Being the crossroads of the Americas, the narrow Isthmus of Panama has always played a central role in the history of the world.
Panama has been inhabited by humans for at least 10,000 years. The indigenous groups of the Guna, the Ngöbe-Buglé, the Embera, the Wounaan, the Teribe and the Naso were living in Panama since long before the Spanish arrival. The indigenous communities are situated in hardly accessible rainforests, mountains and islands, many of them are isolated from the modern world, still trying to preserve their traditions and customs dating back to the time before the colonialization of Panama.
In 1501, Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama sailing along the eastern coast. A year later Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage, sailing south and eastward from upper Central America, explored Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, the Chagres River and Portobelo (Beautiful Port) which he named. Soon Spanish expeditions would converge upon the mainland (Spanish from the Latin terra firma, “dry land” or “mainland”) which served in Spanish colonial times as the name for the Isthmus of Panama. The city became a commercial center for the transport of gold and spices from Peru across the Panama to the Caribbean Sea, where the fortresses of Portobelo and San Lorenzo were built to protect the profitable trade route. These fortresses, however, could not keep the Welsh Sir Henry Morgan from sailing up the Rio Chagres and destroying Panama City in 1671, which’s old remains still exist today in archeological compound of Panama La Vieja (Old Panama).
After the Spanish lost a war against France, Panama gained independence from Spain and became a part of Gran Colombia. Colombia signed a treaty with the US to construct the nowadays Canal Railway throughout the country, going from the Pacific to the Caribbean Ocean. The California Gold Rush resulted in a stream of people traveling through Panama to the US West Coast and lead to an economic boost of the railway and the first attempts of the Frenchmen in 1881 to build a Canal through the country. However, the attempt failed due to outbreaks of Malaria and financial and construction problems.
The final attempt of the construction of today’s canal was made by the United States with supporting Panama in gaining independence from Colombia in 1903 and buying the rights of use around the Canal Zone. After 10 years of construction, the Panama Canal was inaugurated in 1914 with intentions of changing international trade and becoming the world’s greatest engineering project. With the success of the Panama Canal and the new developments in transportation, the proposal of expanding the Canal was accepted by the Panamanians and in 2007 the construction began. The expansion of the Panama Canal will have a growing impact on the economy and maritime trade.
People of Panama
Panama is a melting pot: Latin American Mestizos, North Americans, Europeans, Chinese and many more immigrants create an international atmosphere Panama City, where 3 of the country`s 4 million inhabitants live peacefully together. This stands in vast contrast to the laid-back lifestyle of the countryside, where various indigenous groups and small villages maintain their traditions dating back to colonial times. On one single day you can have breakfast in a fancy cafe viewing Panama’s modern skyline, share your lunch with indigenous people in the rainforest and enjoy a traditional fish dinner in a colorful colonial town by the Caribbean Sea.
Panama City’s lifestyle in the glamorous districts with its skyscrapers and shopping malls is fancy and full of influences from the United States. While oriental cultures can be felt, there is a strong Chinese community that dates back to when the Panama Railroad was being established. The more traditional Panamanian lifestyle can be reflected in the small local stores, fruit, vegetable and fish markets.
People who reside in the countryside, escape the daily hustle and bustle of the city, dedicating themselves to agriculture, fishing, small businesses and other forms of trade. To get a glimpse of the traditional Panamanian culture visit the Azuero Peninsula known as the heart of Panamanian culture, witness local artisans dedicated to pottery, baking, sewing and weaving (Polleras), and other traditional handcrafts.
In the less accessible regions of Panama there are seven indigenous cultures left, who maintain their own language and customs and living in autonomous regions.
- Ngöbe-Buglé: Panama’s largest indigenous group traditionally lives in the highlands and have settlements in the provinces of Veraguas, Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro. They enjoy a high degree of political autonomy and have successfully protected their cultural heritage.
- The Guna: Panama`s most famous indigenous group with their distinctive colorful dresses lives in their own autonomous region of Guna Yala (San Blas Archipelago), inhabiting their native lands and the white-sanded islands.
- Embera & Wounaan: Those two indigenous groups both traditionally live on the edge of jungles. They inhabit the region of Darien, the Canal Zone and the Eastern Panama Province and live of hunting, fishing and farming.
- The Naso Teribe: The Naso Teribe inhabit the mainland of Bocas del Toro and do not have an independent territory on their own. They hardly have any governmental support and life in high poverty, their lands being endangered by deforestation.