Panama the country: thin strip of land with a romantic past …and present

Panama the country. Warm, tropical, palm trees silhouetted against the golden sky of a setting sun. Yes, it is all those romantic things. But it is so much more.

Its capital is the most modern city south of the U.S. If this is the third world, I missed the first somewhere in my travels. The city is a world-leading financial center with some 120 banks, many with competing glass and steel monuments to commerce.

Panama is shopping, U.S. style. Many of the stores found on Main Street, U.S.A., are here too. After all, the Canal was built and run by Americans for almost 100 years, and the American military had a major presence here until 1999.

Seadoos in the ocean

Panama (the country) once had a reputation as part of the pipeline for Colombian drugs. It suffered under the savage dictatorship of Manuel Noriega, until he was captured and imprisoned by American troops in December, 1989. He is still there. The country has had a peaceful democracy ever since. Like Costa Rica, it has no military. Money is spent on education instead, and its people have a high level of literacy. And if you need medical attention here, your doctor is likely to have been trained in the U.S. or Europe.

Panama is silver sand on the Caribbean side and black volcanic sand on the Pacific side. It has the second-largest volcanic crater in the world inside which nestles a popular tourist and retirement town. (The largest is the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.) It is dessert and mountaintop. It can be humid all year, or like spring for all 12 months, depending on where you are in this small country.

Panama the country is world-class hotels and resorts, the best roads in Central America by far (many were built by Americans). And Brinks gives the country a top rating for personal safety.

Panama is tales of pirates, of Spanish treasure and the forts that tried to protect it; it is jungle and monkeys and parrots. It has more birds than all of North America put together, some 960 different species. There is even a jungle preserve right inside the city limits. And Darien National Park on the Colombian border is a jungle of monstrous size and one of the world’s richest wildlife habitats.

Island in Panama

Panama the country, that thin strip of land joining the northern and southern halves of the Americas (yet running east to west) provides a 50-mile wide divide between the world’s two largest oceans. And its narrowness has provided the ingredients for much of its history. The Spanish used it as a land bridge to transship Inca treasure en route to Spain. This attracted pirates whose exploits here made them household names. The rest, as they say, is history.

The French tried to build a canal, and went broke. The Americans, who proved the value of the isthmus during the Gold Rush, succeeded where the French had failed. And today, the Panama Canal, now run by Panamanians, produces much of the country’s wealth. More shipping is registered in this country than in anywhere else on earth.

Panama the country is a land of diversity. Its people are friendly. If your car breaks down, runs out of gas, or gets a flat, within a few minutes someone will stop to help. Try that in Manhattan! The language is Spanish, but in the major hotels and many places in the capital, the people who serve you speak English. And if they don’t, there’s sure to be a helpful English-speaking person within earshot who will offer assistance. Currency: the U.S. dollar since 1904. What could be easier?

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