Food in Panama
In the big cities you will find all kinds of food, from French haute cuisine to the freshest sushi. There are Arabic, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican restaurants… whatever you feel like.
Outside the cities, the choice is largely Panamanian, with seafood and beef in abundance, thanks to the many livestock farms and fantastic fishing in the region. Panamanian cuisine is a blend of many cultures. Reminiscent of the country’s Afro-Caribbean, French and Spanish influences, the dishes have a character all their own. If you are tired of eating beans or gallo pinto in the rest of Central America, you can go to Panama. Since Panama is a bit more Caribbean than other Central American countries, you will see a lot more plantains than beans. Most dishes are served with coconut rice and some kind of squash or other native vegetable. If you had to sum up Panamanian food in one word, that word would be culantro, a native plant that tastes like coriander, except it has a much stronger flavour.
A typical meal at a humble family restaurant can range from $1.25 to $5.00 and includes meat of choice: mondongo (beef stomach), fried or baked chicken, pork, beef and sometimes fried fish; rice, beans, salad: cabbage, carrots and mayonnaise; beet salad; green salad; potato or macaroni salad; and patacones (fried green bananas). The Panamanians also enjoy their “chichas” (fruit, water and sugar), of which there is always a choice, ranging from tamarindo, maracuya (passion fruit), mango, papaya, jugo de caña (sugar cane juice) or agua de pipa (young green coconut juice). If you like spicy food, Panama may not be for you. They do have several hot sauces, but the emphasis is not on spiciness.
If you look carefully, you can find excellent and cheap food. A quick and cheap lunch can be found in the “fondas”, which are small restaurants near schools, stadiums and in industrial areas where workers and students have their afternoon meal. There are often several of these fondas in groups, so look for the one with the longest queue and you can be sure it offers the best food for the price. 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 price of a Coke (Squirt is very popular at lunch). If you choose to eat at La Fonda, you’ll get a real plate and silverware and a glass soda bottle with a straw (be sure to return the bottle empty). The local food is much tastier than the typical Subway sandwich, Whopper or KFC meal and much cheaper. If you eat at the same place often enough, you will go from being a crazy gringo who must have got lost on the way to Burger King to another local enjoying a casual lunch and conversation (in an industrial area, the customers will be mostly men and the topic of conversation will mostly be football and women).
The equivalent of a 5-star meal with drinks can cost between $8 and $30 in some places.
Drinks in Panama
National beers are produced (Balboa, Atlas, Soberana, Panamá) but do not meet the standard of a good import. Balboa is probably the best of the national brands, but Atlas is the most popular; many women prefer Soberana. Beer can be bought for as little as 0.30 cents per 12 oz. Can in a supermarket or between $0.50 in a local city bar and $2.50 in the higher-end bars.
How the Panamanians love their “fiestas”! They know how to let loose and have a good time dancing, talking and drinking.
Carnival is the most important festival in the country. It takes place 40 days before the Christian Holy Week, lasts the whole weekend and ends on Ash Wednesday (21-24 February 2009). The biggest celebration takes place in the province of Azuero, in the town of Las Tablas, where two streets compete with their own queens, activities, parades and musical performances.
The party starts on Friday with a presentation, a parade and the crowning of the queens, fireworks; as the consumption of alcohol on the streets is legal, the party starts and does not stop until 5am.
Each day of the carnival has a theme: Friday is the opening, Saturday is the international day, Sunday is the day of the pollera, Monday is the day of the costumes, Tuesday is the day of the queens and Wednesday is the “entierro de la sardina” (the burial of the sardine) before 5am.
The capital is full of discos and bars. The area known as “Calle Uruguay” has probably a dozen cool discos and bars within a two-block radius and is the best place to party.
The bar area of Calle Uruguay is a very trendy scene. Here you will find numerous restaurants such as La Posta, Peperoncini, Habibis, Tomate y Amor, Madame Chang, Burgues or Lima Limon, which are great for a great pre-party. After dinner, head to Prive, Pure, Loft, Guru or People to experience the fashionable club scene. If you want a more relaxed bar, Sahara and The Londoner offer retro music and pool tables.
Another great place for bar-hopping is Zona Viva, in Amador Causeway. Zona Viva is a closed area, so it is very easy for you to find everything in one place. Here you will find clubs like Jet Set Club, Building, Chill Out Zone, X Space.
Casco Viejo is a rather cultural area in Panama. The art galleries in the neighbourhood coordinate Art Block Parties once a month and there are always exhibitions. The National Theatre offers ballets, operas and concerts every week. The restaurants in this area are highly recommended. After dinner you can go to Relic, La Casona, Mojitos sin Mojitos, Platea, Havana Cafe or Republica Havana.