Panama is at a crossroads of history and culture

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For millions of years the Isthmus of Panama has been the bridge adjoining the Americas, shaping the development of life on the continent. Its importance has been magnified in recent centuries, as it is also the shortest land route for maritime goods crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice-versa. As a result, the isthmus has played a vital role in enabling the movement of native people in early history, aiding the flow of natural resources in colonial times, and drastically altering global trade routes in modern times thanks to the existence of the country’s famed canal.

Geography & Climate

For such a small country, Panama boasts a surprisingly varied topography and rich biodiversity. It is strategically located at the southern-most point of Central America and is bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean Sea to the north. The Cordillera de Talamanca, Serranía de Tabasurá and Sierra de Veraguas make up the central mountainous spine of the country, often referred to simply as the Cordillera Central.

Most of the country’s nearly 500 rivers and streams (some of which are harnessed for electric power) flow from the central mountains, while others make their way south to where a dense jungle known as the Darién Gap separates Panama from Colombia. The rainforest is the only break in the Pan-American Highway, which would otherwise run from Alaska to Patagonia. The varied landscape of the country, which includes jungles, mountains and beaches, combined with its location as a crossroads between the Americas, provide an enviable biodiversity with plants and animals from North, Central and South America.

There is little variation in its tropical climate, which features a rainy season that lasts from May to December. Temperatures are higher than the regional average, ranging between 24°C and 29°C and seldom exceeding 32°C. Generally, rainfall is heavier on the eastern Caribbean coast, though the country is located just outside the Caribbean Sea’s hurricane belt.


As a historical point of transit and trade, the population of 3.8m as of 2013 features diverse ethnicities. Migrations of Asians, Africans and Europeans at various points throughout its history mixed with indigenous Amerindian inhabitants. As a result, the mestizo, or mixed, population represents 68% of the country, with descendants of white Europeans accounting for 15%, Afro-Panamanians 10%, Amerindians 6% and Asian 1%. The influence of centuries of colonial rule after the arrival of the Spanish left an indelible mark, as Spanish remains the official language and Catholicism the dominant religion.


Spanish is spoken fluently by nearly 90% of the population, and understood by almost 100% of all Panamanians. Spoken in a very distinctive accent, it includes a great deal of slang and words borrowed from English, as a result of its strong ties to the US and several other English-speaking Caribbean nations, such as Jamaica, Barbados and St. Lucia.

Although not recognised as official, Amerindian languages, such as Ngöbe, Buglé, Guna, Emberá, Woonaan, Naso, Tjerdi and Bribri are also spoken in certain regions of the country with large native populations. Creole – a mix of Spanish, Ngöbe-Buglé and Afro-Antillean English – is spoken in certain areas inhabited by descendants of West Indians who emigrated to work in banana plantations and the construction of the canal. Around 14% of the population speaks English fluently, mostly in business circles. Finally, the presence of sizeable groups of people from different corners of the world has resulted in other non-native languages being spoken, such as Chinese – mostly Cantonese, although Mandarin and Hakka-speaking communities can also be found – Arabic, Hindi and Hebrew.


The Panamanian Constitution of 1972 establishes the freedom of religion in Panama, as well as the separation of church and state. However, and as expressed by Article 35, the Constitution recognises the country’s Catholic heritage without giving it official status, stating: “there is freedom of profession of all religions, with no other limitation than Christian morals and public order. Catholicism is recognised as the most-followed by Panamanians.”

While the government does not keep data on religious affiliations, approximately 75% of Panamanians identify as Roman Catholic. The remaining 25% is split among other Christian sects, such as Protestants, Latter-Day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Episcopalians. There are also smaller communities of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims – mostly from Lebanon, Palestine and India – as well as Baha’is. Panama houses one of seven Houses of Worship for the Baha’i religion in the world; the location serves the entire Central American region.

Culture & Heritage

The country’s geographical location and its position as a meeting point in Latin American history have forged a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities from Europe, Africa, China and the Middle East, combined with those of indigenous peoples. This rich heritage can be appreciated in the country’s sounds, cuisine, traditions and folklore. The best expression of Panama’s culture is Carnival ( Mardi Gras), a festivity celebrated across the country since the early 1900s in the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Carnival is especially well known in the towns of Las Tablas, Chitré and Penonomé, which receive thousands of local and international tourists every year. Although its origin is religious, today it has become Panama’s most important secular holiday. A number of Catholic festivities are celebrated across the country, such as Semana Santa (Holy Week) or Corpus Christi, with the latter especially renowned in the provinces of Herrera and Los Santos, where dances that date back to the time of Spanish colonial rule are brought back to life every year. To pay tribute to Panama’s Afro-Antillean and African heritage, May 30 was declared Black Ethnicity Day after Executive Decree 124 was passed during the administration of Mireia Moscoso in 2005, as part of a national initiative to integrate black communities into Panamanian society. The date is representative of the day the slave trade was abolished in Spain and all of its colonies by King Ferdinand VII, on May 30, 1820.


Panama is a constitutional democracy in which the president, who is designated both head of state and government, is elected to a five-year term, without the possibility of re-election. The unicameral legislature, known as the Asamblea Nacional, or National Assembly, is a 71- member legislature that is also elected to five-year terms.

The current National Assembly consists of 26 members from the Democratic Revolutionary Party, 25 from Democratic Change, 16 from the Panameñista Party, and the remaining nine seats are split among various smaller parties and independent candidates, including two from the Liberal Nationalist Republican Movement Party (MOLIRENA), one from the Popular Party and one independent member. Though all citizens are legally required to vote, in practice there are no penalties for not doing so.

Foreign Policy

As could be expected in a country featuring such an internationally important trade route, foreign relations have been significant aspects of successive administrations. With the country looking to boost competitiveness by creating logistic and manufacturing centres capable of adding value to goods moving through the canal before they reach their final destination, a great deal of focus has been placed on expanding free trade agreements with key regional and international markets.

With little more than two decades of consecutive civilian rule and coming up on 15 years of control over one of the most vital waterways in the world, Panamanians are still working towards full realisation of the country’s potential. The country does not particularly fit the mould of either its neighbours in South or Central America. With a business-friendly regulatory framework currently in place, the country’s macro economic progress is assured in the short to medium term, though governance improvements will be key to establishing a foundation for longer-term growth.

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Cover of The Report: Panama 2015

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Panama 2015. Explore other chapters from this report.

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