• Parties And Gift Giving In Panama—What To Give And How Much To Spend

    Hello everyone, 

    Last night I received an email from a reader and friend, asking a question that would probably stump most people moving here from a foreign land. How much should you give at a birthday party? She and her family just recently settled down in Panama, and already, her daughter was invited to a birthday party for a classmate.

    If you don’t have kids, don’t worry, I’ll get to adult party gift giving a little later in this article. For now, let’s stick with the kids.

    First, it’s important to know that in Panama, it’s very common for kids to have birthday parties at school. Where I come from, this would be forbidden. Sure, you might bring a gift for your best friend if you found out it was his or her birthday, but you’d never see an all-out fiesta. Here it’s totally the norm. And with four kids, it seems someone is always needing to take a gift to school.

    What should you give at a party?

    With my sons, in Kindergarten (a class that’s mixed with Pre-K and has about 30 kids in the room), you can imagine how many birthdays take place. It seems there’s at least two a month, sometimes more often. Some school parties consist of just snacks, a cake, and canastitas (goodie bags), while some even include a piñata.

    Speaking of canastitas, if you ever throw a birthday party here, whether in your house, at a party salon, or in school, you have to have canastitas. They’re expected. The kids will be very sad if they don’t receive one.

    Goodie bags are a must in Panama

    So, when your kid is invited to a party, what kind of gift do you give, or how much should you give in cash or on a gift card? Most Panamanian parents will write on the invitation what they’d like to receive for their child. Here’s what you might see:

    • Lluvia de Sobres, which translates to “Rain of envelopes”. This means they’d like to receive cash. 
    • Talla 12 “Size 12,” or whatever size the child is, means they’d like to receive clothes.
    • GC might be written to mean gift card, or they’ll just write (or place a sticker) of the store they’d like to receive a gift card from. Poppy’s is a popular kids clothing store here, similar to a Gymboree. We’ve received several invitations with Poppy’s stickers on them. 

    You never just see the word “toys” written on an invitation, or juguetes in Spanish. I’m old fashioned in the way that I usually buy a toy for the kid. Marlene and I argue about this all the time. She likes to stick with what the card says, but I remember being a kid and excitedly opening presents to find only clothes. It sucked! I just wanted a Transformer (or was it a Go-Bot?) or a new G.I. Joe action figure (never a doll, never!) or even a pack of freakin’ Garbage Pale Kid trading cards (those were awesome). 

    Who wants clothes? None of the boys do, I’m pretty sure. I doubt the kid is shouting over mom’s shoulder as she writes out the invitations, “Please, mom, not toys again…just write size 12!”

    The look on Nico’s face would be totally different if this guitar had been a pack of underwear

    Plus, I imagine all the other parents bringing size 12 clothes. All kids want at least one toy for their birthday. So, if I tick off a parent, but put a smile on a kid’s face, I think it was well worth it.

    If you’d rather just give a gift card or participate in the rain of envelopes and give cash, this is the way it’s played out in Panama. You have to consider how much the parent is spending on the party. If it’s a simple house party or a party taking place at school, spending $10 on a gift or giving $10 cash (or gift card) should be fine.

    If it’s a party at an expensive party salon, at Chuck-E-Cheese, or something like that, where you know the parents are spending quite a bit of money on each kid invited, it’s a good idea to spend/give at least $25.

    A party at this place in Punta Pacifica isn’t gonna be cheap

    Now, if we’re talking about a quinceaños (sweet 15), that’s a little bit different. A quince is a very important time in a young lady’s life, practically as big a deal as a wedding. Imagine that TV show “My Super Sweet 16” with a little bit of salsa and tipico dancing thrown into the mix. Everyone dresses very formally (unless there’s a different kind of theme) and you should give at least $50. Really, anywhere from $50-$100, depending on your relationship with the girl and your level of comfort (income level). Aunts and uncles will probably give at least $100, maybe more. Friends of family will usually spend somewhere between $50-$80. 

    Back to kids’ parties. It’s probably a good idea to use this space to mention a few things you should be ready for if attending a birthday party in Panama.

    1. Where is everybody? The party will usually start out empty. Being tardy is a Panamanian thing (sorry all my Panamanian friends, but you know it’s true). If you arrive at 2pm, the exact time printed on the invitation, don’t be alarmed if you’re the only guest there. People will show up, but probably at around 3 (or later).

    2. Just pretend you know the song – Happy Birthday will be sung in both English and Spanish (this is very common in Panama, unless somehow you find yourself at an all-American or English-only party). So, during the Spanish version of the song, you’ll need to figure out something to do to make yourself not stick out in the crowd. Fidget with your camera, or bend down to fix your kid’s hair, haha.

    Being the one behind the camera is a good way to camouflage yourself

    Or, better yet, just learn the words to the Spanish version. Check out this Kidpats video we put together about birthday parties in Panama. During the singing of Happy Birthday, I added Spanish subtitles to help people learn. Check it out by clicking HERE.

    3. You want me to do what? At Panamanian parties being animated by a clown or host, there’s a good chance you’ll get called out for a game. It happens to me every time. Gringos tend to be part of the entertainment sometimes. One host thought it was hilarious that I didn’t speak Spanish and kind of picked on me through the whole party.

    Here I am, unwillingly participating

    Honestly, at just about every party I’ve been to, I’ve ended up as one of the non-volunteering volunteers to play the games with the kids.

    Even at a baby shower (there where was beer in the bottle though, and I won, so it was all good)

    If this happens to you, don’t get upset. Be happy to be included in the festivities. Just laugh it off and have a good time.

    4. I’m starvin’ ova hea! Never go to a party hungry. Most Panamanian parties will include arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), plantains, potato salad, etc. At some you’ll find only appetizer treats. Usually, the food won’t be served until well into the party. This happens for two reasons. The first, as I mentioned earlier, most people show up late. Second, once the food is served (as with most parties anywhere) people start to disappear. So don’t go to a party thinking, “Oh I’ll just eat at the party.” Do yourself a favor and eat a little something before you leave the house. 

    Moving on to adult parties. At an adult birthday party, you’d probably want to spend between $20-$30, unless it’s someone very close to you, then you can spring for a little more. Same goes for cash or a gift card. Here’s a tip. With an adult party, you might want to go with a present so it’s not so obvious how much you spent. Unless, of course, you’re ready to give $50 cash, then I’m sure you’d look alright, lol.

    Weddings cost a lot, so it’s polite to give a nice gift

    Weddings are a lot like a quinces. Spending wise, you’d follow the same rules. One thing you need to know about weddings here, is it’s customary to give cash. It’s not like in the U.S. where people show up with gift wrapped toasters, blenders, and foot massagers. 

    On a random side note (you know me and my tangents), Marlene and I once received a wedding gift that was re-gifted to us. How did we know? When we unwrapped it and opened the box, we found a beautiful card, wishing our friends the best of luck in their marriage. It was a note to them from the original purchaser. Apparently they’d never opened the gift and just passed it on to us. We had a good laugh and never told our friends.

    Be ready to dance at weddings too!

    Back to the wedding gifts. At all weddings in Panama, somewhere near the entrance to the reception, you should see some sort of envelope box, usually a fancy contraption with a slit at the top. Just put your cash-filled card there. 

    On a final note, I’ve also received emails about dinner parties and whether it’s necessary to take a gift with you if invited to one. Panamanians are very fun-loving people and it seems there’s always a friendly get together, which means the hosts are spending money on food and drinks. 

    So, the answer is yes, if you’re invited to a party at someone’s home, for whatever reason, it’s always nice to bring either a bottle of wine, or some sort of dessert. Just stop by the supermarket and grab an apple pie if you’re not sure what to bring. 

    Or…the absolute best…pick up one of those chocolate cakes from the Rey supermarket, the ring shaped one. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever eaten. Love that thing.

    I’m talking about these chocolate cakes!

    Man, now I need to go eat some more sugar-free Jello (they really need to make Rey-supermarket-chocolate-ring-cake-sugar-free Jello). Seriously. 

    Well, I think that about covers it. As always, I invite readers to write in with their comments and anything I may have missed.

    If you haven’t already, sign up for our newsletter by putting your email address in the field below the red suitcase logo at the top right corner of this page. That way you can receive instant notification whenever we head to a new town and post a report and video about it. 

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12 Responsesso far.

  1. Madison says:

    What kind of gift should you send if you’ve stayed with a panaminian family for 5 days? I wanted to send a thank you gift after I have returned home to the United states. I know they’re daughter from college, thanks!

  2. Kathryn Vaughn says:

    Hi Chris –
    So enjoy your posts – full of practical info, always dished out with a nice touch of humour.
    This will be my first expat holiday season in Panama, and it is coming up fast (yikes)!
    What do you suggest for holiday gift giving / tipping for those who have provided service throughout the year? I don’t know what the expectations are in Panama and don’t want to make a faux pas. I’m thinking of folks like the hairdresser, the physiotherapist, my favourite bank teller, the office receptionist, etc? Any insights you could give would be much appreciated.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Kathryn,

      Thanks so much! By the way, you seem to be a very generous person. I’ve tipped people for great service, but buying them a Christmas gift has never crossed my mind, lol. I suppose if you see these people all the time and they consistently provide excellent service, then it makes sense. I just asked Mar and she said if you really want to give a nice gift, you can never go wrong with a bottle of wine or a gift card to one of the malls or department stores. I hope this helps. Oh, my mother-in-law just added that if it’s a female service provider, something like one of Bath & Body Works’ lotions would be greatly appreciated. We gave lotions to my kids’ teachers this year and they loved them.


      • Kathryn Vaughn says:

        Hi Chris –
        Thanks for your response and for consulting your A-team about my inquiry. Its good to know that there seem to be no fixed rules on Christmas giving in Panama, unlike in some countries where there is a whole complex etiquette for who gets how much. One less thing to worry about…

  3. Gino Morales says:

    Great article on gift giving. Being panamanian I’ve never giving it much though, but you are right about the unspoken gift-giving policies in Panama.
    So you have been living in Panama for how long? and your wife and kids are panamanians, but you don’t speak spanish? How come? I wonder ’cause my sister-in-law is from San Antonio (Texas, not Panama – LOL) and she doesn’t speak spanish either (ok she does know spanish , but try to speak it as little as possible)… Is that an expat thing? just wondering.
    I’ll check out your facebook page… mine is ginomorales@hotmail.com

    • Chris says:

      Come on, Gino. My wife is gonna see this comment and give me hell. Mar is always on my case about not speaking Spanish (something that is entirely my fault). I’m not sure it’s an expat thing as I know a lot of expats who do speak Spanish or who are actively trying to learn. I think, honestly and it’s no excuse, that between working on getting my TEFL certificate to teach English as a second language (which I just received, woohoo), writing my next novel, starting a book on Panama, plus doing everything with this Panama For Real site and my author website at http:www.cmichaelpowers.com, it’s just hard for me to focus on learning Spanish. I have so much other stuff going on in my brain. I need to reserve a section of my mind for Spanish, lol.


  4. Hi Chris,

    I have read some of your Blogs and am finding them very informative. I hope to move to Panama in September, and will be needing a job. I am a Native English language teacher and am wanting to find a job in Panama by the time I arrive there. Are you able to help with providing me names of schools where I can apply for jobs?
    I am also interested in getting your newsletters and I feel that the more I know about Panama, the easier it will be for me to adjust. Though it doesn’t take me long as I have travelled the world. I am teaching at the moment in Vietnam.
    And while I love Vietnam and the people, I have a desire to see more of the world and Panama is top on my list at the moment.
    Anyway, I hope to hear back from you soon. Bye the way, I am Australian, Are there any Australian people living in Panama?? I would love to hear from some of them in regards to how they find living and working in Panama?
    Kind Regards

    • Chris says:

      Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for reading my blog and for checking out the website. I’ll have to get back to you on the teaching thing as there are a lot of schools here, many of which are usually searching for English teachers. I’m just not sure what qualifications you need in order to teach legally for a reputable school. If you’re able to do one of the online courses to get a TESOL (TEFL) certificate, that can’t hurt, as having it helps a lot.

      I’ve only met one Australian couple, in Pedasi, but I don’t really know them personally. I’m sure there are others around though, lol.

      Sorry I couldn’t answer your questions right away.


  5. Darrel G. Mohney says:

    Hello Chris
    I would really like to move to Panama. My wife and I was in Panama about a month ago, and I really liked the mountain area we looked at several homes,Boquete,Volcan. And I truly loved it. A fellow by the name of David Hatton showed us around, His real estate is Panama Connection,He seemed to be a alright fellow.
    I grew up around Tulsa ( Sapulpa ),but I have been all over the world, we spent about 6 years in Belize, but the government is so crooked, we have a small ranch in Honduras of which I want to sell because of the danger there. My wife is from Honduras, we have been married 24 years. I have several mining projects in Nevada I’m selling, one has been sold already we have a good income, now here is the problem ( BIG TIME ) my wife thinks Panama is to dangerous, she says she wants to stay in the U.S. where it is safe. We live in a small town near Houston and there are murders all over Houston every night. I think Panama is beautiful with friendly people . Well that is my problem Chris. I’m already on your mailing list.Thanks

    • Chris says:

      Hey Darrel,

      Sounds like you guys are quite the travelers. You’re not the only one out there thinking Panama is dangerous. I really need to write an article specifically about security and danger here. Is it dangerous? Sure, in some areas. Is Houston dangerous? Sure, in some areas. Is Miami dangerous? Sure, in some areas, yet Miami is one of the places people flock to for a good time. Hollywood is in California and so is Compton. In any place in the world, the haves have to watch out for the have nots. I wouldn’t call the U.S. safe either (not all of it anyway). Someone just asked on Facebook last week if there have been any school shootings in Panama. I believe the answer was no. Yet, school shootings keep happening in the U.S., and for the most part, they’re happening in towns that are thought to be safe and peaceful. I love Panama and think it’s very beautiful. It’s not for everyone though. Next time you guys visit, you should check out El Valle de Anton too. It’s a really nice, safe place (and a little closer to shopping, restaurants, and Panama City if you just need to escape seclusion rather quickly).


  6. Good information…it will be interesting to see how this compares to our experience living in the interior (Santa Fe, Veraguas). We haven’t been to a birthday party yet, but expect that will be happening before long.

    • Chris says:

      I really need to get out to Santa Fe, Michael. I have to plan that soon. Good luck with any upcoming birthday parties.


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