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Panama is a strategically important country in Central America, including the part of the Isthmus where the land is the narrowest, and hence a good place for a canal between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. As well as being famous for the Panama Canal, and for Panama hats (which are usually made in Ecuador), Panama is also a famous tax haven, and a flag of convenience for ships. Panama is also becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination. It's always looked like a tourist destination, with palm trees wafting in the tropical breeze, but the tourist potential was previously overlooked. There are similarities with Costa Rica, but there is no "Costa Rica Canal"!
The primary language is Spanish, often spoken in a dialect which is interestingly abbreviated. English is also spoken, especially in business. The mains electricity voltage is 110 volts, with sockets in the American style. Driving is on the right of the road, mostly. The style of driving is like on a racetrack, where driving in the middle of the road or on any spare lanes is also quite usual.
In addition to good business from the Canal, and tourism, Panama Real Estate is also a profitable business, especially as so many people would like to move to Panama to avoid paying so much tax. There are other reasons to move to Panama, as many expats say there is more freedom in Panama than in countries such as the USA, UK, and Canada, where the authorities are too restrictive on personal freedom.
When you look at a map of the world, you'll notice that Panama is quite close to the Equator, so you might guess that it's very hot. Yes, it's true it can be very hot, and wet! It's very hot and humid in the lowlands, and it rains a lot. However, you needn't be put off by that. Many expats move to the highlands of Panama, where it's much cooler. In Panama City it's like being in a greenhouse, and hot-house plants grow enormously big in the streets. This is a modern city with a highrise skyline like Miami, but built in a place that would be jungle. However, in Boquete the high altitude means the climate is more like the warmest bit of the British summer. Boquete has a distinctly "Alpine" feel to it, and if you look at the pine trees and Swiss style architecture you might wonder if there's any ski slopes further uphill. There are not. However the deliberate planting of coniferous trees and the creation of Alpine lodges helps to emphasise the coolness of the climate. Boquete picture
The geology of Panama is new. The Panamanian Isthmus is about five million years old, which is very young in geological terms. This gives the landscape a primordial look, with dramatic sharp peaks, "like when the world was new". Backdrops in "The Flintstones" look old and weathered in comparison.
It's a key feature of Panama that it is a country of contrasts. There are many things which are different in one part of the country to another. You can see this would make sense with it being connected to the continent of South America as well as the continent of North America, and with having a Pacific coastline and an Atlantic/Caribbean coastline. However the differences between places go further than that. Also, because of the differences in different places, Panama is often misunderstood, even in guide books and on some websites. For example, you might read that there is kidnapping, and so it might seem a legitimate fear that if you go to Panama you might get kidnapped. What these information sources fail to mention is that almost all of the kidnappings occur in Darien where Panama joins on to Colombia, and not near Panama City in the middle or at the other end where Panama joins on to Costa Rica! This theme of misunderstanding based on lumping things together is repeated on a local scale, for example with the question of Is it dangerous in Casco Viejo?. On a country-wide scale, Panama is easily big enough to have modern infrastructure and lifestyle, and yet also have regions with some aspects of the Third World.
If you're looking to see about bad things that have happened in Panama, you may notice most of them happened a while ago, at around the time when Panama was ruled by Manuel Noriega. Although that's true, it has to be considered alongside fact that various other countries have gone through a bad patch at some time in their history. Spain under Franco, Germany in the Second World War, and various other modern-day nations whose history has included a problematical period. It seems an increasing number of people are saying that the United States is going though a bad patch under the rule of the Neocons. History moves on. The current regime in Panama (2008) is a moderate democracy with right-of-centre politics, and there are non-violent public displays of other political persuasions. Political stability of Panama is in the interests of the other countries in the world, who would like to still be able to get their ships through. There is now an international treaty on this. Plus, the Panama Canal is being expanded to take bigger ships, and also to take a greater number of ships regardless of size, without nautical gridlock.
Panama is a capitalist country. This is good! OK, it means you have to pay for things which you might have assumed are free, but this is surely much better than paying too much tax to fund a burdensome state? Business thrives. Anywhere there's a niche in the market, someone sets up in business. Very much in the spirit of How to Set up and Run Your Own Company, the free market economy is the way of things in Panama. There are rich people and there are poor people, but that's accepted. There isn't that jealous grudging communist attitude that a few people have in the UK regarding "the fat-cat wealthy" or a notion of the gap between rich and poor. Instead, wealthy people are respected. It's only right, after all they do pay for stuff.
The currency in Panama is the Balboa, which is in effect the United States Dollar. The banknotes are actual US dollars, and the coins are Panamanian versions of US dimes, nickels, quarters, etc. There are also 1 Balboa ($1) coins, and historically there have been some spectacularly large Panamanian coins. All US currency is legal tender in the Republic of Panama. Having the same currency as the United States means Panama has less of an inflation problem than some of the other countries of Central America, where the local currency has remarkably big denomination notes in use for buying small items in the shops.
The culture is cosmopolitan and diversity-friendly. Foreigners are welcome, and there's a generally positive feeling towards people who were not born there. One of the reasons for the cultural acceptance of folk is the ethnic demographics. People have settled in Panama from various places in the world, since early times. It's always been diverse. Another reason for the positive view of foreigners is a consequence of Panama being well connected with the world. Having a canal with one of the world's busiest shipping lanes going right through the middle of the country may have something to do with that.
Also see: where to get Maps, knowing your way around using a Lonely Planet guide, and a few other Geographical references. If you're wondering Where is Panama? there's a page about that as well.
Creative commons free MAPS copied with permission from Free World Maps.net, whose link is also featured at the page of MAPS
If you're having trouble searching for stuff to do with Panama, (because search engines don't get it right), see the advice at the page Panama Search
Diverse wildlife in Panama deserves to be better featured here, but for now there's a page about the black vulture and the green iguana
Plus, there's a story about a scorpion