Panama is the narrowest, most southern country in Central America. Bordered by Colombia to the east and Costa Rica to the west, Panama connects North America with South America. Although slightly smaller than South Carolina, Panama packs a lot into its borders. It has more rainforests than roads, and hosts a vibrant mix of indigenous and immigrant cultures. The more familiar you become with Panama, the more you realize that it is much more than a canal.
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Although Panama isn’t big, the various regions of the country offer very different attractions. This being the case, tourism in Panama is best understood in regional terms.
Panama City is cosmopolitan and accessible, and is close to the Canal Zone and other outdoor features along the central portion of the isthmus. To the east lie the pristine archipelago of Guna Yala and the wild jungles of the Darién. Head west from Panama City and you’ll cruise through Central Panama, which hosts breezy highlands and popular beaches.
The Azuero Peninsula, as Panama’s heartland, is one of the most culturally rich parts of the country; the towns here rarely see tourists and are chock full of tradition. Just west of the Azuero are the Western Highlands and Gulf of Chiriquí. These areas mix mountains (including the country’s highest peak, the Barú Volcano 11,398ft tall with a stunning shoreline that accesses two offshore National Parks.
Finally, there is Bocas del Toro, a bohemian archipelago along the northwestern edge of the country. Bocas is known for its laid-back atmosphere, white-sand beaches, and plentiful biodiversity (both on the land and in the sea). It’s one of the most popular parts of the country.
Panama’s currency is the balboa and is tied to the U.S. dollar. One balboa equals one dollar, and because Panama does not print its own paper currency, the U.S. dollar is legal tender in Panama. Panamanian coins are the same weight and size as U.S. coins, but have different images printed on them. They are used interchangeably with U.S coins.
Despite the fact that Panama is a world banking capital of the world, it’s tough to exchange foreign currencies in most places – that said, we recommend bringing U.S. dollars if possible. ATMs are widely available and are by far the easiest way to get cash. Hotels, tours, and restaurants will list their prices in dollars. The cost of traveling in Panama is relatively low – a typical meal will cost $2-5.
Panama covers 75,517 square kilometers (29,157 square miles) and is bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia. The country is far longer than it is wide. At the canal, the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea are just 80 kilometers (50 mi) apart; east to west, however, the country stretches some 3,000 kilometers (1,865 mi).
Panama’s largest mountain range is the Cordillera Central. This range runs through the western half of the country and contains Panama’s highest mountain, Volcán Barú located in the town of Boquete. The dormant volcano stands some 3,475 meters (11,400 ft.) tall. Another important mountain range extends along the eastern Caribbean coast, from the Comarca de Guna Yala to the Colombian border.
A quarter of the country is protected wilderness with more biodiversity per square meter than the Amazon. A third of Panama’s remaining forests are humid tropical forests, there is a nice mixture of other ecosystems, including cloud forests, mangroves, coral reefs, islands, and even a man-made desert. The plants and animals that live within the country’s borders are varied and impressive. These include 972 bird species, 200 mammal species, 200 reptile species, almost 200 amphibian species, and more than 10,000 species of plants.
Panama’s climate is tropical, with temperatures remaining fairly constant throughout the year. The lowlands tend to be warmer than the highlands, and the humidity is high year-round. Most of Panama experiences rainy and dry seasons. The dry season usually lasts from mid-December to mid-April, and the rainy season generally lasts from mid-April to mid-December. Some areas of the country (most notably Bocas del Toro) have microclimates that vary somewhat from traditional weather patterns.
The 2010 census reported the Panamanian population as 3,322,576. More than two-thirds of these people live in urban areas, particularly in Panama City, the Canal Zone, and Colon. The rest of the population lives primarily in the isthmus’ central provinces. Culturally, Panamanians often identify themselves by the province that they are from, each of which is associated with its own beliefs, traditions, and stereotypes.
The country is remarkably diverse. Its historic status as a transit point for international commerce created the medley of genetic variance that you see today. Panamanians’ genes stretch to Spain, Africa, China and India, as well as the Middle East, Central Europe and North America. That said, the dominant culture is primarily derived from Spain.
The family unit is extremely important and taking care of one’s family is the main goal for many Panamanians. Family events (birthdays, baptisms, etc.) are fundamental to the culture and it’s not uncommon to see whole families traveling together.
The average life expectancy is 75 years, although nearly one-third of the population is younger than 14. Women tend to outlive men by nearly five years.
Education is important in Panama and a primary school education is required. Due to this, more than 93 percent of the population aged 10 and older can read and write.
Panama has a constitutional democracy. There is a president and vice president, both of which are elected to single five-year terms. Voting rights are extended to all Panamanian citizens and it is compulsory to vote.
Panama has a booming economy that depends mainly on its services sector. In 2009, the GDP was US $24.75 billion, a third of which came from service-related industries (the Panama Canal, tourism, ports, the Colón Free Zone, etc.). Agriculture makes up less than 7 percent of the GDP. Exports include coffee, rice, bananas, and sugarcane, and its largest trading partner is the United States. In recent years, Panama has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the Americas, with an annual GDP growth that averaged over 7 percent. Aside from the services sector, this growth is also largely driven by construction. A huge influx of foreigners has created a demand for new hotels, apartments, resorts and restaurants, not to mention the multi-billion dollar canal expansion that has already began.
Indigenous Cultures of Panama’s Native Indians
The indigenous groups make up 5.3% of the total population in the country. The most important Indian tribes on the isthmus are: The Kunas who are found on the islands of San Blas, and also in the jungle of Chucunaque and Bayano; the Ngobe Buglé (also known as Guaymíe) who live mainly in the mountainous areas of Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui; the Emberá and Wounan (tribes of the Chocoes group) who live in the Darién jungle and the Teribe and Cricamola in the province of Bocas del Toro.
At first sight, the culture of this Native American group, which migrated to Panama from South America around the same time that Spanish conquistadors first set foot on the Isthmus, might seem rather primitive to the average visitor. Whereas men and boys wear loin clothes, the daily attire of women and girls consists of lively colored skirts, body paint on their nude torso, a necklace made with coins and a crown of flowers. A closer contact will yield a different impression: cell phones, children learning world history in school and a tourist committee with enough knowledge of English to make you feel at home.
A one-and-a half to two hour boat journey on the Chagres River to the tiny village of Embera Drua is the closest spot to Panama City to visit this group. Nestled in the thick rainforests of Chagres National Park, Emberá Drúa and its residents are accepting more and more visitors from northern climes that travel several centuries back in time.
Since the birth of Panama’s cruise ship industry ten years ago, Emberá Drúa has become one of the most popular destinations for luxury vessel passengers on the Isthmus. The average visit includes native dances, an authentic Emberá lunch (featuring fried fish and patacones -fried, green plantain medallions), lectures on the town’s history and culture and “crash courses” on how to make the Emberá’s excellent handicrafts, including their woven baskets, and carvings made with vegetable ivory and cocobolo wood.
Nobody knows for sure when they arrived in Panama from South America. By the 16th century they had already occupied the 360 islands known today as the San Blas archipelago, pushed towards the Caribbean coast by enemy Native American tribes and the Spanish conquistadors.
The Kuna are a nation within a nation which has struggled for centuries to keep its culture and traditions alive. During the colonial period, they joined European corsairs and pirates in a number of successful attacks against the Spanish, who had vowed to eliminate them. As the Spanish empire dwindled, they became entrenched in the regions of present-day Darién and San Blas, in Panama, and western Colombia, which granted them lands and legal recognition towards the end of the 19th century. Panama, which back then was a Colombian province, declared independence in 1903 and ignored the agreements, although most of the Kuna population was on the Panamanian side of the border, a fact that made many inhabitants of San Blas side with the Colombian government just as Panamanian authorities sought to “civilize” the Kuna.
Resentments reached a climax in 1925, when Richard O. Marsh, a Canadian adventurer, motivated the Kuna to declare independence from Panama by creating the “Republic of Tule”. A peace treaty was later signed, and the Kuna agreed to acknowledge Panamanian sovereignty only after the “wagas” (the non-Kuna) granted them a good measure of autonomy.
Today, Panamanian authorities rarely interfere with Kuna government and have created three special comarcas (autonomous territories) for them. Known as a culture based on equal treatment for men and women, an egalitarian barter economy and their colorful molas (reverse appliqué creations famous around the world) the Kuna are a tourist attraction in their own right, and their traditionally-dressed women are an important element of Panama’s urban scene, offering their handicraft at the city’s main tourist venues.
The Ngöbe Buglé
Formerly know as the Guaymie, the Ngöbe Buglé inhabit the highlands of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí and the arid plains of Veraguas. Women wear gowns of bright colors sewn in geometric shapes while men’s dress is basically modern. However, during their ceremonies of balseria, where the strongest triumph, they will dress themselves with exotic bird feathers and paint their faces with geometric shapes, usually black, white and red.
They live in huts near rivers or in valleys. The Ngöbe Buglé fish, hunt, raise dogs, cattle, chickens and pigs. Some of their more famous items are chaquiras, bead necklaces of geometric designs and bold colors. The Ngöbe Buglé impose severe punishments for adultery and celebrate a number of annual ceremonies. According to the 2000 Panamanian census, there is a total of 110,080 Ngöbe Buglé Indians in Panama, representing 63.6% of the country’s indigenous population. The Ngöbe Buglé Comarca (reservation) was officially created on March 7, 1997, with territory formerly belonging to the provinces of Chiriquí, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro.