Panama is an isthmus — a thin strip of land with sea on either side. It is the narrowest and southernmost country in Central America, and is slightly smaller than South Carolina. While you’re here you’ll see more rainforests than roads, and a mix of indigenous and immigrant cultures. Although it’s most famed for its canal, Panama’s islands, intense biodiversity, and native people are what make it a memorable destination.
Each of Panama’s regions has its own scenery and culture. You’ll also find very different types of activities and tours.
Most travelers will fly into the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. This airport is modern and easy to navigate, and will be your jumping-off point for visits to the rest of the country. Travelling in Panama is uncomplicated due to efficient, well-maintained roads and a scattering of domestic airports.
Eating and Drinking Safely
Clean water is available throughout most of the country. This is largely the legacy of the Panama Canal Company, which had a strict policy of hygiene during the construction of the canal. The one place where clean water isn’t widely available is Bocas del Toro. The food in Panama is straightforward and nourishing, and visitors don’t need to worry about getting sick while eating in restaurants.
Shopping and Currency
Panama’s currency, the balboa (PAB), is tied to the U.S. dollar. One balboa equals one dollar. Since 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 29,157 square miles (75,517 sq km ) and borders Costa Rica and Colombia. At the canal, the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea are just 50 miles (80 km) apart. East to west, however, the country stretches some 1,865 miles (3,000 km).
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, a dormant volcano that stands some 11,400 feet (3,475 m) tall. Another prominent 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. There are 972 bird species, 200 mammal species, 200 reptile species, almost 200 amphibian species, and more than 10,000 species of plants. A third of Panama’s remaining forests are humid tropical forests, and there is a mixture of other ecosystems, including cloud forests, mangroves, coral reefs, islands, and even a man-made desert.
Panama’s climate is tropical, and temperatures remain consistently warm 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 typically lasts from mid-December to mid-April. Some areas of the country (most notably Bocas del Toro) have microclimates that vary somewhat from typical weather patterns.
The 2010 census reported the Panamanian population as 3,322,576. More than two-thirds of these people live in urban areas including Panama City, the Canal Zone, and Colón. 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 has its own beliefs, traditions, and stereotypes.
Panama’s population is remarkably diverse — because it serves as a transit point for international commerce, the gene pool here has roots in Spain, Africa, China, and India, as well as the Middle East, Central Europe and North America. That said, the majority of Panamanians are of Spanish descent. The family unit is extremely important in Panama, and people here place a high priority on taking care of their families. 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 years of age. Women tend to outlive men by nearly five years. Education is important in Panama and a primary school education is mandatory. Due to this policy Panama has a literacy rate of over 93 percent.
Society & Economy
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 voting is compulsory.
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 averages over 7 percent. Aside from the services sector, this growth is also largely driven by construction. A huge influx of foreigners have created a demand for new hotels, apartments, resorts and restaurants, not to mention the multi-billion dollar canal expansion that began in 2014.