How much do you know about Panama? If you’re like many potential expats, your knowledge may be limited to the fact that it’s home to the Panama Canal and the birthplace of the Panama hat. And you’d be wrong about the latter. (They actually originated in Ecuador.)
If you’re considering visiting or relocating to this important international destination, or if you just want to brush up on your general knowledge of Central America, here are some Panama facts to educate you on some of the country’s highlights.
General Panama Facts
Panama is an isthmus that connects the Central American country of Costa Rica to Colombia in South America. Shaped like a sideways “S,” it runs from west to east and borders both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Its total area is around 29,150 square miles (slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina), and it has a population of about 3,595,490 (less than the city of Los Angeles). Many of the country’s residents (1,272,672 to be exact) live in or near the capital, Panama City.
The rugged terrain and lack of good roads can make accessing areas along the Caribbean coast more difficult. As a result, the population is also heavily concentrated on the southern, Pacific side of the country, where the Pan-American highway runs. Panama’s Darien province also contains the only break, known as the Darien Gap, in the entire highway system that connects the farthest tips of North and South America.
Panama enjoys a tropical climate, with temperatures ranging from 87 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Relief from the heat can be found at the higher elevations, where temps are generally in the 70s. Its only season variation is between its wet (April to December) and dry (January to April) seasons.
The Isthmus of Panama was discovered by Spanish explorers Rodrigo de Bastidas and Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1501. In 1510 Santa Maria La Antigua del Darien became the first permanent settlement on the American mainland. The Pacific Ocean was reached on an expedition led by Balboa in 1513, and Pedro Arias Davila established Panama City on August 15, 1519, almost a hundred years before Jamestown, Virginia, was founded.
Panama remained a Spanish colony until 1821 when it became part of the Gran Colombia, under the rule of Simon Bolivar. It gained its independence from Colombia in 1903.
The People of Panama
Panama is comprised mostly of mestizos (68%), those of mixed Amerindian and European descent. The other categories include black and mulatto (10%) and white (15%). Amerindians (or American Indians, those indigenous to the region) account for another 6%.
Spanish is the official language. However, English is widely spoken. In fact, approximately 14% of the country speaks English. Several Indian languages are also used among native peoples.
The majority of the population (75-85%) identifies with the Roman Catholic church. However, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the nation’s Constitution. Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and many other religions are also practiced in Panama.
Panama’s Structure and Government
Panama is divided into nine provinces and three Indian territories. It is a constitutional democracy whose representatives are elected by direct vote. The executive branch consists of a President and Vice President who are elected for a non-renewable five-year term. The 71 members of the National Assembly, the legislative body, are also elected every five years, often resulting in sudden, drastic changes in policy. Supreme Court justices are nominated by the executive branch and designated by Parliament.
The official currency of Panama is the Balboa. However, the U.S. dollar is also widely accepted and exchanges at a rate of 1:1, making it an easy place to live and invest. To further attract investors, a recent law was established to protect investments made in all economic sectors. Both natives and foreigners are free to do as they wish with the products and profits generated with Panamanian investments, up to and including trading or transferring them to other countries. It also establishes an arbitration provision, eliminating the danger of dealing with the Panamanian judicial system.
Its main industries include food processing, chemical manufacturing, textiles, and the manufacturing of machinery and metal products. Among its agriculture products are coffee, bananas, sugarcane, cotton, beef, and veal. Its largest exports are coffee, shrimp, lobster, cotton, tobacco, and bananas.
Other revenue producers include the banking and services industries, tourism, tax-free zones, and the Panama Canal. Panama’s economy has boomed in recent years, so much so that the country experienced a shortage of skilled workers. As a result, a new visa was introducedto attract foreign professionals and their families to live and work in Panama. The shortage also prompted large investments in Panama’s school system for a more long-term approach. The country has a high literacy rate at 93%.
Because its tax law is strictly applied to income produced within its territory, it is also considered something of a tax haven. All transactions made or executed in or affecting areas outside of Panama are exempt from income taxes. Property and other taxes are also quite favorable.
The Panama Canal
Among its most notable landmarks is the Panama Canal, a 48 mile ship canal that first opened in 1914 and took 33 years to build. The passageway was instrumental in opening up trade and travel to the west coast of the U.S. as well as nations in and around the Pacific Ocean.
The Canal was controlled by the U.S. until 1977 when a series of treaties made way for it to be handed over to Panama. Since 1999 it has been solely operated by the Panamanian government. Named one of the seven wonders of the modern world, it has been expanded many times with its third lane of locks slated to open in 2015.
Surprisingly, the canal itself only accounts for 4% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, due to the multiplier effect, its impact is much more far-reaching. Its employees spend their income on consumer goods, which in turn fuels businesses like restaurants and grocery stores. As a result, it’s estimated that the canal indirectly accounts for closer to 30% of the nation’s GDP.