On the map, Panama is an unimposing sliver of land, a mere comma connecting North and South. At just under 30,000 square miles, it’s still smaller than South Carolina. Zoom in, and you’ll find that, mile for mile, Panama makes better use of its precious landscape than perhaps any other country in the Americas.
Surprisingly, this land bridge boasts one of the largest contiguous rainforests in the Western hemisphere, second only to the Amazon. A bi-national reserve spanning the southern mountains of Costa Rica into the Panamanian central range hosts the most abundant array of endemic species of flora and fauna in Central America. The reserve contains many of the 1,000 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, and 354 species of reptiles and amphibians found within Panama. A visitor can expect full immersion into this dazzling array, but should respect some species with a bit of distance (Amerindians used the poison dart frog’s toxic secretions to poison the tips of their blowdarts). The reserve’s altitudinal variance – from tropical jungle to high alpine grassland – provides unique habitats for the area’s diverse wildlife. Sunrise in Panama alights on pristine white sand beaches on the picturesque Bocas del Toro islands, penetrates the dense coastal mangrove swamps, raises mist from the multi-canopied tropical inland forests, and melts frost from the high peaks and plateaus of the central mountain range, the Cordillera Central.
Panama’s reputation is shaped by its location. Just as its function as a land bridge gives it an elegant biological articulation of both North and South American climes, Panama was home to hundreds of endemic tribes that, while they were permanent neighbors, maintained distinct languages and traditions. When Columbus first investigated the isthmus’ interior, he wrote that ‘every (village) has a different language and they don’t understand one another’. Our knowledge of the Cuevas, Coclé and other tribes of the region is limited, as the area’s indigenous peoples were largely wiped out during the 16th century Spanish colonization.
Both geographically and ethnographically, Panama is a zone of transition. It is the land link between North and South, and hosts the only East-West water passage between the icy Northwest Passage and the storm-tossed Drake Passage at South America’s most austral clime, Tierra del Fuego. From west to east, you’ll travel through largely mestizo villages, only to encounter a distinctly Afro-Caribbean vibe once reaching the Carribean Sea. Today’s ecological marvels of Panama’s nearly impenetrable interior and highlands provided refuge, and a new home, to cimarrons – self-liberated African slaves who escaped and settled along Panama’s Camino Real. Try to descend into the Southern continent through Columbia, though, and you’ll find yourself discouraged by the only missing link in the Pan-American Highway. The Darien Gap, an impregnable zone of swampland, tropical forest, and Northern Andean highlands, has no official road. Any attempt to traverse the wilderness would be ill-advised, though, as the majority of the human inhabitants likely belong to one of Columbia’s leftist paramilitary groups such as FARC (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia).
Better stick to the rest of what Panama has to offer. Whether it’s carving world-class waves in the idyllic Bocas del Toro, exploring Panama City’s historic Panamá Viejo (the Spanish staging point of Inca conquest South America), or wandering some lost footpath in one of the country’s thirty National Parks, Forests, or Preserves, Panama offers a confluence of history, ethnography, and wildlife that makes it a land unto itself.