Panama is the bridge that links Central America with South America. This narrow tilde-shaped country is the only barrier between the East and the West. One of the world’s major feats of construction, the Panama Canal, helped ease the cost of doing business and allowed for goods to be transported all over the world. I remember in 1999 when the US handed control back to the Panamanians and was confused as to why it hadn’t happened sooner.
It’s not exactly clear where the name Panama originated from. Some linguists believe it could be stemmed from a several root words: one theory is that it refers to a type of local tree while another may refer to the many butterflies that are there during the late summer. One of the more popular theories is that it refers to a fishing village named Panamá, which means “abundance of fish.”
Panama is the last stop in Central American if you’re heading south. It’s actually more horizontal than it is vertical. It shares a western border with Costa Rica and an eastern border with Colombia, as a gateway to South America. The Pacific Ocean is to the south, and the Caribbean Sea is to the north. The central part of the country is mountainous and heavily forested with rainforests. Many of the rainforests are so thick the closer you get to the border with Colombia that it’s become a haven for guerilla fighters and drug lords. It’s one of the reasons why the Pan-American Highway stops here and picks up in Colombia. Panama has a tropical climate, although they do have a rainy and dry season.
The earliest people living here were from the Coclé, Cuevas, and other tribes. Many of the indigenous people died out due to the lack of immunity from the European diseases the Spanish brought along with them. (As Janet Jackson said, “Nasty, nasty boys.”) The first Spanish explorers arrived in search of gold and other riches they had heard about (must’ve been that 15th century fake news). They claimed the land for Spain and ruled it for nearly 300 years. However, “ruling” was difficult since so many of the indigenous tribes resisted something fierce. This area was frequented by many different groups of people besides the Spanish and the indigenous tribes, including British and Dutch pirates, freed African slaves, and one Scottish colony that didn’t end well (probably ran out of whiskey). In 1717, Panama was included as part of the viceroyalty of New Granada. During the 1800s, many of the countries under Spain’s reach were itching to gain their independence, and Panama was no different. They finally broke away from Spain in 1821 but then became a part of Colombia. Right at the turn of the century, Panama was in the middle of the Thousand Days War, often acknowledged as a war for land rights for the indigenous people. The country finally did manage to gain its independence from Colombia in 1903. In part of the treaty associated with the independence, the US finagled its way to build and control the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914 (and wouldn’t be given back for another 85 years). From that point, Panama became increasingly more militarized. Elections actually took place in 1968, but it all went to hell afterwards. Price freezing and other oppressive measures were the order of the day. During the early 1980s, Gen. Noriega came to power, and he had his hand in a bunch of shady illegal stuff going on. His regime was generally supported by the US and even operated with the CIA, but when massacres started taking place, the US threw sanctions at them like darts. Then after they found out that Noriega was trafficking drugs in Florida, that was apparently the last straw. The US used this as an excuse to invade the country, which ended with the deaths of hundreds of civilians and military alike. Today, the country is working on ways to improve its governmental transparency and its social and civil services.
Panama City (not the one in Florida), or Ciudad de Panamá, is the country’s capital city and largest city. It was founded in 1519, located on the Pacific side of the isthmus. The Old Quarter features Spanish and French architecture that was popular when the Panama Canal was being built. Today, the city is a tourist spot and also serves as the country’s center for government, higher education, commerce, sports, and banking. Although it’s not the only arts center in the country, it’s certainly one of them.
Panama has one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America and generally has a low unemployment rate. Once Panama took back control of the Canal, it generated millions of dollars in revenue from tolls. Having two coasts, it has several port cities, making it a prime location for doing business. It’s also strengthened itself as a financial center, and tourism is a contributor to its economy as well. Panama was also one of the first Latin American countries to adopt the US dollar as its currency.
Since the government doesn’t keep track of religion numbers, it’s only estimated that roughly 75-85% of Panamanians are Roman Catholic, leaving 15-25% as Protestant. However, there are a number of other minor denominations and religions represented throughout the country: LDS Church, Bahai, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, and other indigenous religions.
About 93% of Panamanians speak Spanish as their first language. However, many people also speak and understand English as well because of its status as an international language in business. There are also a number of indigenous languages still spoken in the home along with Spanish.
Panama has a unique location. Because of its narrowness, you can actually see the sun rise on the Atlantic and set on the Pacific from the same point. The country is located just south of the hurricane alley, so it rarely sees the number of tropical storms and hurricane that other countries in Central America and the Caribbean experience. I’m already sold on visiting Panama, but now I’m coming up with more reasons to go.
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