Have you ever wondered whether or not it is worthwhile going on a vacation in a Central American country and have you searched the Internet for dozens of suggestions of where to go? Well, look no further. The country you are meant to visit has been (long ago) found: Panama! This is a place that easily falls off someone’s radar, so it is very likely you have never considered going there before. But why discard the idea? Here are some facts about this beautiful country which you may only know for its grand canal.
Historia Panameña (A Brief Panamanian History)
To understand the here and now better, we should take a quick look at the rich history of this country.
The very first European person to explore the shores of Panama was the Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas. He founded the first harbor in 1501 and gave it the name of El Escribano. One year later, the well-known Christoph Columbus scrutinized the coastal line even further during his fourth journey.
In the 16th century, the area was entirely taken over by Spain and became the center of the Spanish trading monopoly. In 1821, Panama declared its independence from Spain and voluntarily joined first Gran Colombia and later the Republic of Colombia. However, because many people were dissatisfied with this situation, a couple of riots ensued, which weakened the country’s geopolitical and trading position.
On November 3, 1903, the country once again declared its independence, this time from the Colombian state, as they refused to ratify the contract Panama made with the U.S. to build the Panama Canal. Three days later, it was declared a sovereign state by the United States. With their backing, the construction of the canal could finally be started.
In 1904, the nation’s first constitution was formed and in 1914, the Canal was finally finished. Arnulfo Arias, who was elected president in 1940, soon lost his presidential position because he favored the Axis Powers and in 1942, then, Panama joined the Allies in World War II.
In 1969, general Omar Torrijos was voted to be the country’s president and during his term, he fought hard on an international, diplomatic level to gain dominion over the Canal de Panamá. In 1977, finally, the Torrijos-Carter contract was signed, which stated that the country would be given back the canal in the year 2000.
Among some of the important presidents who followed are Noriega (1983), Guillermo Endara (1989), Ernesto Pérez Balladares (1994), and Mireya Moscoso (1999), widow of the former president Arnulfo Arias. Lots of economic problems had to be faced during these years of changing presidents.
As stated above, Panama is located in Central America and is its southernmost country. It borders the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, which makes it a beautiful destination no matter if you prefer the west or the east coast. To the north, there is Costa Rica, and to the south, Colombia can be found. To be able to compare its size, take, for example, the U.S. state of South Carolina: Panama is slightly smaller than this state.
The most notable feature of the country’s land mass is a range of mountains and hills (often referred to as the Cordillera Central), which “divides” the country in itself. The range that forms this divide was created by volcanic intrusions, which were brought up from the bottom of the sea.
For all those adventurous climbers among us, it will be important to know that the highest point in Panama is the Volcán Barú, which is about 3,475 meters (11,401 ft) high. Panama is separated from Colombia by an extremely thick jungle where Colombian guerilla and drug dealers can be found. This jungle along with forest protection movements form the only breaks (the so-called Darién Gap) in the Pan-American Highway, which spans a distance of about 48,000 km (30,000 miles) in total length in highway roads and according to Guinness World Records, it is the world’s longest “motorable road”.
When it comes to Central American wildlife, Panama holds this continent’s greatest diversity of all the countries. It is home to many South and North American species and animals that can be found nowhere else on this planet. Among the animals that can be seen, there are macaws, amazons, squirrel monkeys, parrots, the harpy eagle (which is the national bird of Panama), quetzals, and capuchins.
All those animals (as well as the rich diversity in plants) have a great selection of waterways, too. There are almost 500 lakes that lace Panama’s landscape, with most of them being very difficult to navigate. However unnavigable most of them are, the Río Chagres, which is located in the center of Panama, is one of the few wide-enough rivers and a massive source of hydroelectric power.
As for the Panamanian climate, the temperatures are uniformly high (as is the relative humidity) and there is little seasonal variation throughout the year. Almost all of the country’s rain falls during the rainy season, which is between April and December but varies in length. Generally, the rainfall is much heavier on the Caribbean than on the Pacific side. It is said that it is best to visit this country outside the rainy season, meaning from January to May. When it comes to hurricanes, one can sigh a sigh of relief: Panama is located outside of the hurricane belt.
Tourism And Economy
If we take a look at Panama’s tourism, we will find that it is still in its early stages and that its horizon is chock-full with opportunities for development. Just wander the beaches and jungle areas and you will see that for the most part they have not yet been touched or altered. This leaves a lot of potential for all sorts of tourism, such as hotels or resorts. Next, to Panama City, parts of the Pacific coastline have been made into local recreational areas. Especially on the Caribbean side of the country (where a well-developed infrastructure is still mostly missing), there are tons of opportunities for tourism to bloom.
Looking at eco- and adventure tourism, one can see that the area right around the Panamanian Canal is considered one of the richest bio-systems the world over and, thus, offers manifold ways to enrich the touristic environment. Those zones are very important for the Panama Canal to function properly and that is exactly why future building projects must take into account the probable environmental advantages or disadvantages. Some of the possibilities for touristic expansion include guided hikes in the jungle, white-water rafting, exploration of the flora and fauna, fishing, diving, or surfing.
Besides this, Panama is an excellent starting point for many a cruise. There is even a cruise that takes you on the actual Canal to make it more accessible to the public and, hence, helps people to better understand and appreciate the canal’s functionality and economic role.
The last couple of years have shown that the nation’s economic and touristic growth has significantly increased. In order to speed up this growth, even more, the government only recently issued a few new laws, one of which abolishes the tax-paying aspect for about 20 years. This serves as an incentive for companies to build and thrive in this country. In the year 2011, Panama, for the first time ever, hit the 2-million-visitor mark, which also indicates that more and more people start to see this country’s worth.
Despite this ongoing growth (tourism is steadily growing by about 3.5% per year), Panama is still a country where you can find yourself near alone on the beach. It has not yet been swamped (and positively or negatively affected) by mass tourism and offers plenty of opportunities to explore this country without constantly bumping into crowds of people.
Next to all this, there is another convenience that awaits U.S. citizens traveling to Panama: there is no need for money exchange since the country is considered mostly dollarized—it has its own coinage but all their paper bills are U.S. dollars, which is one of the remnants of independence at the beginning of the 20th century.
Let us now take a closer look at some of the towns and regions of Panama.
Calovebora is one of the lesser-known towns in Panama comprised of many wooden houses. It is located in the Veraguas region and is directed by the Río Calovebora. It is a town that frequently finds itself amidst the all-encompassing changes that are happening in its country. The surrounding waters and the way to get to this town will probably quickly and drastically change as the economic and touristic growth booms. It is accessible by car and boat, or if you feel adventurous and travel there by horse or mule, it can turn into a very exhausting ride that can take up to a few days. If this is happening during the rainy season, too, it may turn into a slip-and-slide adventure.
The town is known by its inhabitants for being a great place to relax, fish, swim, and observe the magnificent plant and animal life there. A night in one of the wooden houses there can cost up to $5 with breakfast for 75c per plate—a very affordable stay and meal! The town itself is a quiet town, overlooking the Caribbean and the mouth of a river, which invite to take a dive. This town has a lot of potentials to go through some major changes in the next years. Electricity is a problem there but may be solved if the tourism digs up this gem of a town and discovers its value for through-traffic. Hotels and recreational resorts may up its infrastructure and give its residents’ a chance to show the world how beautiful their “home in paradise” is.
Pedasi is a town located in the Pedasí District on the south-eastern tip on Panama’s Pacific coast. Its population is about 2,000 people and it is considered to be principally a fishing village. This town boasts tons of beautiful beaches (such as Playa El Toro, Playa La Miel, or El Arenal) that are great places for surfers to pursue their hobby. Pedasi also has a public health clinic, two banks, a library, and some handsome restaurants. The annual carnival held there serves as a high point for Pedasi.
Torio, located in the south of the Veraguas region, can be found close to the peninsula of Azuero. Many European and North American visitors to Panama have discovered its marvelous beach and like to come back year after year. Torio has a truly enchanting landscape and thankfully—as opposed to Azuero—has been deforested a lot less in recent years. Several roads are planned for the building, which should make getting to this little paradise a lot more effortless.
Cocle is a province in central Panama that is located on the nation’s southern coast. Its capital is the city of Penonomé. Cocle is primarily an agricultural area with sugar and tomatoes being the major crops. It is also well-known for its beaches (e.g. Santa Clara, Farallon, or Rio Hato) and has a population of about 234,000 people. The province of Cocle is also home to the La MICA Biological Station where ongoing field and research and conservation education is conducted. The famous Parque Omar (full name: Parque Nacional General de División Omar Torrijos Herrera), which was built around the crash site of former leader Omar Torrijos, is located in the northeastern area of this province and enjoys legal protection as a national park.
Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro (“Mouth of the Bull”) was built in the 20th century by the United Fruit Company and is a town of many clapboard houses. Today, it is a relaxed mix of West Indians, Latinos, and resident gringos. This town (and region) is said to be so beautiful that many visitors cancel their future plans and just linger there. Bocas is also known to be a place where you spend just a little money and then you can go explore the many adjacent islands by water taxi.
To Go Or Not To Go
All in all, Panama is definitely worth a visit. Or two. Though its touristic and economic features are not yet completely developed, it is well on its way. Its infrastructure regenerates every year to become more and more convenient, autonomous, and beautiful. Visitors to this country will find that this country, which is now not only known for its canal, has a lot to show and offers plenty of opportunities for growth.