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It was Vasco Nuñez de Balboa who became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean in 1513. And it was the thin stretch of land we know as Panama that he crossed to reach it. Panama's geographic location and shape have been strategic elements in its development as a nation: its narrowness prompted the U.S. to build the Panama Canal, allowing passage between the Caribbean and Pacific. Today, the Canal is Panama's best-known attraction, though the land has much more to offer. Few, for example, are aware of its fifteen hundred islands; nor of the lovely alpine town of Boquete, near Volcán Barú. And with its thriving modern capital, Panama City, only a stone's throw away from the ancient ruins at Panamá Viejo, Panama promises visitors a wonderfully varied travel experience.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples, among whom the largest group were the Cueva (whose specific language affiliation is poorly documented). There is no accurate knowledge of the size of the indigenous population of the isthmus at the time of the European conquest. Estimates range as high as two million people, but more recent studies place that number closer to 200,000. Archeological finds as well as testimonials by early European explorers describe diverse native isthmian groups exhibiting cultural variety and suggesting people already conditioned by regular regional routes of commerce.
In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore the isthmus of Panama sailing along the western coast. A year later Christopher Columbus sailing south and eastward from Central America, explored Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Chagres River and Porto Belo, which he christened (Beautiful Port). In 1509, authority was granted to Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa, to colonize the territories between the west side of the Gulf of Uraba to Cabo Gracias a Dios in present-day Honduras. The idea was to create an early unitary administrative organization similar to what later became Nueva España (now Mexico). In 1538 the Real Audiencia de Panama was established, initially with jurisdiction from Nicaragua to Cape Horn. A Real Audiencia (royal audiency) was a judicial district that functioned as an appeals court. When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples who survived many diseases, massacres and enslavement of the conquest ultimately fled into the forest and nearby islands. Indian slaves were replaced by Africans.
Panama, like most of Central America, gained independence from Spain in 1821. In the first eighty years following independence from Spain, Panama was a department of Colombia. The people of the isthmus made several attempts to secede and came close to success in 1840-1841, and again during the Thousand Days War of 1899-1902. In November 1903, Panama proclaimed its independence and concluded the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty with the United States. The treaty granted rights to the United States "as if it were sovereign" in a zone roughly 16 kilometres wide and 80 kilometres long. In that zone, the U.S. would build a canal, then administer, fortify, and defend it "in perpetuity." In 1914, the United States completed the existing 83 kilometers canal.
From 1903 until 1968, Panama was a republic dominated by a commercially-oriented oligarchy. During the 1950s, the Panamanian military began to challenge the oligarchy's political hegemony. The January 9, 1964 Martyrs' Day riots escalated tensions between the country and the U.S. government over its long-term occupation of the Canal Zone. Twenty rioters were killed, and 500 other Panamanians were wounded. On September 7, 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were signed by the Panamanian head of state as well as U.S. President Jimmy Carter, for the complete transfer of the Canal and the fourteen US army bases from the US to Panama by 1999 apart from granting the US a perpetual right of military intervention. On December 1989, the military dictatorship was over with the Just Cause Operation. Nowadays, Panama is a full democracy with every five year term presidential period and a growing economy in the region.
Panama borders both Costa Rica (in the west) and Colombia (in the east), as well as both the Caribbean Sea in the north and Pacific Ocean in the south. Panama is located on the narrow and low Isthmus of Panama, sometimes only 60 kilometres wide. Panama encompasses approximately 75,517 square kilometres and is a mountainous and tropical country, with vast areas of tropical rainforest, especially in the eastern part called the Darien Gap, which forms a natural (and drug infected!) barrier with South America, preventing people to travel entirely overland along this route. The dominant feature of the country's landform is the central spine of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide. The mountain range of the divide is called the Cordillera de Talamanca near the Costa Rican border. Farther east it becomes the Serranía de Tabasará, and the portion of it closer to the lower saddle of the isthmus, where the canal is located, is often called the Sierra de Veraguas. As a whole, the range between Costa Rica and the canal is generally referred to by geographers as the Cordillera Central. The highest point in the country is the Volcán Barú, which rises to 3,475 metres. Many islands are located south as well as north of the mainland, including the popular Bocas del Toro islands and the San Blas Islands.
Administratively, Panama is divided into ten provinces from 2013 and five provincial-level indigenous territories (comarcas indígenas).
Although its neighbour Costa Rica might be world famous as a popular eco destination, Panama is just as impressive, if not more. On top of that it has some fine beaches and islands which are amongst the most beautiful in the world.
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Bocas del Toro is probably the most popular destination in the country. The Bocas del Toro are a chain of islands off the Caribbean coastline in the northwest of the country and are easily reached by one of the many boats between the islands and the mainland. Relaxing, swimming, beachlife, nightlife and snorkelling and diving are the most popular activities here and many people visiting Costa Rica come here for a few days as well, as it is very close to the border and easily reached in half a day or so. Dolphins and reef sharks join you in the water and encountering one is just great. You can also rent bikes and explore some of the islands.
Boquete is located in the northwest of the country, in a moutainous area. It is located on an elevtion of about 1,000 metres above sea level and as a result its climate is cooler than the lowlands in Panama. It has become more and more popular as an escape from the heat but its surroundings are just as impressive and nice among eco tourists. The nearby Volcan Baru is a popular destinations and Boquete is famous for one of the best coffee in the world, so it is said.
The Darien Gap is one big undeveloped area forming a natural bridge between Central and South America and is notorious for drug traffic as well. Still, the Darien National Park contains an extremely rich biodiversity with varieties of habitats, like beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, swamps, and lowland and upland tropical forests containing remarkable wildlife. On top of that, indigenous tribes (mainly Indians) live here as well. As a result it is on the Unesco World Heritage List. Although much of the Darien is impassable and dangerous, there are some parts that can be visited, although travelling by yourself limits your opportunities to get the most out of your trip. Try and go for one of the organised tours which mostly leave from Panama City and include flights.
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Panama has a tropical climate with the temperature varying between 22 °C and 33 °C. Typical to tropical climates, Panama has two seasons, a dry one and a wet one. The dry season, considered summertime, lasts from January to March and the wet season is from April through December, with the wettest months being October and November where average rainfall is above 2,000mm. Typically the other wet months see an average rainfall of between 8 and 15 centimeters with April and December falling on the low end. During the wet season there is not necessarily nonstop rain for days on end, but it usually rains at least once a day.
Copa Airlines is the national carrier of Panama with its base at Tocumen International Airport (PTY) near the capital Panama City. Copa and others operate services to most major cities in North, Central and South America and direct flights from Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris, Lisboa, and Frankfurt. About twenty airlines have flights to Panama City.
Air Panama offers flights to Panama at Albrook Marcos Gelabert International Airport (PAC) from Medellin-Cordova. From Enrique Malek International Airport in David, there are international flights to and from San José in Costa Rica. The new airport Scarlett Martinez at Rio Hato has charter flights.
There are no international rail links with Panama.
Although Panama borders both Costa Rica and Colombia, only the first one can be reached by car along relatively good roads. Paso Canoas along the Panamerican highway is the most used crossing. Others include border crossings at Guabito-Sixaola near the Caribbean coast and Río Sereno at the end of the La Concepción Volcán road.
The most popular boat connections travellers take is between Colón and Cartagena in Colombia with Ferry Xpress leaving from Colon 2000 deck every Monday and Wednesday. Also boat services, cargo ships and yachts might take you or you can go on an organized trip, which usually stop in the San Blas Islands as well.
Roads are generally in a good conditions and both the Panamericana from west to east as the The Trans-Isthman Highway between Panama City and Colon are well paved. Other roads are mainly paved but some have potholes. Renting a car is a good option, especially in the central and western parts of the country. You have to be at least 23 years of age to rent a car, which are mostly available at the airport, Panama City and David.
There are buses to most places in Panama, linking Panama City to Colon, David, Boquete and the western edge of the Darien Gap. Other routes are travelled less frequent and some buses are slow and unrelibable. For an overview of schedules and connections, also international ones, see thebussschedule.com.
Several islands off the coast are reachable by boat, including the Pearl Islands south of Panama City and the Bocas del Toro in the northwest of the country. At the San Blas coast, there are boats carying passengers between Colón and Puerto Obaldía.
You will generally be given a 90-day stamp in your passport when you enter Panama. This means you are allowed to remain in Panama for 90 days and after those 90 days visas and tourist cards can be extended at immigration offices.
Citizens from the following countries need to show only their passports to enter Panama: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Holland, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, Uruguay and Wales.
People from the following countries need a passport and a tourist card: Antigua, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Granada, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, San Marino, South Korea, Suriname, Sweden, Taiwan, Tobago, Trinidad, the USA and Venezuela.
All other nationalities need to obtain a visa, available at Panamanian embassies or consulates.
See also: Money Matters
Officially Panama uses the Balboa and the US Dollar as its currencies at 1:1 rate. In reality the Balboas only exist as coins that and there no 1, 5, 10, 20, or 100 Balboa bills, only US Dollar bills are used.
The US Dollars, or "greenback" may be called Balboas as well, but the US Dollar has been the official currency since 1904.
One dollar consists of 100 cents. Frequently used coins are the penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢) and quarter (25¢). 50¢ and $1 coins also exist, but are rarely used. Frequently used banknotes are the $1, $5, $10 and $20 notes. $2, $50 and $100 notes can also be found, but are rarely used.
Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases
Spanish is the official language of Panama. Many Panamanians are bilingual though. Panama City has a different dialect in which they mix English words with Spanish. Although educated Panamanians try to speak proper Spanish, they are very proud of their dialect and would rather use it unless it is a formal conversation or public speaking.
Much of the Caribbean Coast of Panama was settled by people from Jamaica and Barbados. More recently, the descendants of those settlers seem to be speaking more Spanish, but a lot of them still speak English, albeit a very Caribbean variety, called Guari Guari. Until only a few years ago, the canal was controlled by the USA. The US has given the canal back to Panama, but many people in Panama City and other areas near the canal still speak English as a first or second language. Surprisingly, English is not as common as you would think for how long the Americans spent in the country. It's not so common for people working in shops or people in the street to speak English. There are a number of English News and Blog sites to help with your travels.
Panama has a lot more indigenous culture than some neighboring countries. In Kuna Yala you will hear the native Kuna language spoken. In the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, as well as in Chiriqui or Bocas del Toro, you might hear the native Ngöbe-Buglé (Guaymí) language, although the Ngöbe and the Buglé are very quiet around foreigners. If you ask directions from one of them, you will probably just get a hand or lips pointed wordlessly in the right direction.
Outside of the cities, the selection is largely Panamánian with bountiful seafood and beef due to the abundance of cattle farms and the fantastic fishing in the area. Panamanian cuisine is a mix of several cultures. Reminiscent of the country's Afro-Caribbean, French and Spanish influences, the dishes take on a complete character of their own. If you get tired of eating beans or gallo pinto in the rest of Central America, you might want to head towards Panama. Since Panama has a little more Caribbean influence than other Central American countries, you'll see a lot more plaintain than beans here. Most dishes are served with coconut rice and a type of squash or other native vegetable.
Panama’s hotel accommodations are as diverse as its geography. Panama City has as much glamour and glitz as New York City, without the high price tag. You can find 5 star high rise hotels in the heart of downtown; or you can venture out to the smaller neighborhoods, where old Canal military barracks have been converted into B&B’s. In terms of an authentic Panama experience, the historic district of Casco Viejo provides the charm of yester-year with modern amenities of today. Because tourism is so new to the district, lodging accommodations are largely limited to the fleet of short term apartment rentals at Los Cuatro Tulipanes
Bocas del Toro has your typical island cabanas and small hotels, some literally right on the water (similar to the cabanas in Bali). The Chiriqui Province, in the western lowlands, has small hotels on some of the outer islands, and an Eco-Preserve in Chorcha where you can spend the night in Jungle Hammocks with the monkeys. In the western highlands, around Boquete, there are hostels for $5 a night, and 5 star hotels for $300+ a night. No high rises here, but small very artsy boutique hotels and casitas. Recently, David Panama, Capitol of the Chiriqui Province has become a destination as well as a hub for backpackers criss-crossing from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro and Costa Rica.
Here are a few of the top rated hostels in Panama:
National beers are produced (Balboa, Atlas, Soberana, Panamá). Balboa is probably the best of the domestic brands, however, Atlas is the most commonly purchased.
Carta Vieja and Ron Abuelo are the main domestically produced rum. Seco, a very raw white rum, is the national liquor. Seco con leche (with milk) is a common drink in the countryside.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Panama. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Panama) where that disease is widely prevalent. A yellow fever is recommended anyway if travelling to the provinces of Comarca Emberá, Darien and Kuna Yala and parts of the provinces of Colon and Panama east of the Panama Canal. West of the the Canal, Panama City, Boquette, Bocas del Toro and the rest are all safe regarding yellow fever.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Panama. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, tuberculosis, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in most of the country (including San Blas Islands, Bocas del Toro and the Darien Gap!) and it is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
In general, Panama is a safe country to travel in. The exception though is the Darien Gap, where drug trafficking means that it is very wise to prevent travelling here, unless you are visiting with a guide and visiting the few accessible areas, which are in fact great for nature lovers. Whatever you do: don't try to make your way overland to Colombia!. Another slightly unsafe place is Colon (the city and neighborhoods). Be careful and listen to local advise!
Some neighborhoods in Panama City are a bit sketchy, in particular El Chorrillo, Curundu and parts of Calidonia, poor and crime-ridden areas. The old colonial quarter, Casco Viejo (also called San Felipe) had a bad reputation among travelers and some Panamanians, but is gentrifying rapidly. During the daytime, San Felipe is perfectly safe for foreigners. At night, the main streets and plazas, as well as the district of bars and restaurants toward the point, are also safe, but visitors should exercise caution whens they move north along Avenida Central towards El Chorillo.
In Panama City the downtown area is safe to go to restaurants, cinema or other activities. In the main cities of the provinces you must ask information about the dangerous areas, but in general, most places are safe.
Internet cafes can be found in cities and most major towns. Wifi is on the rise though with many hotels, restaurants and bars offering this services, especially in the major tourist areas like Panama City, Bocas del Toro and Boquete. Some mountainous or off the beaten track areas might not have any internet services at all.
See also International Telephone Calls
Panama's country code is 507. All cellular numbers start with the number 6 and have 8 digits. Land line phone numbers have 7 digits. 911 is the general emergency phone number.
Calls to the USA and Europe are between 4 and 10 cents a minute. The best way to make international calls from Panama is to buy prepaid telephone cards that are sold at every corner. The most popular is the TeleChip card. If you bring your cellphone, you can choose to buy a local simcard, instead of paying high charges for internet use through your home provider.
Correos y Telegrafos is the national postal company of Panama. It provides a wide range of services though you usually have to use the post offices for both sending and receiving mail and packages, including buying stamps. Post offices can be found in many cities and towns and are open from 6:30am to 5:45pm Monday to Friday and 7:00am to 5:00pm on Saturday. Domestic mail takes several days but to the USA and Europe for example it can take anywhere from 5 to over 10 days depending on the country. For sending larger packages, you might also consider using companies like FedEx, TNT, UPS or DHL, as they offer fast, reliable and competitively priced services as well.
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Ask Piña Colada a question about Panama
Where to stay if someone prefer to rent a vacational apartment or room, where to eat, How to go to the Canal, shipping, etc.
Ask adosuarez a question about Panama
Currently, I am working as Spanish teacher for foreigners and I had worked also as analyst of external trade. I like to help all people who wants to visit Panama, because I would like to receive same attention when I travel.
Panama is more than you can expect...
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I'm 19. I just drove the panamerican highway With my family, to panama and back and spent good time in each country. If you would like any help or reliable info just ask!! Love this part of the world!! Speak Spanish! Been all over the world!
Glad to help in any way!!
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We are a Spanish School for foreigners located at Panama City, Panama.
If you need a help or information about courses, contact us please.
Casco Antiguo Spanish School.
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I visited Panama during Spring Break and had a wonderful experience. If you are planning on going to Panama City, Coronado, El Valle, Portobelo and/or Isla Grande, feel free to ask me any questions you would like. I can give tips on transportation, language help, sightseeing, local customs and other tidbits of information. Panama is an amazing destination and I urge you to visit!
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