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Panama Overview

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The Republic of Panama is the southernmost country in Central America. It is a former Spanish colony with a mixed population of Creoles, mestizos, European immigrants, Africans, and indigenous Indians. Panama is bordered Costa Rica to the northwest, Colombia to the south-east, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Panama is known as a transit country because of the Panama Canal. While the country is known for its famous canal, its natural attractions include birding, whitewater rafting, and snorkeling tours. Panama’s biodiversity has been said to be three times higher than the United State, Canada and Europe combined. More than 29 percent of the country’s landscape includes 15 national parks, forest reserves and 10 wildlife sanctuaries. Panama forms a natural land bridge, connecting South and Central America. The area of the country is 25,590 square miles (74,046 square kilometers). According to the 2000 census, Panama had a population of 2.8 million people. Of these, 1 million live in and around Panama City. Panama is the most industrialized country in Central America; although it has the third largest economy after Guatemala and Costa Rica, Panama has the most developed economy and is the largest consumer of Central American countries.


Panama City - Old Panama Pre-twentieth century history Panama City - Old Panama

Founded on August 15, 1519 by Pedrarias Dávila, Panama City was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast. The earliest known inhabitants of Panama were the Cuevas and the Coclé, who were decimated by disease and the sword when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. After several forays along the country's Caribbean shore, the Spanish established a settlement, Nombre de Dios, at the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Caribbean coast in 1510. Panama's Pacific coast later became the springboard for invasions of Peru, and the wealth generated by these incursions was carried overland from the Pacific port of Panama (City) to Nombre de Dios. The transport of wealth attracted pirates, and by the 18th century the Caribbean was so dangerous that Spanish ships began bypassing Panama and sailing directly from Peru around Cape Horn to reach Europe. Gold coming from Peru passed through Panama toward the port towns of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios, where it was loaded onto ships bound for Spain. In 1671, twelve hundred men led by the English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked and subsequently destroyed the city.

In the years to follow, Panama went into decline, becoming a province of Colombia when the South American nation received its independence in 1821. In 1846, Colombia signed a treaty permitting the USA to construct a railway across the isthmus and to defend it with military force. The idea of a canal across the isthmus had been broached even in the 16th century, but a French attempt to build one in 1880 resulted in the deaths of 22,000 workers from malaria and yellow fever, and bankruptcy for everyone involved. However, a Frenchman who stood to gain handsomely from a US buyout of the French rights to build a canal was named 'envoy extraordinary' by Washington, and he negotiated and signed a canal treaty with the USA, despite the objections of the Colombian government. The financial and strategic interests of the US momentarily coincided with the sentiments of Panama's revolutionaries, and a revolutionary junta declared Panama independent on November 3, 1903, with the overt support of the USA.

Today, visitors to Panama can tour the remains of the old city: the cathedral, six convents and churches, the city hall building, the House of the Genovese, Fort Natividad, the Hospital San Juan de Dios and three colonial bridges. You can also view the Casas Reales - the compound where the Spanish customs and treasury was located. Towards the Major Square (Plaza Mayor), you'll find the City Hall, the cathedral and the Bishop's house. The Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption, constructed between 1519 and 1626, is the best preserved of all the buildings. Following the style of the time, it is cross-shaped. The bell tower was located at the back and probably served a double purpose as bell tower and watchtower of the royal houses. Further north is the Convent of Santo Domingo, constructed in 1570 and its respective church, erected 20 years later. They are the best-preserved religious buildings in the city. Panamá La Vieja offers a site museum, which exhibits a maquette of the city before 1671 as well as colonial and pre-colombine artifacts brought from Spain.

Casco Antiguo

When Panama City was destroyed in the 17th century, its inhabitants moved to the foothills of the Cerro Ancón. On January 21, 1673, Antonio Fernández de Córdoba y Mendoza founded the new city of Panama. The new location was chosen as a defense against new pirate attacks. A formidable set of walls in close the city at the beginning of 1675. The walls had two main doors, one facing land and one facing sea, in addition to these two it also had five side gates. The new city was apportioned lots and was intended for specific functions: religious, administrative, military, commercial and residential. From its cross-sectioned design emerged 38 blocks, 3 main streets running from east to west, 7 streets running from north to south and others that were shorter.

The urban development of Panama City was interrupted during the 18th century due to various fires that devastated its streets. In 1737, the "big fire"
destroyed two thirds of the city, and the "small fire" of 1756 destroyed more than 90 houses. These and other catastrophic fires help explain why so few colonial examples exist today. In 1846, the discovery of gold in California spurred the economic development of Panama. The result was the construction of the transisthmic railway, which joined the two oceans for the first time, and the beginning of the construction of the French Canal. The city gradually changed its aspect, transforming itself into a cosmopolitan city with a 19th century European resemblance. In 1997, UNESCO declared the Casco Antiguo of Panama City a Patrimony of Humanity, underscoring it rich architectonic diversity from the 19th and early 20th century. -Thanks to Instituto Panameño de Turismo (IPAT)

The Canal's Influence on Panama's Modern History

The canal treaty granted the United States rights in perpetuity over land on both sides of the canal and a broad right of intervention in Panamanian affairs. The treaty led to friction between the two countries for decades. The United States began to build the canal again in 1904, and 10 years later the first ship negotiated the engineering marvel. The US intervened in Panama's affairs repeatedly up until 1936, when it relinquished its right to use troops outside the Canal Zone. A new treaty was signed in 1977. Panama formally regained control of the canal in 1999. In 1984, General Manuel Noriega took control of the country. A former head of Panama's secret police and a CIA operative, Noriega became a demagogic bogeyman, murdering political opponents, squashing democracy, trafficking drugs and laundering money.

When the winning candidate of the 1989 presidential election was beaten to a pulp on national TV and the election declared null and void, Noriega's regime became an international embarrassment. Noriega appointed himself head of government and announced that Panama was at war with the USA. The following day an unarmed US soldier dressed in civilian clothes was killed by Panamanian soldiers; the Panamanians claimed that he was armed and had shot and injured three civilians before running a roadblock. The US called in 26,000 troops for 'Operation Just Cause', which was intended to bring Noriega to justice and create a democracy better suited to US interests; it left more than 2000 civilians dead and thousands homeless. Noriega escaped capture by claiming asylum in the Vatican embassy; he was captured a few days later, sent to the US and convicted of money laundering. The legitimate winner of the 1989 presidential election, Guillermo Endara, was sworn in as president. In 1994 Ernesto Pérez Balladares took office. Under his direction, the government implemented a program of privatization and focused on infrastructure improvements, health care and education. In 1999 Mireya Moscoso, Panama's first female leader and head of the conservative Arnulfista Party (PA), took office.
Recent History
In 2000 Moscoso set up an investigation of state crimes committed between 1968 and 1989 and in 2002 set up another investigation, this time looking into government graft. She nevertheless lost the presidential election in May 2004, and was replaced by Martin Torrijos. In October 2006, Panamanians voted in a referendum to expand the Panama Canal. The ambitious job-creating project started in September 2007, and will see the canal's system of channels and locks widened and improved to make it suitable for modern supertankers and to cut waiting times. The hefty multi-billion dollar construction bill is expected to be funded by an increase in canal tolls and foreign investment.

Panama's Culinary Traditions

Like other Latin American countries, Panama has a rich tradition in the culinary arts. Panamanian food is similar to that of other Latin American countries, but is not particularly spicy. During a trip to Panama, visitors will note that corn in many forms is often found in Panamanian cuisine. Cooking is done mainly in oil. Fish, seafood and shellfish dishes are Panamanian specialties. Due to its location the country is home to a vast array of fresh fish. In the Caribbean common seafood includes shrimp, king crab, octopus, grouper, red snapper, and lobster (the latter two are heavily overfished, so travelers may want to avoid ordering these).

Highlighted below are some favorite Panamanian foods to sample during your trip.

Fruits – A wide assortment of tropical fruits is constantly at your fingertips in Panama. Choose from papayas, mangoes, pineapples, melons, bananas, and passion fruit.

Hojaldras: These are commonly referred to as Panamanian Doughnuts. Essentially it is dough that is deep-fried and then covered with sugar on top.

Tortillas: A very common diet staple. Different from other countries, the tortillas in Panama are thicker and deep-fried. Typically items are then placed on top of the tortilla to make a meal. It is common to uses eggs, cheese, beans, or anything else tasty to make a good morning meal.

Corvina: A very common, mild-tasting fish used in many recipes. In the U.S. and Canada corvina is known as sea bass. Common along the Pacific coast, it is usually served grilled or in ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice).

Tamales: Different from what is found in Mexico, the Panamanian tamale is covered in banana leaf and boiled. This process creates a distinct, delicious flavor.

Yucca – Often served in small fried cubes with salt

Platanos – plantains cut up and fried. Platanos maduro is ripe plantains baked or broiled with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon; served hot.

Platano Maduro: The plantain, a kind of starchy, bland banana, is something you will see as a side on many dishes throughout Central America. It is cut into small slices and then fried. The flavor is sweet and is a nice addition to any meal.

Carimañola: This is a roll made from a type of tropical yucca. Typically the roll is stuffed full of eggs and meat.

Arroz Con Guandu: Probably the most common side dish seen in Panama. Essentially rice is cooked with beans and other spices to create a great tasting rice dish. You may see this side dish served at any and all meals. There are many variations as to other ingredients that can be added to this Panamanian staple.

Chicheme – non-alcoholic drink found only in Panama. Made of milk, sweet corn, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Chichas – Fresh fruit juices, mixed with water or milk, and sweetened with sugar. Try pineapple, watermelon, mango, strawberry, or for the more adventurous taster, carrot or barley

Panama's Environment: Tropical Forest, Pristine Islands and more!

When cruising Panama, visitors can expect to find tropical forests, pristine islands off the coasts, highland cloud jungles, and coral reefs: in short, a vibrant lesson in biodiversity. Panama has over ten thousand species of plant; within these are 1200 orchid species, 675 fern species and 1500 tree species. However, this pristine natural beauty is unfortunately in jeopardy. Development and deforestation are the principle threats to Panama’s natural ecosystems as the country seeks a balance between sustainable practices and financial gain. Degradation of land and soil erosion also threatens siltation of the Panama Canal, and water pollution from agricultural runoff (chemical fertilizers and pesticides that get into the water) threatens fisheries, as well as the Panamanians who make there living operating them. Panama’s coast has large areas of lowlands, characterized by large banana plantations.

Near the Panama Canal, tropical rainforests and humid climates abound. This is the typical climate and vegetation along the Caribbean coast and for most of eastern Panama. Vegetation on the Pacific coast includes dry tropical rainforest and grasslands. Both coasts and the islands near them are home to mangrove forests. Higher altitudes in the mountainous regions host cloud forests and alpine vegetation. Panama has created close to 40 national parks and officially protected areas, and approximately 25% of Panama’s total land area is designated as protected for conservation. Of these, the Darien National Park is considered the crown jewel, with its 576,000 hectares containing a rich abundance of wildlife and rainforest flora. The park is another Unesco Heritage site, and Cana, a former mining valley within it, is now the premier bird-watching location in Panama. Another interesting piece of trivia about Darien is related to its dense, seemingly impenetrable forest. The Darien Gap, covering 54 miles and crossing the border between Panama and Colombia, is the missing link in the Pan-American Highway.

This highway stretches from the southern tip of South America to northern Alaska, with the exception of a 54 mile gap, the Darien Gap. On the Panama side the Gap is mostly mountainous rainforest terrain, and is swampland in Colombia. The United Nations report suggesting that building a road through this area would cause extreme environmental damage, along with the extreme terrain itself, has prevented the gap from closing for over forty years. It remains a wild place, not only ecologically but politically, as several militant guerilla groups from Colombia maintain a presence in remote areas of the Gap. Currently, a contested area of Panama is Isla de Coiba. The 493 square mile island is a Unesco World Heritage site and is in the middle of one of the largest marine parks in the world. For many years, a prison located on the island has ironically ensured its preservation; however, now that the penal colony is gone, developers are eyeing the island, creating a fierce debate between foreigners buying up real estate and non-governmental organizations fighting to preserve the ecological gem.

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.

Panama Weather

Like the rest of Central America, Panama has two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season lasts from mid-December to mid-April, while the rainy season occurs from mid-April to December. On the Caribbean side of Panama, north of the mountains, it rains all year round. This being said, the rain is less in February, March, September and October than it does the rest of the year. Travelers on a Panama trip will find that temperatures are typically hot in the lowlands throughout the year; days usually reach around 32°C (90°F) and only drop to an average of 22°C (72°F). The humidity brought on by the rainy season makes the heat even harder to endure. Temperatures in the mountains are much cooler, ranging from 10-18°C (50-64°F) in a day, and also vary little throughout the year. If you intend to spend most of your time on the Pacific side, try December or January, when there's generally little rain and the weather is pleasant. If you're doing any serious hiking, this is also the most comfortable time to do it as the Darién Gap can be crossed only at this time. For packing purposes, be aware that Panama's mountains can get very cold at night; be sure to bring warm clothing for layering.

Culture-rich Panama

As in many Latin American countries, the culture of Panama has become a blend that represents its diverse history and people. European music and art that were brought to Panama by the Spanish have joined Native American and African traditions to form Panama’s cultural spectrum.

Panama is distinctive in Latin America, where for most countries their national sport is soccer, while Panama is a nation that prefers baseball. This is due in large part to the influence of the U.S. occupation of Panama, and Panamanian stars on U.S. baseball teams are celebrated nationally. There are no professional teams in Panama, but amateur games are played in stadiums throughout the country.

While Panama is something of a melting pot for different types of music, including Latin, rock, reggae, jazz, and calypso, salsa is the most popular, and live bands abound in Panama City. Ruben Blades is Panama’s most famous salsa singer and Renaissance man (in addition to being a musician, he is a lawyer, politician, and Hollywood actor). Tipico, or folk music, features the accordion and is also popular.

While 77% of Panamanians are Roman Catholic, visitors on a tour of Panama can witness the wide diversity of religions practiced as they synagogues, mosques, Greek Orthodox churches, Hindu temples and a Baha’i house of worship, all in the capital city. Christian missionaries currently challenge the continuation of indigenous belief systems, and evangelicalism is spreading rapidly.

Art / Crafts
The indigenous people of Panama create a wide variety of beautiful, high-quality handicrafts. Some are still traditionally used by these groups, while others continue to be made for the sake of tourism revenue. In any case, these are treasures to help travelers to Panama remember their journeys. The Wounaan and Embera groups are known for producing woven baskets, carvings of jungle wildlife made of a tropical hardwood called cocobolo, and also carving small figures from cream-colored nuts called tagua. The Kuna are well-known for their brightly colored blouses, made from textile patches called molas. These depict nature scenes and wildlife such as birds and turtles, and are known for their intricate stitchwork and designs.

While Spanish is the offical language of Panama, English is also used widely, particularly in business, banking, and tourism sectors.

The Kuna are one of the indigenous groups of Panama and Colombia. They are often misidentified as the extinct Cundara people; while the two groups share some traditions, their backgrounds are very distinct. During the Spanish invasion the Kuna lived in what is now Colombia. The Kuna language is currently spoken by between fifty thousand and seventy thousand people, and is a language of the Chibchan family. Spanish is also used widely in Kuna culture, particularly in writing. The Kuna language is considered endangered.

Wild Side of Panama

Panama’s biodiversity is again evident when we examine the wide variety of fauna. 218 mammal species, 226 reptile species, and 164 amphibian species are endemic to Panama. 125 animal species found in Panama are found nowhere else on the planet, and 940 bird species can be found in Panama, the largest number of any Central America country. A few of the birds that travelers to Panama might glimpse during their Panama travels, are macaws, parrots, toucans, tanagers, and raptors. Golden-headed quetzals and black-tipped cotingas can be seen in Darien National Park. The national bird of Panama is the harpy eagle. A daunting predator with a two meter wingspan and weighing up to twenty lbs., the harpy eagle can carry off howler monkeys, sloths, anteaters, and capuchins in its powerful claws. Viewers can identify the harpy eagle by a broad black band across its chest with white underneath.

A Panama trip is also an ideal place for visitors looking to see a variety of primates. Some of these include squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and white-faced capuchins. Tiny Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys (many weighing in a less than one pound) are found only in one country in Central America: Panama. Elusive jungle cats that lucky travelers may glimpse (and more will be able to examine their tracks) include jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and margays. Deforestation and development have both threatened the habitat for these animals, particularly the jaguar and puma, both of which need large areas of land to cover hunting for food. One surprising fact: these cats are excellent swimmers!

The Caribbean and Pacific Oceans will allow visitors to discover even more fascinating and foreign creatures. These include reef sharks, humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, killer and sperm whales, whale sharks and black-and-white-tip sharks, along with a wide variety of tropical fish. Sea turtles draw much attention, and 5 of the world’s 7 species are found on Panamanian beaches. The animals on the “red” endangered species list in Panama include the jaguar, spectacled bear, scarlet macaws, and all 5 species of sea turtle. Unfortunately, tourism can add to the threat to these species in some instances. Panama has passed legislation aimed at protecting endangered species, but it often is not enforced.

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