For over a hundred years, the country of Panama has been defined by its greatest manmade achievement—the Panama Canal. And while this engineering marvel rightly deserves its place of importance, there is even more to see and discover in this Central American country known as the “Crossroads of the Americas.”
A narrow region comprised of two long coastlines, it is no surprise Panama’s name comes from the indigenous term for “an abundance of fish.” And its strategic location—an isthmus of land bridging North and South America—plus its famous canal linking the North Atlantic to the North Pacific by way of the Caribbean, makes Panama one of the most important shipping routes in the world. Throw in miles of gorgeous beaches, and it’s safe to say that Panama is a country with strong ties to the sea.
Beyond the shoreline, however, there is even more to discover. Relatively easy to access, Panama has become a traveler’s dream over the past few years. In just one visit, you can dip your toes in two different oceans, experience the both the misty mountains and lush rain forests, immerse yourself in indigenous cultures, and take advantage of its lively urban centers. A unique blend of treasures both natural and cosmopolitan, Panama is a land of diverse people, culture, and experiences to enjoy.
Most Popular Films
Films featuring Panama from international, independent filmmakers
Balsa Trees – Natural History
Discover the fantastic array of animals nourished by Panama's balsa trees, which bloom when food is scarce.Produced by Anand Varma
Witness the demise of the Diablos Rojos, the wildly decorated school buses that once comprised Panama City’s bus system.Produced by Eoin Mclaughlin
Resisting "the Foreign Tentacle"
Discover how Panama's indigenous Kuna people are striving to maintain their culture in a changing world.
Produced by Matteo Borgardt
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When Roosevelt was elected, he dreamed of a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. See how his dream came to life.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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From Sea to Shining Sea
American influence in the Panama Canal
by Alison Rohrs, for Grand Circle
When Theodore Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in 1901, he dreamed of a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would improve trade and send a message of American power to the world. The French had previously tried to construct a water passage on the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880s, but they abandoned the project after eight years and 20,000 casualties. Yet in an age of growing national confidence and engineering breakthroughs, Roosevelt believed Americans could accomplish what others considered impossible.
The Panama Canal is arguably the greatest engineering feat of the 20th century, but the legacy of its construction extends far beyond its man-made shores. The process of carving the 51-mile waterway catalyzed the formation of a new nation, launched a campaign to eradicate yellow fever, and introduced the U.S. as an international power for the first time in history.
For the Americans, political obstacles arose before engineering challenges. In the early 1900s, Panama was a small province of Colombia, which had strict sovereignty rules. Colombia rejected an American treaty for the isthmus because Roosevelt didn’t just want to create a canal—he wanted to control it. As Matthew Parker, author of Panama Fever, put it, “Roosevelt felt that the United States should be leading the way in improving the world, even if bits of the world didn’t necessarily want to be improved.”
To circumvent the Colombian government, Roosevelt offered support to a group of Panamanian elites who were eager to have their own nation. On November 3, 1903, Panama declared its independence. The presence of U.S. Navy ships and bribes to Colombian soldiers prevented a battle in Colon, and a country was born in a bloodless revolution. A few weeks later, the U.S. gave the new nation $10 million for the right to rule and manage a 500-square-mile “Canal Zone,” which bisected the country.
The next year, the Americans had to contend with nature. Original plans called for a sea-level canal to run from the Caribbean though dense jungle, the flood-prone Chagres River Valley, and the steep Culebra mountain range before reaching the Pacific. Roosevelt tasked the canal’s first chief engineer, John F. Wallace, with the famous order to “make the dirt fly.” Without adequate time for surveillance and testing, Wallace set to work with steam shovels and makeshift railways to remove rubble. Within a year, he was overwhelmed by the scale of the project, the high abandonment rates of workers, and the escalation of diseases like yellow fever and malaria.
The next chief engineer, John Stevens, demanded time to address underlying issues before digging. Declaring worker health his priority, Stevens called in Dr. William Gorgas, who had wiped out yellow fever in Havana, Cuba, by killing the mosquitos that carried it—despite widespread disbelief that insects spread illness. Gorgas drained swamps, treated still-water sources, and screened in hospital beds. By 1905, he had officially eradicated yellow fever in the Canal Zone, silencing the naysayers and saving countless lives.
Stevens recognized the difficulty of carving a sea-level canal through steep mountains. After months of lobbying Congress, he gained approval to create a revolutionary “lake and lock” canal. His design would dam the Chagres River to form Gatun Lake, while a series of locks (gated enclosures in the canal) would fill and drain to maneuver vessels over the mountains. The locks that Stevens envisioned were nearly three times longer than any that had come before.
Even with the locks, a staggering 100 million cubic yards of rock still needed to be removed from the Culebra Range. The ensuing dynamite blasts and frequent landslides made for incredibly dangerous working conditions. However, the mountain cut also required a huge amount of manpower: more than 20,000 employees.
Some 5,000 jobs were reserved for white Americans. For the harsh physical labor, Stevens turned to workers from the nearby West Indies, who would accept as little as ten cents an hour. By 1906, 70% of the Canal workers were West Indian, who largely handled the backbreaking and often deadly work. Of the 5,600 casualties during the American construction, 80% were black.
Stevens made tremendous advancements with digging and damming, and the visible progress helped to improve the workers’ morale. In 1906, Roosevelt further inspired workers and rallied American goodwill for the canal by personally visiting Panama. His trip marked the first time a U.S. president had traveled abroad while in office.
Nonetheless by 1907, Stevens was exhausted. When he resigned, Roosevelt appointed Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Goethals to finish the canal. Goethals offered a deep understanding of hydraulics and the rigid discipline of the U.S. Army. He initiated around-the-clock construction and mercilessly quashed worker strikes. Under his direction, laborers built the colossal locks, and in May 1913, steam shovels burst through the final barrier in the Culebra Range. After a decade of work, the Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914.
Nearly a century later, the canal remains an engineering marvel. It still transports about 16% of all trade bound for the U.S. Meanwhile, the political consequences of the construction continue to shape U.S. relations with Central America. Panamanians have long objected to continued American control of the Canal Zone. In 1977, Jimmy Carter signed a pair of treaties transitioning ownership of the Canal over a 22-year period. On December 31, 1999, the Canal Zone officially became part of Panama, finally uniting the country that connected the world’s largest oceans.