Panama's handicrafts

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This excerpt from Lonely Planet's Panama guide takes you through the major Panamanian handicrafts.

The Wounaan and Emberá in the Darién create carvings of jungle wildlife from cocobolo, a handsome tropical hardwood, and tiny figurines from the ivory-colored tagua nut.

4395547496_a42e0de30aImage of carved tagua nut by brian.gratwicke

The Emberá and Wounaan are most renowned for producing beautiful woven baskets of incredibly high quality. There are two types: the utilitarian and the decorative. The utilitarian baskets are made primarily from the chunga palm, but can contain bits of other plants, vines, bark and leaves. They are usually woven, using various plaiting techniques, from single plant strips of coarse texture and great strength, and are rarely dyed. These baskets are often used for carrying seeds or harvesting crops. The decorative baskets are much more refined, usually featuring many different colors and are created from palm materials of the nahuala bush and the chunga palm. The dyes are 100% natural, and are extracted from fruits, leaves, roots and bark. Typical motifs are of butterflies, frogs, toucans, trees and parrots.You can often buy baskets at any of the markets.

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Image by Young in Panama

The Kuna of the Comarca de Kuna Yalaare known worldwide for their molas – the blouse panels used by women in their traditional dress and sold as crafts. A mola is made of brightly colored squares of cotton fabric laid atop one another. Cuts are made through the layers, forming basic designs. The layers are then sewn together with tiny, evenly spaced stitches to hold the design in place. Mola means ‘blouse’ in Kuna, and Kuna women make molas in thematically matching but never identical pairs. A pair will comprise the front and back of a blouse. Regardless of the design, Kuna believe the very best molas should always have the following characteristics:

  • Stitches closely match the color of the cloth they are set against.
  • Stitches are very fine and neatly spaced.
  • Stitches are pulled evenly and with enough tension to be barely visible.
  • Curves are cut smoothly and the sewing follows the curves of the cut.
  • Outline strips are uniform in width, with no frayed edges.

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Image of woman wearing a mola by Marc Veraart

A Panama hat, or simply a Panama, is a traditional brimmed hat made from a Panama-hat palm (Carludovica palmata). Although originally from Ecuador, the hat became popular in Panama during the construction of the canal when thousands of Panamas were imported for use by the workers. After American president Theodore Roosevelt donned a Panama during his historic visit to the canal, the hats became the height of fashion. Unlike the better-known Panamas from Ecuador, which are woven from crown to brim in one piece, this kind is made by a braiding process, using a half-inch braid of palm fiber, usually of alternating or mixed white and black. Penonomé is known throughout Panama as the place to buy the hats that bear the country’s name. The highest-quality Penonomé hats are so tightly put together that they can hold water. Surprisingly, there’s no one place to buy these hats in Penonomé as they are made in outlying towns and brought to the city for sale. However, many are sold by hat vendors standing outside stores and restaurants near the entrance to town.

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Image by Alex E. Proimos

Polleras (elaborate traditional outfits of Spanish origin) are handmade in Guararé and in other villages in Las Tablas Province. Also available on the Península de Azuero are handcrafted festival masks from Villa de Los Santos and Parita.

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Image by ¡Fgz!

Huacas are golden objects made on the isthmus centuries before the Spanish conquest. They were placed with indigenous leaders at the time of burial, intended to accompany and protect their souls on the voyage to the other world. Most took the form of a warrior, crocodile, jaguar, frog or condor. You can purchase exact (solid gold) and near-exact (gold-plated) reproductions of these palm-sized objects.

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Image by dcbprime

Because of their proximity to mineral-rich Colombia and Brazil, the jewelry stores here often have high-quality gems at excellent prices. Beware: there are many fake gems on the world market, as well as many flawed gems that have been altered to appear more valuable than they really are.