Panama is at a crossroads in many ways. It is most visibly defined as a narrow Isthmus—the passageway between the seas, the most accomplished and important canal in the world connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Its motto is Pro Mundi Beneficio, “For the Benefit of the World.”
It is also the crossroads between North and South America. Geographically, Panama is part of the North American continent. Politically, it is has been part of South America for most of its history, as the great Simon Bolivar liberated it from Spain, where it joined Gran Colombia for security and stability before separating in 1903. With respect to the people and their heritage, they feel a deeper kinship with the Caribbean than their neighbors in either Central or South America.
Observing Panama City today, the sprawling cosmopolitan skyline searches for modernity and the Canal expansion assures the country’s relevance for the next century. At the same time the country searches for its past in restoring the colonial Del Casco Antiguo—one of the most interesting and emerging colonial neighborhoods in Latin America.
Most striking to us, it appears that its location as a crossroads and the transient nature of the country has left Panama without a clear identity beyond the Canal. As we continued our travels throughout Latin America, we sought to find the passions of the people and the heart of the country. Despite our looking around every corner, we simply did not find a literary or poetic soul; there does not appear to be a unique musical or artistic genre attached to the country; baseball and futbol (soccer) are supposedly the national sports, yet we hardly even saw Yankee hats celebrating homegrown Mariano Rivera as one of the greatest pitchers of all time and the conversation surrounding sports were short with little passion; and we could hardly find any singular Panamanian food beyond a chicken soup and the Geisha Coffee. The political landscape is also fairly non-descript, even with the dustup with General Noriega in the late 1980s.