Official name: Republic of Panama
Area: 78,200 square kilometers (30,193 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Volcán Barú (3,475 meters/11,401 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Northern and Western
Time zone: 7 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 772 kilometers (480 miles) from east to west; 185 kilometers (115 miles) from north to south
Land boundaries: 555 kilometers (345 miles) total boundary length; Colombia 225 kilometers (140 miles); Costa Rica 330 kilometers (205 miles)
Coastline: 2,490 kilometers (1547 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Panama is an isthmus in Central America, a narrow strip of land that connects the larger land masses of Costa Rica and Colombia. The country lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With a total area of about 78,200 square kilometers (30,193 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina. Panama is administratively divided into nine provinces and one territory.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Panama has no outside territories or dependencies.
Panama has a tropical climate with temperate areas at the higher elevations of 700 to 1,500 meters (2,297 to 4,921 feet). There are two seasons: a rainy "winter" from May through December, when humidity is 90 percent to 100 percent, and a drier "summer" from January through April, when the northeast trade winds arrive. Panama's average temperature is 29°C (84°F) on the coasts and 18°C (64°F) in the highlands.
Rainfall patterns are different on Panama's Caribbean and Pacific coast regions. The Caribbean coast and mountain slopes get rain throughout the year, receiving from 150 to 355 centimeters (59 to 140 inches) annually. The Pacific coast experiences a more distinct dry season and has annual rainfall of 114 to 229 centimeters (45 to 90 inches).
From year to year, Panama has considerable variation in the amount of rainfall, since the country is affected by El Niño and La Niña weather patterns. Panama is not in the path of Caribbean hurricanes.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Panama, an S-shaped isthmus, divides the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The country's narrowest point is just 48 kilometers (30 miles) across, and its widest is 185 kilometers (115 miles).
Two parallel mountain ranges traverse Panama; between the mountains are valleys and plains. The highest lands are toward the Costa Rican border; the interior of the country, where the Panama Canal is found, has the lowest elevation.
Panama is seated on the Caribbean Tectonic Plate, but just offshore there are three other plates that bump into the Caribbean Plate: the Cocos Plate to the west, the Nazca Plate to the south, and the South American Plate to the southeast. During the Miocene Epoch, these plates collided, causing the Isthmus of Panama to rise out of the ocean. As the plates kept pushing against one another, the mountain ranges and volcanoes of Panama also rose. Today, the continued interaction of the Cocos, Nazca, and Caribbean Plates causes frequent earthquakes in Panama. Its volcanoes, however, have not erupted in hundreds of years.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
The Pacific Ocean lies to the south of Panama while the Caribbean Sea (an extension of the Atlantic Ocean) is to the north. Coral reefs are found along the coastlines; one notable example is the protected coral reef at Isla Bastimentos National Park of Bocas del Toro. This reef, located off the northwestern coast, serves as a nesting site for sea turtles. Panama claims the seabed of the continental shelf, which has been defined by the country to extend to the 500-meter submarine contour.
The waters of Panama's Pacific coast, especially within the Gulf of Panama and the Gulf of Chiriquí, are extremely shallow (with depths less than 180 meters/590 feet), with extensive mud flats. Because of this, the tidal range in this area is extreme. The tidal range (the difference in sea level between high and low tide) on the Pacific coast exceeds 700 centimeters (275 inches), while on the Caribbean coast it is only 70 centimeters (27 inches).
Sea Inlets and Straits
The Caribbean coastline is marked by several good natural harbors; however, Cristóbal, near the Panama Canal, is the only one with significant traffic. The major port on the Pacific is Balboa.
From the Costa Rica border to the west, Panama's Caribbean coastline is indented by the Chiriquí Lagoon, and then by the broad Mosquito Gulf, before curving north to the city of Colón and the port of Cristobal on Limon Bay, which is the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. Past the Canal, this coast sweeps south to the Gulf of Darién (Golfo del Darién) and the border of Colombia.
On Panama's Pacific coast, the Gulf of Chiriquí lies between the southwest Point Burica on the Burica Peninsula and the Azuero Peninsula (Peninsula de Azuero). The Gulf of Panama, the largest of the country's Pacific inlets, contains Panama Bay at its apex. There, the capital, Panama City, marks the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The Gulf of Panama is indented on the west by the Gulf of Parita, and on the east by the Gulf of San Miguel, where rivers flow down from the highlands of Darién.
Islands and Archipelagos
On the Caribbean side, the 366-island San Blas Archipelago stretches for more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) down the eastern Panama coast. The Bocas del Toro Archipelago extends along the west of Panama to the border of Costa Rica.
The Pacific coast has many more offshore islands than the Caribbean. Within the Gulf of Panama are the Pearl Islands, Isla Del Ray, and Contadora Island. Coiba, Panama's largest island at 271 square kilometers (104 square miles), sits in the Gulf of Chiriquí along with Jicarón Island, Cébaco Island, Parida Island, and hundreds of much smaller islands and islets.
The Burica Peninsula is located at the western edge of the Pacific coastline. The Azuero Peninsula juts out into the Pacific and separates the Gulf of Chiriquí from the Gulf of Panama. Point Malta is located on the southeast corner of the Azuero Peninsula.
6 INLAND LAKES
Gatún Lake, formed by damming the Chagres River, is Panama's largest lake, with an area of 418 square kilometers (161 square miles). Located in the center of Panama at 26 meters (85 feet) above sea level, Gatún Lake is an important bird habitat and includes the Barro Colorado wildlife refuge. Gatún Lake and Lake Alajuela (also known as Lake Madden) are supplied by rainwater and provide the water for the Panama Canal and the drinking water for Panama City. Lake Chepo is another large reservoir in central Panama.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
Panama has more than five hundred rivers, most of which are quite short. Rivers flowing into the Pacific include two of equal length that both are the longest rivers on the country. The Chucunaque and the Chepo are each 215 kilometers (134 miles) long. The Chepo has been dammed to produce hydroelectric power. Other rivers with Pacific outlets are the Santa Maria (168 kilometers/104 miles), Chiriquí Viejo (161 kilometers/100 miles), and the Tuira (127 kilometers/79 miles).
More than 150 rivers draining into the Caribbean, including the Chagres (125 kilometers/78 miles), Changuinola (110 kilometers/68 miles), Indio (92 kilometers/ 57 miles), and Cricamola (62 kilometers/38 miles). There is a hydroelectric dam on the Chagres, which has its source in mountain cloud forest. The Chagres waters run into Lakes Gatún and Alajuela.
There are no desert regions in Panama.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
Some regions of natural savannahs exist on Panama's Pacific coast. There are also cattle ranches on the country's central plains, where most of the pastureland is located. Invasive grass species have taken hold in areas deforested by burning and in abandoned pastures.
DID YOU KNOW?
As much as 30 percent of Panama's land is under some degree of official protection—as forest reserves, national parks, or wildlife refuges. Darién National Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve extending along most of Panama's border with Colombia. The park's 5,970 square kilometers (2,305 square miles) of mountains and river basins are covered with primary and secondary tropical rainforests, dwarf and cloud forests, and wetlands. Darién National Park is home to jaguars, ocelots, giant anteaters, tapirs, howler monkeys, and many other wildlife species.
In Panama, there are three sites that have been designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Punta Patino in Darién (where there are extensive swamps) is a private nature reserve on a coastal plain with mangroves, salt flats, and reefs; it also is a seabird habitat. The Golfo de Montijo on the Pacific coast is a complex of coastal marshes, mangrove forests, and seasonally flooded grassland. San San-Pond Sak, in Bocas del Toro on the Costa Rican border, is a river basin complex of shallow lakes, mangrove forests, and peat bogs. It is an important bird habitat.
Hills dominate Chiriquí Province in the west, particularly in the Boquete district, where coffee is grown on the hillsides. The Azuero Peninsula and much of the country's center are hilly and are occupied by farming communities.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
A spine of mountains formed by an undersea volcanic chain divides Panama into its Pacific and Caribbean (Atlantic) regions. These two main ranges are the Serrianía de Tabasará in Panama's west and the Cordillera de San Blas in the east. A gap between them in the center of the country is where the Panama Canal was built. A third mountain system, Cordillera Talamanca on the Costa Rican border, contains Volcán Barú (formerly known as Volcán Chiriquí). It is the highest point in Panama at 3,475 meters (11,401 feet). The peak of Barú, a long-extinct volcano, has views of both the Pacific and Caribbean on clear days. In the east, there are three other smaller mountain ranges. The Majé Mountains run parallel to the Gulf of Panama shore. Entering Panama from Colombia along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, respectively, are the Sapo Mountains and the Darien Mountains.
The tropical rainforests on the Caribbean region mountain slopes, particularly in the Darién region near Colombia, have an extremely high level of biodiversity, with species from both North and South America. In addition to the rainforests, there also are dwarf forests and cloud forests in the mountains.
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
The rugged terrain of western Panama contains narrow river canyons. Erosion has carved gorges in Darién, the thickly forested region in the east.
Though not fully explored, the Cerro Colorado copper mine in Chiriquí Province has the potential to be one of the largest copper mines in the world. Another copper mine is located west of Panama City in Petaquilla.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
The El Santuario Plateau rises 400 meters (1,212 feet) in the Boquete district of Chiriquí Province, near the border with Costa Rica.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
Since its opening in 1914, the Panama Canal has been an extremely important link between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. Before the canal was built, ships carrying passengers and goods between the western coasts of North and South America and Europe had to travel all the way around the coast of South America to reach their destination. French and American companies built the canal, beginning its construction in 1881. The Panama Canal route shortens a boat trip from New York to San Francisco by an incredible 7,872 miles.
The canal channel is 82 kilometers (51 miles) long, with entrances at Limón Bay on the Atlantic side and the Bay of Panama on the Pacific side. A ship entering Limón Bay is raised by a set of three locks (known as the Gatún Locks) to an elevation of 25.9 meters (85 feet) above sea level. It then crosses Gatún Lake and a stretch known as the Gaillard (formerly Culebra) Cut before reaching the Pedro Miguel Lock, which lowers the ship into Miraflores Lake. Once across Miraflores, a set of two locks (known as the Miraflores Locks) lowers the ship to sea level. On the return trip, the ship undergoes the same process in reverse. It takes about eight to ten hours for a ship to complete its passage through the canal.
A number of dams have been constructed in order to regulate the flow of water through and around the canal. The Gatún Dam on the Chagres River created Lake Gatún. The dam was built with soil and rock that was excavated as the canal was being built. The two Mira-flores Dams created Miraflores Lake. One of them is an earth-fill dam. The other was made of concrete. An earth-fill dam near the Pedro Miquel Lock helps to regulate the water used in its operation.
The United States government owned and operated the canal and the area surrounding it (known as the Canal Zone) until December 31, 1999. On that date, the U.S. government turned over the entire operation to Panama.
14 FURTHER READING
Espino, Ovidio Diaz. How Wall Street Created a Nation: J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal . New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001.
Friar, William. Adventures in Nature: Panama . Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2001.
Rau, Dana Meachen. Panama . New York: Children's Press, 1999.
Ventocilla, Jorge, et al. Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.