Geologically speaking, Panama is quite young. It arose from the sea some 2.5 million years ago, connecting North America with South America and dividing the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This momentous event allowed animal species from both continents to mingle and had a lasting impact on the ecology of each place.
Panama has two mountain ranges that run down its center in both the east and west. These ranges form the continental divide, separating the Pacific slopes from the Caribbean. This divide is not part of the larger mountain chains in North America, but there are highlands near the Colombian border that are related to the Andean mountain system in South America. The larger of Panama’s mountain ranges is the Cordillera Central in the western half of the country. This is where Panama’s highest peak and only volcano – Volcán Barú – is located. Although dormant, this volcano measures an impressive 3,475 meters (11,400 ft.) tall.
Aside from the mountains and hills, Panama has expansive plains and flat coastal lowlands. There are 480 rivers that cross Panama, most of which start as streams in the highlands, flow across plains, and empty into coastal deltas. Two of these, the Río Chepo and Río Charges, are used for water storage and hydroelectric power.
There are 1,518 islands near Panama’s shores. The two main groups – the Bocas del Toro archipelago and Guna Yala archipelago – are found along the Caribbean coast, although most of the other islands are scattered along the Pacific side.