Destination: Panama

Official Name: Republic of Panama
Established: 3 November 1903 (Independence from Republic of Colombia)
Population: 4,176,869 (2018 estimate)
Religion: 63.2% Catholic, 25% Protestant, 3.3% Other Christian, 7.6% No religion
Language(s): Spanish (English is also commonly spoken)
Capital: Panama City
Order of Visit: Fiftieth 
First Visit: 01 February 2013
Last Visit: 10 February 2013 
Duration: 10 Days
Visit Highlights:
 Bocas del Toro: Festival partying, swimming in the Caribbean sea.
 Boquete: Hiking, waterfalls, hot springs and smart monkeys 
 Panama City: Panama Canal engineering marvel, beautiful Panama City ‘Old Town’
 Santa Catalina: Magnificent beach, snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean
Places Visited
: Bocas del Toro, Boquete, Panama City, Santa Catalina
Panama Journal Entries  

History and Geography 
Covering 75,417 square kilometres Panama is a transcontinental country both inside Central America and South America, bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Panama is normally considered part of Central America but was ruled mostly from South America until it become an independent country.

The Isthmus of Panama was formed about three million years ago when the land bridge between North and South America finally became complete, and plants and animals gradually crossed it in both directions. The existence of the isthmus affected the dispersal of people, agriculture and technology throughout the American continent from the appearance of the first hunters and collectors to the era of villages and cities.

Before Europeans arrived Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples. When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples fled into the forest and nearby islands. Scholars believe that infectious disease was the primary  cause of the population decline of American natives.

Rodrigo de Bastidas sailed westward from Venezuela in 1501 in search of gold, and became the first European to explore the isthmus of Panama. A year later, Christopher Columbus visited the isthmus, and established a short-lived settlement in the Darien.  Panama quickly became the crossroads and marketplace of Spain’s empire in the New World. Gold and silver were brought by ship from South America, hauled across the isthmus of Panama, and loaded aboard ships headed for Spain.

Panama was under Spanish rule for almost 300 years (1538–1821), and became part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, along with all other Spanish possessions in South America.

Panama was the site of the ill-fated Darien scheme, which set up a Scottish colony in the region in 1698. This failed for a number of reasons, and the ensuing debt contributed to the union of England and Scotland in 1707.

Panama broke away from Spain in 1821 and joined the Republic of Gran Colombia, a union of Nueva Granada, Ecuador, and Venezuela. After Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada eventually became the Republic of Colombia.

With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, allowing the construction of the Panama Canal to be completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914 under the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty which was signed with the United States without the presence of a single Panamanian.  The treaty granted rights to the United States “as if it were sovereign” in a zone roughly 16 km (10 mi) wide and 80 km (50 mi) long. In that zone, the US would build a canal, then administer, fortify, and defend it “in perpetuity”.  In 1914 the United States completed the existing 83-kilometer-long (52-mile) canal.

The strategic importance of the canal during World War II caused the US to extensively fortify access.

From 1903 to 1968, Panama was a constitutional democracy dominated by a commercially oriented oligarchy. The early 1960s saw also the beginning of sustained pressure in Panama for the renegotiation of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, including riots that broke out in early 1964, resulting in widespread looting and dozens of deaths, and the evacuation of the American embassy.

On 11 October 1968, the National Guard (Guardia Nacional) ousted President Arias and appointed a Provisional Government Junta that was to arrange new elections. However, the National Guard would prove to be very reluctant to abandon power and soon began calling itself El Gobierno Revolucionario (The Revolutionary Government).

The military, with the support of the US Government, transformed the political and economic structure of the country, initiating massive coverage of social security services and expanding public education.

The constitution was changed in 1972. To reform the constitution, the military created a new organization, the Assembly of Corregimiento Representatives, which replaced the National Assembly. The new assembly, also known as the Poder Popular (Power of the People), was composed of 505 members selected by the military with no participation from political parties, which the military had eliminated. The new constitution proclaimed Omar Torrijos as the Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution, and conceded him unlimited power.

After Torrijos died in 1981 General Manuel Antonio Noriega eventually took power in 1983.  Noriega’s regime operated drug and money laundering to increase revenue. From the mid 1980s a wave of Chinese migrants arrived on the isthmus in the hope of migrating to the United States. The smuggling of Chinese became an enormous business, with revenues of up to 200 million dollars for Noriega’s regime.

The military dictatorship, at that time supported by the United States, perpetrated the assassination and torture of more than one hundred Panamanians and forced at least a hundred more dissidents into exile.

On 9 June 1987, the Cruzada Civilista (“Civic Crusade”) was established and began organising actions of civil disobedience. The Crusade called for a general strike. In response, the military suspended constitutional rights and declared a state of emergency in the country. On 10 July the Civic Crusade called for a massive demonstration that was violently repressed by the “Dobermans”, the military’s special riot control unit. That day, later known as El Viernes Negro (“Black Friday”), left six hundred people injured and another six hundred detained, many of whom were later tortured, raped and killed.

United States President Ronald Reagan began a series of sanctions against the military regime. The United States froze economic and military assistance to Panama in the middle of 1987 in response to the domestic political crisis in Panama and an attack on the US embassy. These sanctions severely damaged Panama’s economy. The sanctions hit the Panamanian population hard and caused the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to decline almost 25 percent between 1987 and 1989.

 On 5 February 1988, General Manuel Antonio Noriega was accused of drug trafficking by federal juries in Tampa and Miami. In May 1989 Panamanians voted overwhelmingly for the anti-Noriega candidates. The Noriega regime promptly annulled the election and embarked on a new round of repression. 

The United States government said Operation Just Cause, which began on 20 December 1989, was “necessary to safeguard the lives of U.S. citizens in Panama, defend democracy and human rights, combat drug trafficking, and secure the neutrality of the Panama Canal as required by the Torrijos–Carter Treaties”.  This invasion lead to the removal of the Noriega regime.

Panama’s Electoral Tribunal then restored civilian constitutional government, reinstated the results of the May 1989 election on December 27, 1989, and confirmed the victory of President Guillermo Endara and Vice Presidents Guillermo Ford and Ricardo Arias Calderón.

Oversight of the strategy significant Panama Canal was transferred from the U.S. to Panama in 1999 and is now managed and operated by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority.  

Beach fun – Bocas del Toro, Panama (Taken 3 February 2013)

Hiking adventure – Boquete, Panama (Taken 5 February 2013)

View from my room – Santa Catalina, Panama (Taken 6 February 2013)

Snorkelling fun – Santa Catalina, Panama (Taken 7 February 2013)

What I experienced
A Panama is a very unique country being the connector between South and Central America and a critical route for a significant amount of trade appearing for a short cut between the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans allowing ships to avoid having to travelled around the southern tip of South America both a lengthy and dangerous journey.  Due to it’s unique geography it is possible to swim in both the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans on the same day if desired.  I did this over a 48 hour period. 

Panama has a tropical climate with uniformly high temperatures and humidity.  Mosquitos can also be a problem.  I enjoyed the warm relaxing weather, the beaches and warm waters and the tasty local sea food.  The Canal is an engineering marvel and involved a lot of sacrifices in resources and human lives to help create the modern world trading system.

While Panama is not a ‘must visit country’ there is a lot of like and enjoy during a visit especially if you like humid weather and ocean life.

Countries Visited List

Old Town – Panama City, Panama (Taken 8 February 2013)

Panama Canal – Panama City, Panama (Taken 9 February 2013)

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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