Catholic, but their mystic-religious practices are intertwined with a varied cultural legacy. A complex syncretism of African beliefs, Indian animism and apocryphal European beliefs contrast with the Catholic rites practiced in these lands. Aspects such as folklore, old proverbs and home rites are steeped in this cultural mix that has been around since colonial times.

This religious syncretism includes such parallel practices as Santería, a belief that links Catholic saints with the orishas, African gods of the Yoruba religion from what is now Nigeria. These coexist with European mystic movements such as Masonry or Rosicrucianism, and much credit is also given to the empirical wisdom of the so-called witches (people who are able to interfere with the will of others) and folk healers (people who can talk to plants and heal through them), among other practices.

The constitution also establishes freedom of worship in Panama. While sightseeing the capital city, you will notice numerous Evangelical temples of all denominations, scattered throughout the districts of Panama. Jehovah's Witnesses, Adventists, Methodists, Baptists or Mormons -protestant Christianity is attracting more and more people throughout the country, up to almost 25% of inhabitants. Other religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism are less numerous and are sometimes practiced by the members of a particular community, but they too have their places for worship in the country: there are mosques, synagogues, temples and ashrams.

Cuisine

During your stay in Panama, take the chance to sample the mixture of smells and tastes. Typical Panamanian cuisine offers many options due to its varied and traditional use of local products. For example, the use of root vegetables is very common: yam, otoe, yucca (mandioca) are often eaten in soups, mashed, or simply boiled. Yam and chicken (if it is home-bred and not industrial, so much the better) are used to prepare sancocho, a very traditional soup in Panama. Fried yuccas and mashed otoe are very popular. You can see these roots used in many other dishes.

It is also good to learn the true meaning of the word "food" in Panama. When a restaurant or food stand offers food with... (add the meat of you will get a side dish of rice, some kind of beans (lentils, green beans, peas) and a third element which may be a green salad, macaroni with red sauce, potato salad and/or a slice of fried sweet plantain called a tajada.

Traditional Panamanian cuisine offers creations based on corn and yucca. Try the delicious tamales: corn dough wrapped with bijao (a palm tree) leaves and filled with some kind of meat (chicken, pork, beef). Corn rolls come in two basic varieties: new corn or old corn. Tastes vary and so each region has its own roll style. Yucca is also used to make carimañolas (meat-filled dough) and suspiros (sighs), sweet snacks made with sablée dough.

And if seafood is your thing, do not hesitate to try all the exuberant delicacies offered by Panamanian seas. Whether at a street stand or in some specialized restaurant, you can find your tasting paradise. Ceviches are especially delicious, thanks to the fresh ingredients. And if you enjoy cooking, the Mercado del Marisco on Balboa Avenue is any chef's Mecca. You need to know what to buy, but the products are top quality. Guaranteed.

Idiosyncrasy

Every nation has its customs and ways of looking at the world around it. Here are some points about Panamanian idiosyncrasy and attitude toward certain aspects.

Punctuality

There is a popular saying that in Panama there are two different times for everything: "regular" time and "Panamanian" time. The fact is there is no consistent agreement on punctuality for all situations:

  • Getting to work 5 to 10 minutes late may be tolerated or not, depending on what your job is. Teachers have a very strict schedule, because 5 minutes is enough for a tragedy to happen in a children's or teenage class.
  • University of Panama students are obliged to wait for their teachers up to 15 minutes after their regular class starting time. After that, they may leave with no consequences for their attendance record.
  • You should expect up to 30 minutes delay in lectures, round tables and other public events.
  • Arriving for a family party at the scheduled time does not make much sense in Panama, because it is assumed that it will not start before an hour later than indicated on the card.
  • If you are invited to a meal, try to arrive 10 or 15 minutes later. This will give your hosts a chance to finish preparations.
  • Public festivities tend to start 20 to 30 minutes late. On some occasions, they can be delayed up to an hour and this is considered "normal".
  • It is not usual to apologize for such delays, but if you do, you will be seen as a very well-educated, respectful person.

Courtesy

The usual greeting in Panama City is Buenas!, which is no more than an abbreviated "good morning". Some people think it is a lazy, not very respectful greeting. Others see it as a positive treatment showing familiarity. You will hear it said in various tones. Sometimes it is hardly audible, but you can also hear Bueenaaaaasss! in a very cheerful and effusive tone. Get to know your social circle first and trust your common sense to know whether it is appropriate to use Buenas! as a greeting.

It is very common here to be asked for permission to take an object intended for common use when it is already in the hands of the asker.

If you are invited to a meal, avoid giving flowers. In fact, it is customary not to take anything, except good appetite and conversation, but if you really want to take something, take some fruit. Or you can ask in advance whether you can take something with you.

In some households, it is customary to leave a little food on your plate when you finish eating. This habit is called "the courtesy" because in old times it was a sign of good manners. Just pay attention to what your hosts do. ¡Oh! If you liked the food, do not hesitate to ask for a second serving. It is flattering for your hosts.

Dropping by to "say hi" without notice is a common habit. You can expect visitors at any time, even at meal times. If you don't have time for a "surprise visitor", just say you were on your way out or you have some important work to do. The person will leave with no objections. If you would rather avoid this situation, ask your friends to give you a call before they drop by, just to "make sure you will be home".

In Panamanian culture, Piropos (compliments or flirtatious remarks from passers by) in the street are not seen as an act of aggression, but that will depend on how nice a remark it is. Traditionally, macho thinking has led men to believe that they have the right to disrupt a woman's peace verbally. However, it is worth noting some empathic expressions that Panamanian men and women use when talking to people of the opposite sex. It is common to hear phrases such as: "Mi amor (my love), what can I do for you?", "Corazón (honey), would you do me a favor?" "Here, papi lindo (sweet daddy), I'll sell it to you for $1.50." These expressions are not considered aggressive or sexist.

Dress code

There are some established dressing standards in Panamanian society. You should know, for example, that shorts, slippers, miniskirts, T-shirts and blouses with a deep neckline are not allowed in public offices, schools and hospitals (unless you are a patient). Bear this in mind unless you want to waste time arguing at the entrance to one of these institutions.

If you are going to have an ID picture taken, you cannot wear a sleeveless shirt or sweater. You must also try to cover your chest. In some cases, if you wear glasses you must have them on for the picture.

Unlike in other tropical countries, shorts and T-shirts are seen as too casual in Panama, although this is gradually changing. If you wish to look Panamanian, try to wear shorts only for certain occasions.

You may wonder if there is a cool, comfortable option that will let you look formal in these tropics, especially men. There is, and it is called guayabera. It is ideal for solemn, holiday and casual events. There are simple ones with vertical lines, and other more elaborate, embroidered ones. A fine guayabera is considered formal dress, particularly if it has long sleeves. You can forget about the heat in one of these: they are usually cotton or linen, but you may as well check the type of fabric before you buy one.

Road Safety

Not that we want to scare you, but driving in Panama City is not easy. It is a capital city that has had very rapid growth in the past few years, and this is reflected in people's defensive driving and in some signage shortcomings, as well as in the condition of some streets and roads.

The idea of dangerous streets is so deeply rooted in Panamanian culture that public transport buses have been nicknamed "diablos rojos" (red devils), on account of their characteristic red color and their drivers peculiar and dangerous way. Taxis are not much better, and private cars, even less so. Rush hours, which keep getting longer, may mean delays of up to an hour from any one point to another one.

We recommend that, before you sit behind a steering wheel in Panama, you get used to the main streets of this city, either on foot or by public transport. Driving in rural areas is much safer.

Renting a car is easy: just show your passport and driving license at the car rental agency. You can drive in Panama up to 90 days with a driving license from your country of origin.

You should also know about the Panamanian habit of taking "shortcuts". Both taxi drivers and other drivers are constantly on the lookout for alternative shortcut routes to get to their destination faster -at least in spirit, because no laws of Physics prove that these strategies are actually effective. This shortcut perception increases if drivers manage to avoid traffic lights, and for that they will steer away from avenues and take streets, alleys, go through residential districts, and maybe even climb onto the shoulders of roads. If this happens, don't worry -they are most probably taking you to your destination. However, just for the sake of precaution, it always pays to play philosopher and ask where you are and where you are going.