The Secret to Experiencing Authentic Panama: Family Home Stays!

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"The Secret to Experiencing Authentic Panama: Family Home Stays!".

Search our blog about all things Panama! From must dos, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, in our blog you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 15 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


🌎 🌍 🌏 CODE RED FOR HUMANITY!!! ❌ ❌ ❌

50% DISCOUNT OFF ONLINE PRIVATE LESSONS and 25% OFF ONLINE GROUP LESSONS when you submit your payment by FRIDAY NOVEMBER 12TH, the last day of COP26.

CLAIM DISCOUNT HERE!

Or find out more about ONLINE SPANISH LESSONS HERE...

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The Secret to Experiencing Authentic Panama: Family Home Stays!

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It’s one thing to travel to a foreign country, see the sights, take in the sounds, taste the flavors and retire to a hotel every night. It’s COMPLETELY another to do this while living in a compact community with a local family.

You can trust me on this because I had a very similar experience for an entire 2 years.

As everyone says, “talk to the locals”, “stick to the advice of the locals”, “go where the locals go.” We all hear this but how far are you willing to take it? For someone who wants to learn Spanish and experience the real culture of Panama, even the locals will advise you to stay with them! For this exact reason, many years ago, Habla Ya started a Host Family program so that our students could experience the authentic Panama.

From the very beginning, home stays with local host families have been an essential part of Habla Ya Spanish Immersion Program
From the very beginning, home stays with local host families have been an essential part of Habla Ya Spanish Immersion Program

Going back for a second, let me explain why I am qualified to talk about experiences with Panamanian host families.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer here in Panamá from 2010 - 2012 and I lived with a total of 6 host families during the 27 months. All of these experiences will stay with me forever, there is no doubt.

Why joining a Spanish immersion program might this be the best decision of your trip to Latin America? For 3 important reasons. You will be able to:

  1. learn AUTHENTIC Spanish
  2. experience GENUINE Panamanian food and culture
  3. encounter TRUE Latin American family VALUES

Though I wasn’t an anthropology major in college, I probably should have been because I love learning about and experiencing other cultures. That’s why all three of these points hit a high note with me during my time with host families and I ensure that they will sing prominently during your trip too.

Living with a local host family ensures that you make the most out of your Spanish immersion program
Living with a local host family ensures that you make the most out of your Spanish immersion program

1. Learn AUTHENTIC Spanish

I studied Spanish for 2 years in high school and 2 years in college, yet walked away speaking only a few phrases and with a horrible accent. My writing and grammar wasn’t half bad, but what’s the point of studying Spanish if you aren’t taught to SPEAK it properly?

Peace Corps was actually my second Spanish immersion experience and there was a whole lot more pressure on my shoulders than my fun study abroad in Argentina when I was a teenager from years before – my new JOB was going to be speaking Spanish for the next 2 years! Peace Corps appropriately placed us in a small training community outside of Panama City where I lived with a local family and had Spanish classes 3 full days/week.

It’s a no-brainer, right? You are thinking that my Spanish improved in a jiffy. Well, unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

After a couple of weeks of Spanish lessons in a Spanish speaking country you should have a pretty decent level of survival Spanish, but in no way you should think that you will have a conversational level of Spanish. To have a better idea about what you should be able to accomplish with your Spanish skills after specific amounts of study time please click here...

A simple recipe of classes and home stay is NOT the sure answer to learning Spanish. It takes a little more effort, my friends.

There are 3 Spanish immersion rules that you must grasp if you want to successfully learn a foreign language:

  1. TALK (and TALK, and more TALKING)
  2. ASK QUESTIONS
  3. FIND FRIENDS

Does this sound simple and easy to you? For some people, it is. For others (ahm, me), it is like pulling teeth.

Experiencing a family home stay sort of forces you to practice your Spanish, but at the end of the day, you have to be responsible for practicing your Spanish the most you can. This is one of the 6 host families I lived with.
Experiencing a family home stay sort of forces you to practice your Spanish, but at the end of the day, you have to be responsible for practicing your Spanish the most you can. This is one of the 6 host families I lived with.

I am naturally a quiet person; never the center of attention nor do I strive to ever be the center of conversation. I can hold a decent conversation, but I probably didn’t start it! If you are like me, I beg you to please step out of your comfort zone and TALK in Spanish. Don’t worry about your terrible accent or lack of vocabulary! Panamanians are super nice and forgiving, I promise. But you must talk and listen and...

Ask questions! Learning languages has to be active or else no progress will be made. If you don’t understand something that you hear often, ask someone to explain to you what it means. Write down the answer!

The best person to ask is a Spanish teacher, so work hard to strike up a good relationship with him or her. They earn their living to help you learn Spanish and are extremely passionate about their jobs here at Habla Ya Spanish Schools! As well, you may hit it off with a member of your host family. Sit down with them at night and ask for help with pronunciation. These friends will soon become your confidants and will be your honest allies with helping you to learn Spanish. NO PANAMANIAN will correct your Spanish unless you give them permission and only if they really trust you as a friend. So find your confidant, the earlier the better!

2. Experience GENUINE Panamanian Food and Culture

Panamanians have a completely different diet than most "Western" countries – don’t be fooled! They live off of fried food for breakfast, rice/beans/meat (chicken or beef typically) for lunch and something similar for dinner. They do a great chicken soup and they do a simple spaghetti dish. But in most cases you won’t find much more variety than that. Honestly.

Fruit and green leafy vegetables are not commonly eaten in a Panamanian household. But you will get your fill of plantains and starchy white root vegetables.

Having said this, Habla Ya's Spanish Immersion Program has been happening for many years, and many host families have been working with us for 5+ years so they are more accustomed to providing fruit and veggies, as well as being more mindful of not deep frying everything. But if you're not willing to make some compromises with your meals, you might be better off preparing your own food, or just staying at one of the many hotels that we work with.

Add to this plate some good old porotos (red kidney beans) and you will have in front of yourself a typical Panamanian lunch
Add to this plate some good old porotos (red kidney beans) and you will have in front of yourself a typical Panamanian lunch

The serving portions are very large for most Westerners. My advice to you is to inform your host family of your preferred serving portion after the first meal. It is customary for the first meal to be served to you first (as their guest) and it will probably be a very filling portion size. Do your best to eat it all! It is considered rude in Panama to not eat everything on your plate (at the end of the day, we shouldn't really waste food). After the first meal, you can kindly show your host mom your preferred serving portion.

I would also recommend offering to help out in the kitchen (if you are a woman, not that customary for men! -sorry guys, it's just the way things are, but feel free to insist) and through this action you create an adequate moment to tell your host mom the foods that you prefer or the ones that you dislike. But please don’t be offended if you suggest a new recipe or want them to try a totally new dish and they are not open to it. Most Panamanians are not as adventurous as Westerners, especially when it comes to food.

Here at Habla Ya we will ask you to fill out a Pre-Program Interview and here you will be able to mention any specific dietary needs or preferences in your diet. These will be communicated to your host family and as mentioned above, our host families will be more accommodating in regards to meals preferences. The important thing is to communicate from the beginning and also be willing to make compromises: don't expect an entire family to adapt their lifestyle and habits to you: in any case it should be the other way around =).

3. Encounter True Panamanian Family VALUES

The experience of living with a host family will give you an insider’s look on what Panamanians value, and therefore what their culture is. From going to church (you don't have to go of course, but do give it a try from the experience point of view) to visiting with family and neighbors to watching the family’s favorite novela (soap opera), you will get your fill of what it is really like to be a Panamanian.

In Latin America, family always comes first, and Panama is not an exception to that rule
In Latin America, family always comes first, and Panama is not an exception to that rule

From my broad experience, I would say that the three most important values that you will find in the Panamanian family are love, family and friends. In Bocas del Toro, they highly value free time as well. Panamanians are simple people with goals and dreams just like the rest of us. But they know where they come from and take pride in that. And also, since life is more simple, they have a more difficult time loosing track of what is really important in life.

In comparison to most Western family values of security, comfort and work ethic, you will find a much different pace of life and focus in Panamanian families. Enjoy the change!

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HABLA YA'S SPANISH IMMERSION PROGRAMS... »

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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