Panama: Central America's Southern-most Country

Panama is the southernmost country in Central America, located between Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east. The S-shaped isthmus that makes up Panama is located between 7 and 10 degrees north latitude and 77 and 83 degrees west longitude. With a land area of 75,990 square kilometers, Panama is approximately 772 kilometers long, and between 60 and 177 kilometers wide. The coastline of Panama stretches 2,490 kilometers. Natural resources of Panama include mahogany forests, shrimp, copper, and hydropower. Because of its narrowness and location between the Caribbean and Pacific, Panama has the distinction of being the only place on earth where people can watch the sun rise in the Pacific and set in the Atlantic.

Panama is divided into nine provinces, which have not changed since 1903. However, these provinces are divided into districts, which are in turn subdivided into smaller sections called corregimientos. The borders of these small sections are periodically updated to reflect population changes. In addition, there have been no outstanding disputes over Panama’s international borders with Costa Rica and Colombia since the late 1980’s.

During a Panama tour, you will most likely view the mountainous region that forms the continental divide. Near the border of Costa Rica, this mountain range is named Cordillera de Talamanca. Between Costa Rica and the Panama Canal the mountains are generally called Cordillera Central. The divide is not part of the great mountain chains of North America, and is only part of the Andes mountain system near the Colombian border. Rather, the Panama mountain spine that forms the divide is formed by a highly eroded arch of an uplift from the ocean floor. Peaks were formed by volcanic activity. Panama’s highest elevation point is the Baru Volcano (long inactive), which is 11,401 feet. The highland region surrounding the volcano contains Panama’s richest soil. Travelers to Panama who sit on Balboa Hill will be rewarded with views of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Although the Panama Canal is by far the country’s most famous waterway, nearly 500 natural (and mostly impassable) rivers wind through the landscape. These waterways usually form in the highlands, slow down in the valleys, and create deltas at the coasts. Around 300 rivers empty into the Pacific Ocean, and these tend to be slower moving, longer, and form larger basins than those running into the Caribbean. One of the longest rivers in Panama is the Rio Tuira; it is also the only river navigable by larger ships. The power of the Rio Chepo and Rio Chagres has been harnessed for hydroelectricity.

The major port on the Caribbean is Cristobol, at the Caribbean terminus of the canal, although there are several good natural ports along the Caribbean coast of Panama. There are also several islands forming the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, close to Costa Rica, as well as the over 100 San Blas Islands near Colombia. These reach over 160 miles. On the Pacific coast of Panama, the major port is Balboa. The Pacific coastal waters are extremely shallow, causing a wide tidal range. The variation of 70 centimeters between low and high tide on the Caribbean side contrasts with the 700 centimeter difference on the Pacific side. There are also close to 1,000 islands off of Panama’s Pacific coast.