By: Winnie T. Sittón
Photos: Carlos Gómez, Javier Pinzón
The various bicentennial independence celebrations happening throughout the Americas offer observers the opportunity to reflect on the historical and social events that influenced the cultures that emerged in these young nations two hundred years ago, following their independence from Spanish colonists.
Panama, especially, is characterized by rich cultural diversity, a result of powerful waves of migration over the past two centuries. Since the beginning of the European conquest, the Central American country’s strategic geographic location made Panama of great interest to world powers. This interest led to the construction of the world’s first interoceanic railway and later, the Panama Canal: two mega-projects that attracted people of diverse nationalities to the narrow isthmus.
As part of the bicentennial celebration of the country’s independence from Spain, Panorama of the Americas wishes to honor this diversity by suggesting an itinerary that will take visitors to some of the places touched by the cultures that passed through Panama over the past two centuries, defining the cultural DNA of Panamanians. We couldn’t include everything on the list, but these six suggestions will take you to some of the country’s most important sites. Let’s get started!
The Original Peoples
Seven indigenous peoples inhabit Panama: the Ngäbes, Bugles, Gunas (or Dules), Emberás, Wounaans, Bri Bris, and Naso Tjërdis. The five legally constituted comarcas, or regions, feature rich indigenous culture and tradition as well as great natural beauty and major tourist attractions. Here are a few highlights:
Comarca Emberá-Wounaan: Despite its location in the Darién jungle, the best-known Emberá community is the Emberá Quera village on the shores of Gatún Lake (Colón). It is 100% dedicated to sustainable tourism. Community tours give visitors an opportunity to enjoy a day experiencing Emberá customs in beautiful natural surroundings.
Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé: The largest in terms of area and population, this region has slowly opened up to tourism. It is an ideal place for birdwatching, botanical explorations, hiking, communing with nature, and learning about indigenous wisdom and the secrets of the mountain.
Traces of Spanish Presence
The Spanish influence in Panama can be felt in many places and a number of traditions are still observed today. Panama la Vieja is among the most accessible spots for tourists wishing to experience the country’s Spanish heritage. This archaeological site marks the spot where Panama City was located from its founding in 1519, until it was destroyed and looted by English pirates in 1671. The complex is of great historical value as it includes the ruins of the first European settlement on the American Pacific coast, as well as traces of the isthmus’s first inhabitants.
In 1673, after the original city was destroyed, Panama City was re-established in the area now known as the Casco Antiguo, which has become one of the most popular tourist sites in the Panamanian capital due to its architectural beauty and historical importance. There you’ll discover one of the greatest treasures of the Spanish colonial period, the main altar of the Church of San José, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1997. The altar, better known as the Altar de Oro (Golden Altar), dates from the 18th century. It was carved from mahogany, then gilded in a Baroque style with Churrigueresque details. It is one of the country’s most impressive “must-sees.”
The Brief French Supremacy
If you’re visiting the Casco Viejo you won’t want to miss the influences the French left on late nineteenth-century Panamanian architecture after their failed attempt at building an interoceanic canal through Panama. Some of the most emblematic examples are found in the area surrounding the Plaza de la Independencia. The majestic Hotel Central, for example, opened its doors in 1874 and experienced its greatest boom between 1880 and 1889, when it hosted engineers working for the Universal Company of the French Channel.
Diagonal to the Hotel Central, you’ll find the Museum of the Interoceanic Canal, which opened in 1997. The neoclassical building was built as a hotel, but in 1881 It was acquired by the French to house their canal construction offices. The building has been put to different uses over the years, but it originally featured several architectural firsts for Panama, such as a mansard roof (a sloping roof with windows arranged to illuminate and ventilate the attic), gas lighting, and a refined fire prevention system.
African Traces in Colonial Panama
The Caribbean city of Portobelo in Colón is a good place to discover the cultural influences left by the enslaved African people who were brought to the country during the Spanish conquest. Founded in 1597, Portobelo was one of the most important towns in the Americas during the viceregal era. It is now the epicenter of the Congo people in Panama. Their culture, including Afro-colonial dance, is found especially in Costa Arriba and Costa Abajo, in the province of Colón.
In the mid-19th century, the African legacy grew stronger with the arrival of the Afro-Antilleans, who arrived first from San Andrés and Providencia Islands, and then from Barbados, Guadalupe, Jamaica, and Martinica, to make their own contribution to the titanic task of carving out the interoceanic route. They enriched the nation’s culture with their flavors, melodies, rhythms, and colors.
China’s Contribution in One Bite
There is nothing more Panamanian than a Sunday morning Chinese breakfast. Really! And while it may seem unfair to reduce the contributions of one of Panama’s most influential cultures —the Chinese and Afro-descendants are the two main cultural influences in the country— to a simple culinary offering, the opposite is actually quite true: the incredible popularity of dim sum in Panama is ample proof of the ancestral power of the great eastern dragon in our hearts.
There are endless places to taste these delights, but if you’re looking for some recommendations in the capital, try the Lung Fung Palace, a traditional restaurant offering truly classic versions of Cantonese cuisine. It never fails! If you plan to go on a Sunday, however, make a reservation or arrive early, because it gets crowded. Two other good options are the Golden Unicorn and Sunly.
The History of the United States and Panama
There is a lot of history in the 150 year relationship between Panama and the United States, traces of which remain rooted in Panamanian culture. Discover one of the most visible on a tour of the old Canal Zone, the strip of Panamanian territory occupied by Americans for nearly 100 years that functioned, for all practical purposes, as a country within a country.
Among the many highlights are several spots close the center of the Panamanian capital, in the area known as Balboa, the capital of the U.S. territory that housed many important official buildings. Especially worth visiting is the Canal Administration Building, an Italian Renaissance construction inaugurated on July 15, 1914 (just a month before the Panama Canal opened). A real beauty!
For more details about Panama’s bicentennial celebration, consult the official event programming on the website of the Commission for the Commemoration of the Bicentennial of Independence, chaired by the Ministry of Culture of Panama: