The most important tip I can give you on Panama local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Panama, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Panama
In the larger cities you can find all types of food ranging from the French haute cuisine to the freshest sushi. There are Arabic restaurants, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican… whatever you’re in the mood for. Outside of the cities, the selection is largely Panamánian with bountiful seafood and beef due to the abundance of cattle farms and the fantastic fishing in the area.
Panamanian cuisine is a mix of several cultures. Reminiscent of the country’s Afro-Caribbean, French and Spanish influences, the dishes take on a complete character of their own. If you get tired of eating beans or gallo pinto in the rest of Central America, you might want to head towards Panama. Since Panama has a little more Caribbean influence than other Central American countries, you’ll see a lot more plaintain than beans here.
Most dishes are served with coconut rice and a type of squash or other native vegetable. If Panamanian food has to be summed up in one word, that word would be culantro, which is a local plant that tastes like cilantro, except that it has a much stronger flavor. A typical plate in a humble, family restaurant can range from $1.25 up to 5.00, including your choice of meat: mondongo (beef stomach), fried or baked chicken, pork, beef and sometimes fried fish; rice, beans, salad: cabbage, carrot & mayonnaise; beet salad; green salad; potato or macaroni salad; and patacones (fried green plantains).
The Panamanians also enjoy their “chichas” (fruit, water & sugar), of which there is always a selection, ranging from tamarindo, maracuya (passionfruit), mango, papaya, jugo de caña (sugar cane juice), or agua de pipa (juice from young green coconuts). If you like your food picante, Panama may not be the place for you. They definitely have several hot sauces, but the emphasis is not on the heat. You can get excellent food really cheap if you look around. A quick and cheap lunch can be found at the so called Fondas, which are small eateries located near schools, sports stadiums and in industrial areas where workers and students will have their afternoon meal.
There are often several of these Fondas clustered together so just look for the one with the longest line and you can count on it having the best food for the money. A full plate of rice and beans with a large piece of chicken and a small salad will cost around $2-$2.50 plus the cost of a Coke (Squirt is very popular with lunch). If you chose to eat your food at the Fonda you will be given a real plate and actual silverware as well as a glass bottle of soda with a straw (be sure to return the empty bottle).
The local food is far more tasty than the typical Subway sandwich, Whopper or KFC meal and a lot cheaper. If you eat at the same location often enough you will move from the status of a crazy gringo who must have gotten lost on the way to the Burger King to just another one of the locals enjoying lunch and casual conversation (in an industrial area the patrons will be mostly men and the subject of conversation mostly football and women). The equivalent of a 5-star meal with drinks can be US$8-30 in some places.
What to Drink in Panama
National beers are produced (Balboa, Atlas, Soberana, Panamá), but don’t measure up to a good import or excellent local craft Beer like La Rana Dorada. La Rana Dorada is probably the best of the domestic brands, however, Atlas is the most commonly purchased; many women favor Soberana. Beer can cost as low as .30/cents per 12 oz. can in a supermarket or anywhere from $ .50 in a local town bar up to $2.50 in upscale bars. Carta Vieja and Ron Abuelo are the main domestically produced rum. Seco , a very raw white rum, is the national liquor. Seco con leche (with milk) is a common drink in the countryside.
Listen Music is definitely one of the highlights of Panama. Salsa music seems to permeate everything in the Latin parts of the country. Reggaeton originated in Panama and is also very popular and is known by the name Plena. There are over 100 radio stations in Panama broadcasting online, some in English . In Bocas del Toro, you will hear a lot of Reggae with Spanish lyrics. Check out the summer music festival in Las Tablas. Party How the Panamanians love their “fiestas”! They know how to let loose and have a genuinely good time, dancing, conversing and drinking. Carnaval is the main celebration in the country. It is held 40 days before the Christian Holy Week, running through the weekend and ending on Ash Wednesday (February 28-March 4 in 2014).
The largest celebration being held in the province of Azuero, in the town of Las Tablas, where two streets compete with separate queens, activities, parades and musical performances. The party begins on Friday with a presentation, parade and crowning of the queens, a fireworks show; with drinking in the streets legal, the party begins and doesn’t stop until 5AM. Every carnival day has a theme: Friday is the Opening, Saturday is International Day, Sunday is Pollera day, Monday is costume day, Tuesday is the Queens day and on Wednesday is the “entierro de la sardina”(the sardine burial) before 5AM.
Many discos and bars fill the Capital City. The area known as “Calle Uruguay” has probably a dozen or so nice discos and bars within a 2 block radius, and is the best place for partying. Calle Uruguay bar area is a very trendy scene. You will find here many restaurants such as La Posta, Peperoncini, Habibis, Tomate y Amor, Madame Chang, Burgues or Lima Limon, which make up a great pre-party event. After diner you can cross over to Prive, Pure, Loft, Guru or People for a more fashionable club scene.
If you want a more relax bar, Sahara or The Londoner both offer retro music and pool tables. Another great spot for “bar hopping” is Zona Viva in the Amador Causeway. Zona Viva is a closed off area so it is very easy for you to find everything in one place. You will find here clubs such as Jet Set Club, the Building, the Chill Out Zone, X Space, etc. Casco Viejo is a more cultural zone of Panama. Art galleries in the area coordinate Art Block parties once a month and there are always exhibits. The National Theater offers ballets, opera, and concerts weekly. Restaurants in this area are highly recommended. After dinner you can cross over to Relic, La Casona, Mojitos sin Mojitos, Platea, Havana Cafe or Republica Havana.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.