Panama is a country in Central America with coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, with Colombia (and South America) to the southeast and Costa Rica (and North America) to the northwest. It’s strategically located on the isthmus that forms the land bridge connecting North and South America and controls the Panama Canal that links the North Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea with the North Pacific Ocean, one of the most important shipping routes in the world.
The ease of travel and wide array of experiences make Panama one of the most attractive emerging tourism destinations in the world. In just one week, visitors can enjoy two different oceans, experience the mountains and rainforest, learn about native cultures and take advantage of vibrant urban life. The capital, Panama City, is a modern, sophisticated metropolis that resembles Miami and has established commerce, arts, fashion and dining. Fodors, Frommers and National Geographic have all recently begun publishing guides for Panama, only the second country in Central America, behind Costa Rica, to have such extensive travel coverage.
The Canal itself is best seen via an aerial view through the local operator (www.panamaflightadventures.com) and is the central marvel and spectacle of Panama among many. Even stunt and trick flights with veteran air force pilots and skydives are available over the marvel of engineering, to appreciate the entire scale of and ambition behind it.
Panama is known as the “Crossroads of the Americas” due to its privileged position between North and South America. The indigenous meaning of the country’s name, “abundance of fish”, reflects Panama’s reputation as a paradise for water sports enthusiasts and eco-tourists alike. As the isthmus connecting two massive continents, Panama’s flora and fauna is incredibly diverse. For example, Panama boasts over 900 different bird species. Panama’s many indigenous tribes are still thriving, living in the same ancient manner as their ancestors, making its cultural fabric exceptionally rich.
Panama’s government has strong ties to the United States and strongly supports business, development and tourism. The International Monetary Fund applauds the country’s diversified economy and predicts it to have one of the strongest GDP growth rates in the world for the next several years. Panama is known for its highly developed international banking sector, with about 80 banks from several countries establishing local branches, including HSBC and Citibank. Currently undergoing expansion, the Canal continues to drive Panama’s service-based economy and remains one of the most important transportation links in the world. In addition to the country’s strong economic base, Panama’s physical infrastructure, including modern hospitals, airports and roads, is more highly developed than its Central American neighbors.
Panama boasts a large expat community; about 25,000 U.S. citizens live in the country. It is worth spending some time reading up on Panama and communicating with locals, expats and fellow travelers alike before arriving in the country. Consider joining some local forums or blogs for expats or the Central America Forum. Many of the local blogs can give you the most current info on: floods, earthquakes, trail closings, and the best restaurant reviews.
Less than 9 degrees north of the equator, most of Panama enjoys temperatures that are fairly consistent year round, with daytime temperatures 30-33°C and night time around 21-23°C). Tropical maritime; hot, humid, cloudy; prolonged rainy season, called winter or invierno (May to November); short dry season, called summer or verano (December to April). The most popular time to travel to Panama is December through March, when lower humidity and nearly zero percent chance of rain make it more ideal for travellers.
During most of the rainy season, mornings and early afternoons are usually sunny, while late afternoons and evenings have intermittent rainfall.
Most areas are quite warm, but a few places, such as Boquete, Cerro Punta and El Valle can get a little chilly at night. You definitely want a heavy rain-proof jacket if you’re going to the top of Barú since you will be above 3000m for a little while.
Interior mostly steep, rugged mountains and dissected, upland plains; coastal areas largely plains and rolling hills Highest point : Volcan Barú in Chiriqui Province 3,475 m. On a clear day they say you can see both oceans from the peak.
3 November 1903 (from Colombia; became independent from Spain 28 November 1821)
Independence Day, 3 November (1903)
Panama’s public holidays reflect its patriotism and its Catholic roots.
With US backing, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and promptly signed a treaty with the US allowing for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of the structure (the Panama Canal Zone). The Panama Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914.
11 October 1972; major reforms adopted 1978, 1983 and 1994
On 7 September 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by the end of 1999. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years. The entire Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military bases were turned over to Panama by or on 31 December 1999.
Cost of Living
Panama is a relatively cheap country, with areas such as hospitality and transportation seeming cheap to many foreigners. Food might be a bit more expensive than in the United States or other countries, depending if the food is able to be produced in Panama or not. A gallon of milk can set you back around $3.80-$4:50 which compared to milk’s US average price of $3.80 on December 2013 is not much of a difference. Food in Panama’s top restaurants is relatively inexpensive, with a meal in the highest end of restaurants costing around $30-$40. If you really want the true Panamanian experience, you might also want to visit a “fonda”, which might sometimes not be hygienic (most of the time they are, the government is pretty much on top of them and as soon as someone complains about them, an inspection ensues) or Niko’s Cafe, a buffet-style cafeteria where you can eat a wide variety of Panamanian meals at inexpensive prices, from around $3-$10.
Hospitality is also very cheap compared to prices in the USA or in Western Europe, with a night at a top hotel in luxury rooms costing around $120-$150 in the capital, Panama City. If you go to the interior of the country, you will find even better prices in hotels nearby to centric locations.
Public transportation is also extremely inexpensive, although not reliable. A trip in one of the city’s “Metro Bus” will cost you $0.25 (they will only get you around Panama City though), while taxi fares are not that expensive. It is advisable to always have precaution with using public transportation, as the “Metro Bus”es are known to be a place where petty larceny occurs (might get your cellphone etc. stolen) and taxis will charge you exorbitant prices just for being a tourist, while taking a cab at night might get you in a very dangerous situation, especially if the cab is already occupied by other people when you get in. If using a cab, travel in group and get a chart with taxi prices per distance for Panama City. In the interior of the country, public transportation is cheap and safe, as most people from the countryside are honest and hardworking. Taxis, however might still try to make you pay exorbitant prices. Always exercise caution.