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Tourist Profile: Panamá

Panama means "the place of abundant fish," but people like to say that everything is found in abundance here. And it's true, as visitors will quickly discover for themselves that Panama is "the country of abundance" You'll find an abundance of wildlife in Pana-ma's many national parks, an abundance of white sand beaches, hundreds of islands, more banks and shops than you would have dreamed possible, the Panama Canal and, of course, a fantastic quantity of fresh seafood, including fish.

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  • History
  • Culture

After your arrival at the airport do not miss the rest of the cosmopolitan Panama City. Yet it is somehow always fascinating to see the working of one of mankind's greatest engineering feats: the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Panama Canal. At the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic you can watch a gigantic cruise ship is being towed into position for its descent to the Pacific Ocean. Visit the Panama Inter-oceanic Canal Museum, in the Casco Viejo and watch the memorabilia from colonial Spanish times. During the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in South America, vast quantities of gold were shipped to Spain from the Pacific Ocean via (Old) Panama. The gold was unloaded from ships at Old Panama, carried overland and reloaded on ships at Portobelo, nearby Colon on the Atlantic coast. Not surprisingly, the enormous quantities of gold attracted pirates like sharks to Panama's waters. When pirate Henry Morgan robbed the city in 1671, Panama's governor ordered the powder magazine burned and the whole city went up in flames. The capital was moved 3 kilometres to the west, and present-day Panama City was founded (1673).

In the Old Panama (Panama La Vieja), founded in 1519, you can see the ruins and fragments of walls and arches stand in an open park, recalling the splendour of the Spaniard's first settlement on the Pacific Ocean. The most impressive structures remaining are the cathedral and the Bishop's House. In front of the ruins, alongside the ocean, is an artisan's market, full of native crafts and there's a fine view out to a bay where Spanish galleons and pirate ships once lifted sail. Casco Viejo or Colonial Panama, is the historic center of today's capital. It is a quiet, charming district of narrow streets overlooked by the flower bedecked balconies of two and three-story houses. Excellent things to see are the Museum of National History and the old cathedral. Nearby is a small museum dedicated to religious art in the old Santo Domingo monastery, where see the famous Flat Arch, which reportedly helped convince engineers that Panama was earth-quake-proof. Make sure you'll see the beautiful Gold Altar at the San Jose Cathedral and the Presidential House. Visit French Park, a monument to the French builders who began the Panama Canal, and the lovely French Embassy.

From there you'll have a nice view of the Bridge of the Americas and of Panama City's skyscraper skyline to the east, which can be seen from far out in the Pacific Ocean. Two famous shopping districts are the Via España and the Avenida Central. Many hotels offer light gambling in casinos and the city is famed for its lively nightlife of discotheques and shows.With nothing less than a 100 miles of Caribbean and Pacific coastline, and 100 of picturesque islands, Panama is a beach lover's true paradise. You can go snorkelling, diving, fishing, windsurfing or golfing or just sunbathing. The 220 Pearl Islands, discovered by Balboa in 1514, are located about 50 miles from Panama City in the Pacific Ocean. Here the Spaniards found the famed, 31-carat pearl known as "La Peregrina" that was given to the Queen of Spain. Visit islands like Contadora Island (the fifth-largest one of the Pearl Islands).

You can take excursions to nearby islands, most of which are uninhabited, and find your own private beach for sunbathing and picnicking. On the mainland, to the west of Panama City, stretch miles of inviting beaches: e.g. Punta Chame, Nueva Gorgona, Coronado, San Carlos, El Palmar, and Farallon. On the Caribbean side, you'll find superb coral sand at Bocas del Toro, San Blas and Isla Grande. On the San Bias Islands, you'll meet the wonderful Kunas,(Kuna Indians) attentive and colourful hosts. The islands of the San Blas Archipelago are strung out along the Caribbean coast of Panama from the Golfo de San Blas nearly all the way to the Colombian border. The islands are home to the Kuna Indians, who run the 378 islands as an autonomous province, with minimal interference from the national government. The most interesting islands are Achutupu, Kagantupu and Coco Blanco. In the Bocas del Toro archipelago, you'll find mile after mile of exquisite beaches, pristine coral reefs. Another outstanding destination is Isla Grande, where you can kick back in comfortable surroundings and explore beaches, coral formations and coconut plantations at an island pace. Another Island worthwhile visiting is Taboga Island known as the "island of Flowers, can be reached in an hour by boat from Panama City.

The far side of the island is a protected refuge, where tens of thousands of brown pelicans nest every year If you are more intro doing an ecotour, don't forget to drop by a large tropical rainforest reserve called Parque Metropolitano or Darien National Park Along the five trails of this convenient park can be seen a diversity of collections of native orchids, tropical wildlife, including toucans, parakeets, orioles, trogons, sloth's, agoutis and Titi Plant species. Because of its unique geographical position Panama harbours a greater diversity of wildlife than any country in Central America. A natural land bridge connecting two continents, is home to many South American species as well as North and Central American wildlife. At this moment, about 29% of Panama's land area is protected in 14 national parks, more then a dozen forest reserves and 10 wildlife refuges. Panamá also owns hundreds of islands and miles of protected coral reef, sheltering a fantastic diversity of marine life. Panama is becoming one of the most exciting ecotourism destinations in the Americas and the world.


Panama lies very close to the equator and enjoys a tropical climate Temperatures vary between 25-30 º C (80-90 Fahrenheit). Humidity is very high. Panama has two seasons. The dry season and for that the tourist season as well lasts from January to mid-April and the rainy season from mid-April to December. The weather can be hot and steamy in the lowlands during the rainy season. Rain in Panama tends to come in sudden short downpours that freshen the air and are followed by sunshine.

Currency: US dollar (known as 'balboa')

  • Budget: US$2-5
  • Mid-range: US$5-10
  • Top-end: US$10+
  • Budget: US$7-16
  • Mid-range: US$16-20
  • Top-end: US$20+

Accommodation tends to be more expensive in Panama than in other parts of Central America; a hotel room that might cost US$6 in Nicaragua or Guatemala might cost US$10 here. If you're traveling on a budget, you'll pay at least US$15 per day for a room and three meals. A moderate budget will be in the range of US$20-30 a day. Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it's exactly the same bill. Panamanian coins are of the same value, size and metal as US coins; both are used. In most of Central America, US dollars are the only currency exchanged. In Panama City, however, you can exchange currencies from almost anywhere in the world at a casa de cambio, due to the city's large international offshore banking industry. You can tip some small change, or around 10% of the bill if you're feeling affluent, in fancier restaurants; in small cafes and more casual places, tipping is not necessary. Haggling over prices is not the general custom in Panama.

The earliest known inhabitants of Panama were the Cuevas and the Coclé cultures, but they were decimated by disease and the sword when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. After several forays along the country's Caribbean shore, the Spanish settlement of Nombre de Dios was established at the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Caribbean coast in 1510. Panama's Pacific coast later became the springboard for invasions of Peru, and the wealth generated by these incursions was carried overland from the Pacific port of Panama (City) to Nombre de Dios. The transport of wealth attracted pirates, and by the 18th century, the Caribbean was so dangerous that Spanish ships began bypassing Panama and sailing directly from Peru around Cape Horn to reach Europe. Panama went into decline, and became a province of Colombia when the South American nation received its independence in 1821. In 1846, Colombia signed a treaty permitting the USA to construct a railway across the isthmus and to defend it with military force. The idea of a canal across the isthmus had been broached even in the 16th century, but a French attempt to build one in 1880 resulted in the death of 22,000 workers from malaria and yellow fever and bankruptcy for everyone involved.

A Frenchman who stood to gain handsomely from a US buyout of the French rights to build a canal was named 'envoy extraordinary' by Washington, and he negotiated and signed a canal treaty with the USA, despite the objections of the Colombian government. The financial and strategic interests of the US momentarily coincided with the sentiments of Panama's revolutionaries, and a revolutionary junta declared Panama independent on November 3, 1903, with the overt support of the USA. The canal treaty granted the USA rights in perpetuity over land on both sides of the canal and a broad right of intervention in Panamanian affairs. The treaty led to friction between the two countries for decades, partly because it was clearly favorable to the USA at the expense of Panama and partly because Colombia refused to acknowledge Panama's independence until 1921 when the USA finally paid Colombia US$25 million in compensation. The USA began to build the canal again in 1904, and 10 years later, the first ship negotiated the engineering marvel. The US intervened in Panama's affairs repeatedly up until 1936, when it relinquished its right to use troops outside the Canal Zone. The two countries continued to argue over the canal contract until a new treaty was signed in 1977. Panama formally regained control of the canal in 1999 at a ceremony attended by Mexico's president, Spain's king and former president Jimmy Carter, but not by any senior American officials.

General Manuel Noriega took control of the country in 1984. A former head of Panama's secret police and a CIA operative, Noriega became a demagogic bogeyman. Murdering political opponents, quashing democracy, drug trafficking and money laundering were his principal concerns during the 1980s, activities which eventually attracted US sanctions and freezing of Panamanian assets. When the winning candidate of the 1989 presidential election was beaten to a pulp on national TV and the election declared null and void, Noriega's regime became an international embarrassment. Noriega appointed himself head of government on December 15, 1989 and announced that Panama was at war with the USA. The following day an unarmed US soldier dressed in civilian clothes was killed by Panamanian soldiers - or so the Pentagon claimed. The Panamanian version of events was that the soldier was not only armed but that he had shot and injured three civilians before running a roadblock. Since US forces had for months been itching for a pretext to attack, this was more than enough reason to call in 26,000 troops for 'Operation Just Cause.

The invasion, the intention of which was to bring Noriega to justice and create a democracy better suited to US interests, left more than 2000 civilians dead and thousands more homeless. Noriega escaped capture by US troops for six days by claiming asylum in the Vatican embassy. US forces surrounded the embassy and pressured the Vatican to release him. They memorably used that psychological tactic beloved of disgruntled teenagers and bombarded the embassy with blaring, devilish, rock music to psychologically wear down those inside. It worked (as any parent knows); Noriega was sent to the US, where he was convicted on money laundering charges; he is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence in Florida. The legitimate winner of the 1989 presidential election, Guillermo Endara, was sworn in as president. But Endara proved to be an ineffective president whose policies cut jobs and cost his administration the popularity it initially enjoyed; by the time he was voted out of office in 1994, Endara was suffering from single-digit approval ratings. In the 1994 elections - the fairest in recent Panamanian history - Ernesto Pérez Balladares came into office. Under his direction, the Panamanian government implemented a program of privatization and focused on infrastructure improvements, health care and education. Pérez Balladares was barred from running for a second term, and in September 1999 Mireya Moscoso, the widow of popular former president Arnulfo Arias, Panama's first female leader and head of the conservative Arnulfista Party (PA), took office.

"The canal is ours!" shouted President Moscoso, and at last it was. Thirty-six years after student demonstrations in Panama caused a break in diplomatic relations between the two countries, and more than 22 years after the USA vowed to return the Canal to Panama, it was handed over in a sunny ceremony on January 1, 2000. In the days and weeks following the handover, ships passed through the canal without a glitch, no foreign nation made an attempt to capture it and the Panamanians celebrated.

Panama's arts reflect its ethnic mix. Indian tribes, West Indian groups, mestizos, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Swiss, Yugoslav and North American immigrants have all contributed ingredients to the cultural stew. Traditional arts include wood carving, weaving, ceramics and maskmaking.

Spanish is the official language, though US influence and the international nature of the canal zone reinforce the use of English as a second language. West Indian immigrants also speak Caribbean-accented English. Indian tribes have retained their own languages. Panama is predominantly Roman Catholic, but there are sizable Muslim and Protestant minorities and small numbers of Hindus and Jews.