Gettin’ cultured?

I’ve been less exposed to Panamanian culture in the small, rural, international community in Gamboa than I would have hoped. But we’ve been able to bring some of our own traditions here, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to venture out and learn about Panamanian culture in other places! Without further ado, here are some highlights from those experiences…

  1. Halloween celebration

    There was a costume party in Gamboa for Halloween, and my lab mates and I dressed up as the teenage mutant ninja turtles. My supervisor, Mike, is in the middle dressed as an 80’s rocker. There were some really great costumes – one guy traveled here with an entire tweed suit for the occasion and two stuffed animal birds that he put on either shoulder, and he shaved off his beard to be Darwin. Several girls decorated cardboard boxes like the crazy diablo rojo buses in the city, and someone came as a “nudist” in a suit with a happy birthday party hat and birthday party supplies – get it?! It was his birthday suit, haha. It was neat to be with people from all over the world celebrating an American holiday together.

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    Zach, Xochitl, Mike, me, and Dan looking ready for action…
  2. The Biomuseo

    My friend Gabe and I went into the city to check out the Biomuseo a few weeks ago. The museum sits right along the water and is an iconic, brightly colored building designed by the architect Frank Gehry, who is known for his unique and organic looking designs.

    The Biomuseo entrance

    In my humble opinion, the museum is a really well done celebration of the biodiversity of the tropics. It has the perfect amount of exhibits to leave you well informed but not overwhelmed. Each exhibit uses a different art form, including photographs, videos, and sculptures, to teach visitors about the plethora of tropical flora and fauna, the geological and cultural history of Panama, and the importance of preserving the incredible ecosystems found here.

    Sculptures of Panamanian creatures

    I left feeling so inspired seeing how many people were there expressing an interest in nature.

  3. The beach

    It was such a funny experience to wake up early to head to the beach… in November?!? Despite the dreary weather during the bus ride there, it miraculously cleared up when we arrived and ended up being a perfect, sunny afternoon! The trip was my Panamanian friend Ernesto’s idea, and it was neat to have a tour guide for the day. He pointed out his favorite places along the drive (including a mountain range that’s great for camping and a roadside fonda selling the best empanadas with freshly made cheese), showed us all the different fruit trees near the beach (tamarind, star fruit, limes and more) and told us about the strong sense of community in Latin America – front sidewalks are like an extension of people’s homes where they bring out speakers and gather together to socialize.

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    Dan, Jessie, Gabe, Ernesto, and yours truly
    Buying empanadas at a woman’s house on the walk back from the beach. She explained her technique for making them, and then let Ernesto come inside to use the bathroom in her house. I love experiences like this because that’s not something that would typically happen in the U.S.
    The beautiful golden hour lighting on the main street in San Carlos

    Look who was sitting next to me on the bus ride back from the beach…

    This adventure happened to be on Panama’s Independence Day from Colombia, and when we got back to the city we spontaneously bumped into a parade! The route passed by the Presidential Palace in a section of the city that’s usually inaccessible to tourists, so we followed the parade past security and got to see some of the really beautiful buildings. The parade itself was also neat – there were dancers wearing polleras, the very ornate traditional Panamanian dresses, and bands wearing traditional men’s attire and Panama hats. Ernesto pointed out which style polleras came from which region of Panama, and explained that flipping up different parts of the rim of a Panama hat signals different things – for example “I’m single and looking for a girl.” Afterwards there were fireworks, which looked so picturesque above all the old buildings. Sorry for all the low quality photos this week, but I’m including them anyways because I think it’s still nice to have some visuals.IMG_2145

    Anyways, bringing some American culture to Gamboa and learning a little bit more about this country has been fun… I can’t believe I only have a few weeks left here, I’m going to try to squeeze in as many other little adventures as possible before it’s over!



I always like to learn about (and sample!) the local comida, or food, when I go somewhere new. Since I haven’t mentioned that so far, I figured it was about time that some food photos made it onto the blog!

Panamanian Cuisine

Panamanian cooking is a blend of many other cultures, and is especially influenced by African, Spanish, and Native American cuisine. A typical breakfast consists of hojaldres – similar to fried dough but less sweet and sometimes topped with melted cheese; salchicas guisadas – “sausages” that are more like hot dogs in a tomato and onion sauce; fried or boiled yucca, eggs, and a cup of coffee. Lunch and dinner typically consist of fish or meat, rice, beans or lentils, and often patacones – twice fried green plantains, and juice or cerveza – beer.

Along the coasts there is a lot of seafood available, and a whole fried fish with patacones is very common (and delicious!).



Ceviche, or raw fish in citrus juice, is also very popular. There’s a huge fish market in Panama city where you can stock up on fresh fish or just get a little cone of ceviche for the road.

I’ve found that it is much more common to drink juice here than in the U.S. because there are so many different kinds of fruit in Panama. You can buy juice made from passionfruit, oranges, limes, tamarind, pineapple, or any combination thereof in stores or from almost any restaurant. Other common Panamanian foods are bollos, which are a variation of a tamale typically made with corn, butter, and sugar; and empanadas. There are little street carts all over the city and dotted along almost every street in the country (that might be a little bit of an exaggeration but these street carts really are everywhere!) selling these snacks and juice very cheaply.

The Fonda

The only place to buy food in Gamboa (besides a resort) is the fonda, or food truck, which is open during the weekdays for breakfast and lunch to serve the canal workers and STRI scientists.


Not only is it great to try some authentic Panamanian cuisine, it’s also super cheap. I’m a vegetarian (although I’ve been eating fish recently, Panama is not the most vegetarian friendly place and often there isn’t a veggie option) so I usually just order the sides – rice, beans or lentils, a salad, and sometimes a fried sweet plantain – all for $2.50!

Bleak grocery situation in Gamboa

Since Gamboa is very isolated, we have to drive into the city to go to a grocery store. Typically, we’ve been going every two weeks. As someone who loves fresh produce and cooking, this has been especially painful for me and I’m definitely looking forward to having a grocery store right up the street when I’m back in Boston! I was initially really surprised to find a lot of brands that I recognized in the store – a lot of food is imported from the US. However, these are usually more expensive than other options, so I’ve been testing out some of the local brands instead. I’ve also been trying to use what’s available, so I’ve been making a lot of plantains (they’re everywhere!), rice, and beans (I’ve never made dried beans before, but that’s very common here so I’ve been experimenting with that) with avocado – the kind that’s available here is much larger, sweeter, and juicier than the hass avocados that I’m used to.


I’ve also been making arepas, which are like a thick fried tortilla made from corn flour that can be topped or stuffed with any variety of meat or veggies that you desire. They’re traditionally from Colombia and Venezuela but are also common in Panama, like this delicious arepa topped with veggies that I tried!

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It looks really fancy, but this was actually a picnic table at a food stall next to the beach!

Another surprise was the disappointing selection of produce in the grocery store. I was envisioning a huge variety of new kinds of local fruits and veggies, but almost everything in large grocery stores is imported. Luckily, there’s a large produce street market in the city that’s great if you don’t mind venturing into a decidedly less posh area of the city and overlooking the questionable cleanliness of the street and the stalls – the produce is all from Panama and perfectly delicious after a good wash! Also, there is a woman in Gamboa who visits a farm nearby every week or two and brings back deliveries that Gambodians can purchase from her house.

When I go home, I’m definitely going to miss the plethora of delicious fresh fruit available here – passionfruit, papaya, mangos, bananas, and pineapple, oh my! But it’s neat learning about new dishes and picking up cooking pointers from people I’ve met here who are from all over the world… I definitely have expanded my cooking repertoire and I’m looking forward to making some new things for friends when I get back!


Mixing things up this week and instead of reading about what I’ve been up to… you can see for yourself! Sorry for the terrible video quality (workin’ with the high tech recording equipment I’ve got here) but here’s a little sneak peek at some of the highlights from the past few months. Enjoy!

The best time of the day…

…is obviously 5am, am I right?! Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch BUT it’s definitely worth waking up that early occasionally for a sunrise hike. I set out in the dark with two friends who are also STRI interns, Zach and Zoe, up the trail to a lookout tower that’s perched up in the jungle on top of a hill. Here’s a picture of the first segment of the hike… it’s definitely a good work out to get up to the tower. 

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These stairs are MUCH steeper and each step is MUCH higher than they look, especially when you’re trekking up in the dark!

But it’s worth the effort – the tower just peeks above the top of the canopy so it’s a prime sunrise viewing spot! 

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It was such a clear, beautiful morning

There is an indigenous village on the side of the Chagres River at the left of this photo, and as the sun was coming up we could see several canoes setting out from the village and rowing up the river into the fog.

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In the opposite direction we could see Gamboa nestled in the trees and some early ships going up the canal
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All the birds woke up with the sun, like this toucan that was hanging out next to us!
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There was also a flock of parrots singing to us from another tree. They ALWAYS fly in pairs, it’s really cute
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There were also a bunch of capuchins leaping around over top of us as we hiked back down…. so cool!

Even if 5am actually didn’t feel like the best time of day when I was dragging myself out of bed, I’m glad I decided to rise to the occasion because watching the sun come up really brightened my day (hahaha).

Hurray for hammocks!

When I’m super busy during the semester and feeling stressed out about all the things I have to do, I always desperately wish I had a moment to just sit and relax. Now that I actually have that time (I definitely have more free time here than I have in years) I find myself feeling guilty about it! I feel like I should be using every minute to do productive things or that something is wrong because I’m not racing from one thing to the next. It’s crazy that in our culture being busier than everyone else is almost the goal and people compare how many things they’re trying to do at once. Being here, I’m realizing that not everyone lives like that. In Panama, time is much more flexible – if you agree to meet at 8pm, that really means 9pm or even whenever you’re ready; if something doesn’t get done today, no worries, it can always happen tomorrow; “now” often actually means something much closer to “later” or “when I get to it”.

So this past Saturday when I had nothing pressing to do in the afternoon, I embraced this attitude, hung up my hammock outside, plunked myself down in the sunshine, and did absolutely nothing except look around and think. It was such a pleasant experience and a great chance to do some reflecting on some questions that have been swirling around in the back of my mind. For instance…  

  • Why don’t I usually have free time to just relax like this?
  • Should I start structuring more time like this into my life?
  • What would I need to cut out in order to do that?
  • What am I actually looking forward to next semester?
  • Does feeling proud of the things that I accomplish outweigh the stress and overwhelmingness of being committed to what can sometimes seem like too many things?
  • Does it really matter in the end how involved in extracurricular activities I am?
  • Does it matter to me?
  • Which one of my commitments are most important to me? Which ones would I be willing to let go?  
  • Why is it so hard to make decisions?

In answering those questions and reflecting on my experience here so far, I’m realizing more and more that time that I invest in other people is always well spent. It’s from all these interactions that I learn the most, and seeing friends and the people I care about is what I’m looking forward to when I get back to campus… I still have more decisions to make about what to do, but luckily I’ll have more opportunities to hang up my hammock for some more reflective moments. On that note, I hope you’re able to find the time today to hang up a hammock if you have one, or at least stop to do nothing except relax for a moment.

Cool creatures

Sometimes it’s more fun to see something for yourself than to read about it, so here are some photos of the cool flora and fauna of Panama…

A glass frog photo shoot or abduction?

I’m likin’ this hikin’

Last weekend, I hopped on a small bus from Albrook Mall with my three lab mates and another friend, and three hours and $4.25 later we were deposited on the side of the street in El Valle de Anton – a small town up in the caldera of an extinct volcano. Later in the evening we were joined by two other groups of Gambodians who work for STRI. They were also staying in the same hostel as us, and we all spent a very pleasant weekend enjoying the climate (due to the higher elevation it’s slightly cooler and much less humid than in Gamboa!).

On Saturday, we stocked up on fresh fruit from a local market and embarked on a hike up to the upper edge of the crater. It was a beautiful trek up on a trail that wound up through the cloud forest and past a bunch of waterfalls. When we got to the top, it felt like we had emerged in a completely different place because we stepped out of the jungle and into one of the only grassy spaces that I’ve seen since being in Panama. This meant that we had a great view, during the breaks in the clouds swirling around us, of the town back in the valley. It was an awesome hike!

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Checking out some old carvings in the rock wall on the way up…
My lab mates, Xochitl and Zach, and I taking a nice photo at the top…
My friend Lily at a neat swimming spot that we biked to after the hike

Also of interest:

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Look what you can buy in the grocery store for $3.95?!!?!

The trip was a great breath of fresh air, so to speak – a nice chance to get to know some more people and do some outdoor adventuring!