Notes from the Road: San Blas, Panama

17: | This is avenida balboa overlooking the pacific ocean.

Panama has almost 4 million residents, and more than a third of them live in Panama City, Colón, and David, the country’s three largest cities. The remaining population is concentrated mostly in small towns and villages in central Panama and the Azuero Peeninsula. Officially, roughly 70% of the population is mesitzo, or a mix of Amerindians and Caucasians; 14% are of African descent; 10% are white and other immigrant races; and 6% Amerindian. About 30% of the population is under age 14.

People of African descent first came to Panama as slaves of the Spanish during the 16th century, and many escaped into Darién Province where they settled and became known as cimarrones. In and around the eastern Caribbean coast, they call themselves Congos. During the 19th century, jobs in canal building and banana plantations lured immigrants from Jamaica, Barbados, and Colombia, who settled along the western Caribbean coast and are commonly referred to as Afro-Caribbeans or creoles. 

One thing you’ll find about Panamanians is that they are warm and outgoing people who are eager to help strangers. Panamanians no longer indulge in afternoon siestas, but things still move at a languid pace. Given this and the country’s nascent tourism infrastructure, even well-respected tour companies and other tourism establishments can’t always be relied upon for punctuality. If you are an impatient person, or in a hurry, you will not fare well in Panama–so relax. You’re on vacation, right?

13: | Mudflats on the Road to San Blas; 15: | A man named Dielo; 13: | …the Dock.

Beyond the urban streets of Panama City, the Canal Zone is characterized by a species-rich dense tropical rainforest, hundreds of rivers, mangrove swamps, the Pacific Ocean coastline, and Las Perlas Archipelago in Gulf of Panama. Thanks to the Panama Canal and its reliance on the local watershed, the rainforest in this area is protected as a series of national parks and reserves. Visitors to Panama City are often surprised at how quickly they can reach these parks and surround themselves in steamy jungle and view dazzling array of both North and South American birds and other wildlife. Near the city, the shore consists mostly of mudflats; visitors seeking beaches must head to the islands or drive 1 hour southwest.

The Comaraca Kuna Yala commonly referred to as San Blas Archipelago, this semiautonomous region, or comarca, is named for the Kuna Yala, perhaps Panama’s most well-known indigenous group. The Kuna are recognized for their tightly knit culture, color clothing and hangicrafts suca as mola tapestries. More than 300 lovely, palm-studded islands in turquoise Caribbean waters make up the archipelago in what is truly an unspoiled paradise. The San Blas is a very popular cruise stop; however, staying on the islands requires a sense of adventure–they can be reached only by small plane or boat. Lodging is largely rustic and alfresco, and there’s little in the way of activities other than swimming and swaying in a hammock.

Panama lies between 7 degrees and 9 degrees above the Equator, which places it firmly within the Tropics with distinct dry and wet seasons. Generally speaking, December to mid-April are the driest months, while October and November are the wettest. However, cooler mountainous regions within the country see rain throughout the year, though it’s usually limited to a light mist or barenje during the dry season. The Caribbean Coast also tends to be wetter than the Pacific, particularly Bocas del Toro, where it can rain anytime of the year. Unlike most Panamanian islands, which are heavily forested, the more than 365 Kuna Islands are made up of sand and palm trees, and temperatures are often more comfortable there than other beach destinations, with nights even getting a bit cool.

11: | …me gusta aquí; 10:| Real Life Postcard; 10: | Argentina ; 12: | Congo

There is a saying in Panama that the only thing Panamanians take seriously are their holidays – and it’s no joke. Nearly every business, including banks, offices, and many stores and restaurants, closes, making even Panama City feel like a ghost town. Official holidays that fall on a Saturday or Sunday usually observed on Mondays, allowing for a long weekend. Transportation services are also greatly reduced. During holidays, most locals head for the beach or other getaway destinations, so if you plan to travel during this time book lodging well in advance and make certain you have confirmed reservations.

November means Independence Days in Panama. The country celebrates three independence days. November 3 and 4 are Independence and Flag Day, and the largest independence celebrations, featuring parades, fireworks, and other entertainment, take place in Panama City are larger cities like David. November 10 is a holiday for the “First Call for Independence,” as is November 28, honoring Independence from Spain, with regional festivities–but nothing matching November 3 and 4.

9: | …what home looked like for 2.5 days…; 8: | Ocean Island View; 16: | Daily rice, beans, and chicken = Universal foods

Eating and drinking in Panama you get a taste of a melting pot of ethnicities, and its cuisine is accordingly influenced by its diverse population. Within Panama City, travelers will find something from every corner of the world. In regional areas traditional Panamanian cuisine is an overlapping of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous, and Spanish cooking influences incorporating a variety of tropical fruit, vegetables, and herbs. A large U.S. population has spawned North American cafes and bistros serving burgers and the like, and fast-food chains are plentiful in Panama City. Panamanian cuisine is tasty but can be repetitive, given that every meal is based around coconut rice (rice made with coconut milk) and beans and fried green plantains called patacones. Much Panamanian food is fried — just stop at a fonda and see for yourself.
About the Author
Mariel Kanene is Founder and Editor of and lead storyteller with a focus on music, startups and travel. His passion for storytelling was born in Kinshasa, Congo and bred in Washington, DC where he resides. By day, Mariel spends his days slowly trying to change the world—one meaningful interaction at a time. He loves reading factual-fiction, good podcasts, traveling, health and fitness, foreign languages and good conversations over good coffee and even better rum. He hates talking about himself in third person.Thanks for stopping by. Always appreciated. Find me on: Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin | Website.

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