Panama is an independent country located in Central America and home to the Panama Canal. The geography, economy and people of Panama make it a fascinating place to explore and visit. A small country, Panama is just 78,200 square kilometers (48,591 square miles) in area and shares boarders with Columbia and Costa Rica. There are a number of steep mountain ranges in Panama, but areas close to the coastline are fairly flat, comprised of plains and rolling hills. The rainy season is from May to January, with an overall climate is typically hot and humid.
The Panama Canal is the main feature of Panama and is the driving force behind the economy and political relevance of this small nation. The canal itself is a man-made shipping lane that was built to provide a shorter shipping route from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Prior to the building of the Panama Canal, large ships were required to go down the entire coast of South America and up the opposite side to transport goods from the western side of North America to the entire European continent.
The canal was built between 1904 and 1914 by the US Army, under a treaty between Panama and the US that provided US sovereignty over the canal and surrounding land. An agreement signed in 1977 detailed the complete transfer of the canal and surrounding lands back to Panama by 1 January 2000. This was a peaceful transition and received widespread support.
The canal is a central component to the economic success of Panama, in addition to an active service sector that is comprised of banks, insurance, container ports and tourism. An expansion plan for the canal to increase the size of ships that can access the canal will result in increased revenue and trade. This plan was put to a popular vote and was supported by the people by a large margin.
Spanish is the official language of Panama, although many people are bilingual, speaking English as well. The people of Panama have a 92% literacy rate, a 78 year average life span and an infant mortality rate of 13 deaths per 1,000 live births. They are predominately Roman Catholic, with a small minority of Protestants. The majority of people are mestizo, which is a mix of Native Amerindian and Caucasian, with minority populations of West Indians, Caucasians and Native Amerindians.
Panama is a popular tourist destination, with most visitors concentrated in the area surrounding the Panama Canal. This area is a hub of services, cultural landmarks and restaurants. The main draw is the canal itself, with several cruise lines offering trips just to experience it.