Panama has a cosmopolitan capital city, incredible rainforest and some of the finest snorkelling, birding and deep-sea fishing in the world, so it's hard to figure out why travellers tend to steer clear of this country or just whiz through. It may have something to do with the fact that Panama is known internationally for its canal, the 1989 US invasion and the name it donated to a style of headgear, but this does it no justice.
The reality is a proud prosperous nation that honours its seven Indian tribes and its rich Spanish legacy and embraces visitors so enthusiastically that it's difficult to leave without feeling that you're in on a secret that the rest of the travelling world will one day uncover.
Warning: Since the handover of the canal and a corresponding decrease in tourism, crime has been on the increase in Panama. Panama City is safer than most capital cities, but some parts of it (particularly the district of Chorrillo) should not be strolled around at night. The city of Colón has a major crime problem and absolutely shouldn't be strolled around day or night. The area of Darién Province between Yaviza and the Colombian border along the upper Tuira River is extremely unsafe due to the presence of smugglers, bandits and Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary forces. However, the vast majority of Darién National Park is relatively safe, though it's advisable to visit the park with a guide due to the inherent risks of travel in remote jungle with ill-defined trails. As the situation in Colombia continues to destabilize, it's advisable to keep your ear as close to the ground as possible while planning any off-the-beaten-path expeditions.
Full country name: Republic of Panama
Area: 78,000 sq km (30,420 sq mi)
Population: 2.8 milion (growth rate 1.3%)
Capital city: Panama City (pop 700,000)
People: 65% mestizo, 14% African descent, 10% Spanish descent, 10% Indian
Language: Spanish, English and Indian languages
Religion: 85% Roman Catholic, 10% Protestant, 5% Islamic
Government: Constitutional republic
GDP: US$8.8 billion
GDP per head: US$3200
Annual growth: 4.1%
Major industries: Banking, construction, petroleum refining, brewing, cement and other construction materials, sugar milling, shipping and agriculture
Major trading partners: USA, EU, Central America & Caribbean, Japan
Visas: Every visitor needs a valid passport and an onward ticket to enter Panama, but further requirements vary from country to country and occasionally change. UK, Germany and Switzerland citizens and many other nationalities need only a passport, while people from Japan, New Zealand, USA, Venezuela and more need a tourist visa or tourist card (US$5) as well. Contact an embassy or consulate for current details.
Health risks: Dengue fever, hantavirus (Los Santos province), malaria, rabies and yellow fever
Time: GMT/UTC minus 5 hours
Electricity: Variable - either 110V or 220V
Weights & measures: Metric
When to Go
Panama's tourist season is during the dry season from around mid-December to mid-April. The weather can be hot and steamy in the lowlands during the rainy season, when the humidity makes the heat more oppressive than otherwise. Rain in Panama tends to come in sudden short downpours that freshen the air and are followed by sunshine. If you'll be doing any long, strenous hiking, the dry season is the most comfortable time to do it; the Darién Gap can be crossed only at this time.
If you like to party, try to be in Panama City or on the Península de Azuero for Carnaval, held each year on the weekend before Ash Wednesday. Panama City's Carnaval celebration is one of the world's largest.
LAND & CLIMATE
Region: Central America
Neighbours: The country, which is bisected by the Panama Canal, is bordered on the north by the Caribbean Sea, on the east by Colombia, on the south by the Pacific Ocean, and on the west by Costa Rica.
Size Comparison: Less than one-tenth the size of Chile
Panama is crossed by two parallel mountain ranges, which enclose fertile, well-drained valleys and plains. The lofty Serranía de Tabasará enters Panama from the west. Its tallest peak, Volcán Barú (3,475 metres/11,401 feet), is an extinct volcano. The Cordillera de San Blas and the Serranía del Darién, which form the lower range, lie almost entirely within the country.
The region between these two systems consists of forested hills and valleys thickly matted with forest and tangled undergrowth. The mountain ranges are watersheds within which rise some 325 rivers and streams emptying into the Pacific. Another 150 descend to the Caribbean Sea.
Both Panamanian coasts are indented by lagoons, bays, and gulfs. The Gulf of Panama, on the Pacific side, contains the large Archipiélago de las Perlas, or Pearl Islands, named for the pearl fisheries found there.
Major Rivers and Lakes
Panama’s largest and most important river, the Tuira, flows north into the Golfo de San Miguel on the Pacific coast. Another large river, the Río Chagres, rises in central Panama and is dammed at Gatún into an artificial lake that forms an important section of the Panama Canal.
Weather and Climate
Panama has a sunny, tropical climate with average annual temperatures ranging from 23° to 27°C (73° to 81°F) in coastal areas. At the higher elevations in the interior, the average temperature is a mild 19°C (66°F). A long rainy season extends from April to December. On the Caribbean coast, the rainfall averages about 2,970 millimetres (about 117 inches) annually. On the Pacific side, precipitation lessens to about 1,650 millimetres (about 65 inches).
Panama has a relatively small population that is growing at a manageable rate. Urban environmental problems are limited to Panamá City. Access to safe water is universal in cities and fair in rural areas.
Despite its relatively small size, Panama’s biodiversity is remarkable because of its tropical forests and its position as a land bridge between Central and South America. There are up to 9,000 vascular plants as well as 218 species of mammals, 929 of birds, 226 of reptiles, and 164 of amphibians. Twenty-one endangered species are in need of special protection. Panama’s extensive coastal and marine ecosystems include fragile reef complexes along the Caribbean coast. The country’s mangrove moist forest, the largest in Central America, is nevertheless an endangered ecosystem. The lowland moist ecofloristic zone is also particularly at risk.
Protected land in Panama includes national parks, wildlife refuges, and natural monuments comprising 19.1 percent (1997) of the land. Included in the system is the massive Darién National Park, which is designated a World Heritage Site as well as a biosphere reserve under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Program. Ecotourism, relatively undeveloped, represents a major potential for local and national economic development.
Forests cover 37.6 percent (1995) of the country. A National Forest Management System oversees a majority of this landabout two-thirds is conserved, and one-third is used in forest production. Deforestation proceeds at 2.13 percent (1990-1996) annually. Major environmental threats include illegal deforestation, wildlife poaching, wildfires, agricultural encroachment on protected areas, and land abuse and pollution from mineral extraction, especially oil drilling.
Panama is party to international environmental agreements concerning Biodiversity, Climate Change, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Dumping, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, and Wetlands. The country has signed but not ratified agreements on Desertification, Law of the Sea, Marine Life, and Tropical Timber 94. Regionally, Panama is involved in the Central American Commission on Environment and Development. La Amistad National Park, a major transborder park shared with Costa Rica, protects vast expanses of virgin forest.