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Panama, officially Republic of Panama, is the southernmost country of Central America. It is bordered by Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the southeast. The Caribbean Sea is to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the South. The country’s capital is Panama City, official language Spanish. English is widely spoken and in several indigenous territories other languages exist alongside Spanish.
The Isthmus of Panama which connects North and South America was formed about 3 million years ago and permitted plants and animals to cross in both directions. Ever since its formation, the isthmus had an impact on the migration of people, knowledge and technology throughout the American continent. The first indigenous peoples inhabited the area approximately 11’000 years ago as Paleo Indians projectile points discovered prove. Later, central Panama was home to some of the first pottery making on the American Continent, most famous the Monagrillo cultures. The significant cultures evolving over time are known as the cultures of Gran Darién, Gran Coclé and Gran Chiriquí.
After the Discovery of the Americas by Cristopher Columbus in 1492, the Spanish arrived to Panama in 1501. In 1513 Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was the first Spanish to confirm what the local indigenous have known for generations – the existence of the Pacific Ocean or Mar del Sur. Panama quickly became the crossroads and marketplace of Spain’s empire in the New World. Gold and silver were brought by ship from Peru, hauled across the isthmus, and loaded aboard ships for Spain. The route became known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road, although it was more commonly known as Camino de Cruces (Road of the Crosses) because of the abundance of gravesites along the way.
In 1821 Panama declared its independence from Spain and joined the Republic of “Gran Colombia” together with today’s Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. With the backing of the United States of America Panama separated from Colombia in 1903, allowing the US to finish the construction of the Panama Canal that a French company started in 1880 but later abandoned. The Canal remained under US control until 1999 when it was returned to Panama.
Ever since, the Canal is Panama’s main income source and is currently being expanded. Panama has one of the largest and fastest growing economies of Central America and was rated the second most competitive economy in Latin America by the World Economic Forum. Besides the Panama Canal which provides massive income and employment for the country, Panama’s economy is mainly based on a well-developed service sector. Within this sector, banking, trading, commerce and lately tourism comprise the most significant part of Panama’s GDP.
Tourism in Panama has been increasing very quickly over the past years. Thanks to the country’s natural and cultural diversity, its political stability and economic incentives from the government, the arrival of tourists to Panama has been growing steadily. In 2012, tourism accounted for 4.4 billion US Dollar or 9.5% of Panama’s GDP.
Panama has always been a melting pot of cultures. Of the population of 3.4 million (May 2010) are 70% mestizo, 14% black, 10% white and 6% indigenous. The indigenous population include seven different tribes: Ngäbe, Guna, Emberá, Buglé, Wounaan, Naso Teribe and Bri Bri. The reason for the ethnically diverse society – which includes considerable populations of Afro-Antillean and Chinese – lies in Panama’s location and in its role as transit country. In the 1850’s many people from southern China immigrated to Panama to build the first trans-isthmian railroad. Afro-Panamanians – descendants of the Africans who arrived in colonial times – often live in small Afro-Panamanian villages on the Caribbean coast and in Darien. Immigrants from the Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad arrived mainly during the time of the construction of the Panama Canal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Thanks to this mix of cultures, Panama is rich in traditions and folklore. In Panama’s countryside, mainly the Azuero Peninsula, the traditions and customs clearly have Spanish colonial origins. On the Caribbean coast like Bocas del Toro or Portobelo however, the Afro-Caribbean heritage is unmistakable. Also the indigenous population have maintained their century old traditions and account for a big part of Panama’s ethnical and cultural diversity.
Panamanian handcrafts can be classified in pre-Columbian and Colonial articles. Among the handcrafts originating in the traditions and cultures of the different indigenous tribes the colorful Molas of the Guna Indians and the Emberá/Wounaan tribes’ woven baskets are most famous. The stunning women’s dress Pollera, Devil’s Masks as well as different music instruments such as drums, the Mejorana (type of guitar) or violins are clearly of Spanish colonial origin. Amazingly enough, the Panama Hat is not from Panama; it originates in Ecuador. Panama has its own traditional hat, called “Sombrero Pintao” (painted hat) mostly worn by farmers in the countryside to protect them from the sun.
The same diversity as in culture can also be observed in Panama’s gastronomy. Due to its location, Panama is home to a vast array of fresh and tasty fruits, herbs and vegetables as well as delicious seafood. The flavors of Panama combine vegetables already known to the locals in pre-Columbian times such as corn, cocoyam or cassava with ingredients that were later added by the Spanish such as rice or beef.
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