Fun Facts About Panama

March 28, 2023

Paul Kay

Have you taken a vacation to South America? What about Central America? Are you looking for vacation ideas? We have fun facts about Panama in this post. Since you are a traveler, you are probably looking for destinations or vacations. Panama is somewhere you should explore. It has so much to offer. The Panama Canal is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Maybe it’s already on your bucket list? As a traveler, here are some fun facts to consider about Panama.

Panama’s indigenous people were believed to be by Cueva, Chibchan, and Chocoan. There is evidence of humans in South America more than 12,500 years ago. Spearheads have been found in Panama more than 11,000 years ago.

The Incas, Mayan and Aztec people were all over South America, but the thick jungles of Panama prevented any interest in the local people. The native populations lived mainly by hunting, gathering plants, fruits, cacao, and root crops. The villages survived off the land and the sea. The name “Panama” comes from an old indigenous word meaning “abundance of fish.”

Rodrigo de Bastidas

The first European to land in Panama was a Spaniard named Rodrigo Galvan de Bastidas in 1501. I do not remember his name in my high school History class, but he was well known in Spain. He was a wealthy merchant and mariner from the town of Triana near Seville. De Bastidas sailed with Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. 

Christopher Columbus

After his return, De Bastidas petitioned the Spanish Crown to start his own quest to be financed totally with his own money. The Spanish Crown agreed that he could explore various territories in the New World but in return, it required him to give them one fourth of the net profits he would acquire. 

Vasco Nunez de Balboa statue Jerez de los Caballeros Spain. He was the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean

He sailed to the New World from Cadiz in October 1500 with two ships; the San Anton and the Santa Maria de Gracia. He was accompanied on this voyage by Juan de la Cosa and Vasco Nunez de Balboa. For an explorer many have not heard of, he certainly had well-known explorer friends.

On his trip to the New World (South America), he discovered the mouth of a river he named the Magdalena River and the Gulf of Uraba on the Colombian coast. He reached La Punta de Manzanillo on Panama's upper Caribbean coast and is acknowledged to be the first European to have claimed that part of the isthmus, and therefore is credited with the discovery of Panama.

However, it was Vasco Nunez de Balboa who was the first to cross the Panama isthmus and claim the Pacific Ocean for Spain. Balboa was not a popular main back in Spain. He was heavily in debt, and his debtors would not let him leave Spain. In 1510, Balboa escaped his creditors by stowing away on a ship. If he was caught, he would be punished by death. When they arrived on the Atlantic shore of Columbia, they found the prior Spanish settlement was gone, conquered by the natives.  

Francisco Pizarro statue. Profile closeup. Spanish Conqueror of Inca Empire. Made by Estanislao Garcia in 2003

Francisco Pizarro was in charge as governor. The remaining survivors set up a new colony at Darien, in modern day Panama. At Darien, the remaining colonists chose Balboa was chosen as their governor.

Balboa was able to find peaceful interactions with the indigenous people. They told him that there was a vast sea with gold and riches on the other side of the South American Mountains. In September 1513, he took 100 Spaniards – including Francisco Pizarro – and 1000 locals to search for the sea himself. It took almost 30 days for Balboa to discover the new ocean which he named the Mar del Sur, or South Sea. He remained on the Pacific side for some time, and then began working his way back to the Atlantic side, arriving in January 1514. 

On his return, he sent dispatches to the Spanish king reporting his discovery of the Mar del Sur. However, these reports reached Spain too late: The king had already sent Pedro Arias Davila as the new governor of Panama and Darien. When Davila reached Panama, he made Balboa his deputy, but shortly afterward, he had Balboa apprehended. The officer who carried out the arrest on orders was was Francisco Pizarro, who later would conquer Peru. It’s not clear if Pizarro was upset that Balboa usurped his rule as the former governor or that Pizarro knew that Balboa did not have the King’s favor to find the Mar del Sur using Spanish troops. In any case, Balboa was accused of high treason, found guilty, and beheaded with four of his officers in January, 1519. 

Davila followed the route of Balboa to the Pacific side founded a settlement called Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion de Panama, now known as Panama City. Using this settlement, he had ships built for the Pacific Ocean and sent explorers up and down the coast. The establishment of this new settlement allowed the Spanish to explore and later conquer Central America. It also provided a base for the Spanish to defeat the Inca Empire on Peru.

Atahuallpa and Pizarro

Pizarro is said to have conquered the Incas in 1533. However, that date was just a single battle when the Inca Emperor, Atahuallpa, was killed. Even though Pizarro killed thousands of Incas in the battle, the empire had more than 12 million people. It took another 40 years before the Spanish could claim victory over the Incas. They were also aided by disease, primarily smallpox, which decimated the Incas. The Spaniards destroyed much of the Incan culture and imposed Spanish culture onto the native population.

Panama City was also the point where a lot of plundered treasure from the conquest of the Incas ended up before being shipped to Spain. As a result, the settlement became a town, and the town became a rich city.

Engraving of Sir Francis Drake.

The Spaniards were not the only ones looking for gold. Word spread about the great riches in the area which attracted the attention of the English. In 1572 Francis Drake raided Nombre de Dios in Panama. In 1671 a Welshman named Henry Morgan burned Panama City. Morgan was a Welsh privateer who used Jamaica as his operational base. He had legal permission from England to attack any Spanish ships and ports. He gathered a large group of pirates and attacked the Spanish wherever possible in South America.

Captain Henry Morgan

In 1671 he led an attack on Panama City because he knew this was the port where the Spanish stored any of their conquest riches. Morgan’s pirates defeated the Spanish, but they found no gold or silver. It had already been moved.

Spain’s influence and control in South America eroded in the 18th century and Panama became part of Gran Columbia which included roughly the modern nations of Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Northern Peru and Ecuador. The nation was the creation of Simon Bolivar who became known as the liberator. Bolivar wanted to create a nation strong enough to compete economically with the European powers and maintain its independence. 

In the 1860s, Gran Colombia itself broke up and Panama became part of the new Republic of Colombia. Panama was a part of Colombia until 1902. Columbia was a very large country, and the local Panamanians wanted more control and autonomy. In 1902 a secessionist movement on the isthmus had started. There was a definite school of thought on the Isthmus that Panama needed to break away.

In 1899-1902 a civil war was fought in Colombia (which included Panama). It was called The War of the Thousand Days.  The war was heavily influenced by the US interest in creating a canal. There is quite a lot of information about the Panama Canal – too much for this post. You can read more on the Panama Canal history in our post here.  

On 3 November 1903 Panama became independent from Colombia and the USA signed a treaty with Panama giving them sovereign rights over the canal zone. Work began on the canal in 1904. A huge force of migrant workers from many different countries were brought to Panama to work on the canal and many of them died of diseases like yellow fever. Nevertheless, on 7 January 1914, the first ship sailed through the Panama canal. The Panama Canal was officially opened by President Woodrow Wilson on July 12 1920.

The US and Panama relationship was an uneasy peace. Panama grew to resent the US rights and a new treated was signed in 1936. In 1964, students rioted and 27 people were killed. In 1968, an army coup occurred and removed the elected president, Arnulfo Arias.

Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos sign the Panama Treaty

General Omar Torrijos became the leader of Panama. In 1977 he succeeded in persuading US President Carter to sign a treaty that would give Panama complete control of the canal by 31 December 1999.

Manuel Noriega

Torrijos was killed in a plane crash in 1981 and he was replaced by Manuel Noriega. Noriega introduced a repressive regime and Panama’s relationship with the USA deteriorated. In 1987 the USA began economic sanctions. Noriega had amassed a personal fortune through drug trafficking operations using Panama. Although Noriega had culled favor with the USA over the years, those days were over. In 1988 Noriega was indicted on drug charges in the USA. In 1989 presidential elections were held in Panama and they were won by Guillermo Endara. However, Noriega simply annulled the results of the election.

Finally, on 20 December 1989, the USA invaded Panama. They bombed Panama City. However, on 25 December 1989 Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy. He was captured in January 1990. Guillermo Endara was reinstated as president of Panama. In 1994 he was replaced by Ernesto Perez Balladares. Then in 1999, Mireya Moscoso became the first female president of Panama.

The Panama Canal was turned over to the Panamanians in 1999 but the clock started in 1976. Jimmy Carter became the US President in 1976. He believed strongly that America’s foreign affairs should reflect a new commitment to preserve human rights everywhere, correct injustices, and renounce American colonialism. Carter’s goal was to negotiate a treaty with Panama that he believed was fair. 

In 1977, Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos signed two treaties, known as the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. The first, the Panama Canal Treaty, stated that the Canal Zone would be turned over to Panama in 1979. A gradual transfer of the operation of the canal itself would be complete by December 31, 1999. The second Treaty, commonly known as the Neutrality Treaty, gave the United States the right to defend the canal forever, but affirmed Panama’s control of its internal affairs. Panamanian voters approved the Carter-Torrijos treaties in a special vote.

The US solution to the canal was a combination of locks and the creation of two lakes. The Chagres river was a major obstacle, so the ingenious solutions was to create two dams and create two lakes. By creating the lakes, it significantly reduced the amount of excavation required because the ships would simply cross the lakes. However, the sea levels needed to be equalized. This required a series of locks which raised the ships to go across the lakes. The above illustration shows the elevation and placement of the locks with the addition of the manmade lakes.

Panama Canal Profile. Structure Of Locks.

The Panama Canal became larger between 2007 and 2016 when a new canal pathway was created for the supertankers and megaships. The Panama Canal generates over $2 billion USD in revenue for Panama annually. Panama is a service economy with more than 80% of Panama’s income coming from canal services, free trade zones, ports, banking, commerce, and tourism.

Tropical Beach of Coibita aka Rancheria with Isla Coiba in the Background. Coiba National Park Panama

There is plenty to see in Panama for tourists. Panama has 14 national parks, the largest of which is Coiba National Park, which encompasses Coiba island 38 smaller islands.

Panama has 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Coiba, Darrien National Park, Talamanca Range, and the cultural sites Portobelo-San Lorenzo fortifications and the Historic District of Panama.

There three major volcanoes in Panama: Baru, El Valle, and La Yeguada but don’t worry. The last one to erupt did so in 1620.

Pan American Highway

If you are thinking of driving from the USA to Panama, you can take the Pan American Highway. The northern part of the road goes through Canada, United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. There is no highway to Columbia. This is intentional because Panama does not want to encourage drug trafficking with Columbia. Panama has a legitimate concern that creating a road to Colombia will invite problems from Colombian organized criminals into its territory. Panama is small and does not have a military. The Darien Gap is over 66 miles between Yaviza, Panama, and Turbo, Colombia. It is a very large jungle. Columbian migrants have survived the trip but there is no road.

Maybe Panama is now on your bucket list. It was for us. Madeline’s father served in the US Army during WW II in Panama. The canal was quite a strategic place in a war and the US needed it to allow swift transport and to prevent the enemies from coming through. We found Panama to be delightful with plenty of things to see. The must see is the Panama Canal but the five UNESCO Heritage sites were a large draw for us as well.

Hopefully you will get a chance to enjoy Panama for yourself. 

Panama Canal Profile. Structure Of Locks.

Read More

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