Located in Central America and connecting two continents, Panama is a small country but surely has impacted the world. Bordering Costa Rica and Colombia, it’s a country of undeniable beauty and a great travel destination, but it’s also famous for having one of the most important engineering projects ever made, the Panama canal.
In this post, we will talk about the canal (obviously) but also about all other things Panama is famous for – the coffee, the beaches, the dense tropical forests, and so on!
Things Panama is famous for
Let’s start with the obvious, the canal! It’s easily the most famous thing about Panama, but it’s also one of the country’s most important features. In fact, it’s so important that’s possibly one of the reasons Panama is an independent country, as the US actively supported the separation of Panama from Colombia to gain an advantage in building and exploring the canal. Shortly after recognizing the independence, it was signed a treaty with the new Panamanian government under similar terms that Colombian wasn’t signing.
The Panama Canal is an artificial 82km waterway that connects the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, cutting across the Isthmus of Panama, reducing considerably the time taken to navigate between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and changing world trade forever.
Built between 1880 and 1914 it’s considered one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever taken, as almost 30 000 people died from diseases and accidents. Despite several attempts to build a sea-level canal (similar to the Suez Canal in Egypt), the canal was eventually built with a locks system and a huge lake 26 meters above sea level.
Besides being the most famous thing in Panama, the canal is a huge source of revenue for the Panamanian state, and thus responsible for the developing the country.
Do you love coffee? Then you should know geisha coffee – it’s considered the best coffee in the world, and it’s produced in Panama, among other countries, but let’s explain why it’s so special in Panama.
Geisha coffee is a variety of Coffea Arabica originally from the village of Gesha in Ethiopia. The seeds were taken to Costa Rica, and later to Boquete in Panama where it gained fame and start winning prizes for the best coffee.
The flavor profile is one of the aspects that make geisha coffee so well known – it has a sweet flavor and aroma of floral notes, jasmine, chocolate, honey, and even black tea.
This unique flavor contributed to its reputation and consequently to the huge price tag and prestige. Geisha coffee from Boquete is considered both the most expensive coffee and the best coffee in the world.
With a metropolitan area of 1.5M people, Panama City is the biggest and the capital city of Panama. It’s also the most important and developed city in Central America. Due to its skyscrapers, frenzy, and overall functional and fast-paced city, it has been called the Miami of Central America.
Initially founded in 1519, the original city was sacked and destroyed by pirates lead by the infamous Henry Morgan. It was later reestablished a few km away two years later. The old city is called Panama Viejo, and its ruins can easily be visited from Panama city. Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Panama Canal Railroad
The Panama Canal Railroad opened in 1855, more than half a century before the ship canal, which was constructed parallel to the railway and benefited hugely from its existence. The route stretches for almost 80km connecting Panama City to Colon and linking the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic too.
This interoceanic railway is also one of the oldest railways still functioning. Since its construction, it has been rebuilt, reconstructed, changed name and ownership, but it’s essentially the same railway.
This rather short but monumental rail trip is one of the best things to do in Panama and a mandatory attraction for train lovers. Furthermore, the views are amazing!
San Blas islands
The San Blas islands are some of the most beautiful small islands in the world. The archipelago is located in the Guna Yala comarca, only a few km from the Carebian coast of Panama. The Guna are the original tribes of the region and they have huge autonomy within Panama – there’s even a passport check to enter the Guna Yala territory.
Out of the almost 400 islands, only 49 are inhabited, but the San Blas are worldwide famous for their pristine water and generally untouched ecosystem. Each small island is a paradise, with crystal clear water, white sand, coconut trees, a few huts, and not much more. If you ever want to escape, this is the place to go!
The Darian gap is the border area between Panama and Colombia. This stretch of land is completely covered with dense rainforest and marshland. The area is famous for several things, most of them, not so positive.
First, it’s famous for being the only section where the Panamerican highway is interrupted. As there are no roads in the Darien Gap (both sides of the border), it’s not possible to cross from Central America to South America. On a straight line distance is only about 100km, between turbo in Colombia and Yaviza in Panama.
Second, it’s an area famous for being extremely dangerous. It combines the fact that’s heavily used for drug trafficking, with not being completely controlled by the governments (It was FARC territory) and finally the heat, wetness, and all the diseases that come with it.
Finally, it’s also known for its biodiversity and untouched nature. An area that’s so difficult to reach and has had little to no development, completely covered with forest it’s obviously full of life, some of which still to be discovered.
Darien is surely one of the richest places on the earth in terms of biodiversity, but it’s far from being the only place famous for it in Panama. The country is covered with parks and dense forests hosting more than 10 000 different native plant species, including more than 1 500 varieties of trees, 1 400 types of orchids, and 678 ferns. These are astonishing numbers for such a small country.
The country’s diverse ecosystems include tropical dry and humid forests, mountain and lowland forests, freshwater wetlands, mangroves, tropical islands, and coral reefs. So, it has not only extraordinary terrestrial biodiversity but also marine! All this richness of fauna and flora is displayed in the Museum of Biodiversity in Panama City. The building of the museum itself deserves a mention as it was designed and built by the famous architect Frank Gehry.
Panama hats are an interesting thing Panama is famous for, mostly because those hats aren’t really Panamanian… Despite the name, the hats have never been made by Panamanians; they originated in Ecuador, where they are made to this day. This is why they are also called Ecuadorian hats.
A Panama hat, or an Ecuadorian hat, is a traditional brimmed straw hat made from the leaves of the toquilla palm. They are light-colored, lightweight, and breathable. It became very popular at the beginning of the 20th century as a tropical accessory.
So, why are they called Panama hats? The expression Panama hat started in the 1850s when hat makers from Ecuador migrated to Panama City, where they could sell much bigger volumes of hats. People started seeing these beautiful, quality hats in Panama and called them “Panama hats,” ignoring that they came from Ecuador and originated a few centuries earlier.
In the last 4 years, the name Panama has appeared constantly on the news for a very different reason from the ones above, the Panama Papers.
The Panama papers are a set of 11.5 million documents (2.6TB of data) that detail financial and attorney-client information of more than 200 000 entities that were leaked in 2016. This was mainly personal and financial information about wealthy people and public officials. They are called Panama papers because they were taken from the Panamanian law firm “Mossack Fonseca”.
While offshores are legal, reports divulged the papers found trails to quite a few illegal activities, including fraud, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions. The repercussions of this scandal have been huge, with famous people and organizations being caught on it.
In a hindsight, for such a small country, with a rather small population, Panama has made a name for itself and hugely impacted the world. For this, Panama is a well-known country around the world.