5 real (totally non-alternative) facts about Panama

Week 2 of STRI’s Tropical Biology Field Course in Panama (actually, week 3 by the time I actually post this). Well, the Republic of Panama to be more precise. Aside from the biology, I think is important for us to learn a bit more about the wonderful country we are visiting. Thus, here are 5 facts about Panama that you (likely) hadn’t heard before (but maybe new 1 or 2 already). Here we go!

Go west to get east.

The Panama Canal, known to many as one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th Century, is perhaps one of the most important waterways in the world. With 15 thousand ships crossing the canal yearly, it plays a fundamental role in the world trade (an even the size and design of new shipping vessels). Just a simple west-to-east route connecting the Pacific and the Caribbean/Atlantic. Or is it? Everybody knows the Pacific is west of the Caribbean, right? Well, due to the curvature of the Panama Isthmus and the location of the entrances to the canal, a ship entering the canal on the Pacific side must travel slightly west in its destination to the Caribbean. Seriously, have a look:


Amazingly drawn example of the Panama Canal route. Notice our ship (let’s say the HMS McMillan) travels from the Pacific to the Caribbean and exits the canal west of its original entry location. North is on top of the image. Map Data: Google. 

Yes, yes, is more of a SE-to-NW trip, but still, a ship entering from the Pacific at Port of Balboa will end up west of its original position when it reaches the Caribbean at Port of Colón. Isn’t that amazing?

…And then there were three (times it closed).

As you might imagine the economic value of the canal is gigantic, as it accommodates up to five percent of the world’s total cargo. On average, 40 ships cross the canal each day (this estimate doesn’t take into account the additional 2016 expansions to the canal), each of them potentially carrying millions of dollars in goods. Running the canal is a serious deal, since a single problem could have major economic implications.

The Panama Canal Authority (who operates the canal currently) and the Panama Canal Commission (who operated it in the past) run a really tight ship (one that definitely passes through the canal), and thus the canal has only been officially closed three times in its century long history.

The first closure happened early in the canal’s life. Frequent mudslides required repairs in the canal, forcing its closure between late 1915 and early 1916.

The second closure of the canal came in the 1989 US invasion of Panama. In December 1989, access to the canal were restricted while US troops (who were in control of the canal zone) began military operations in Panama. Passage was reenabled shortly after US troops gained control of the country.

The most recent closing of the canal happened in 2010 after record-breaking rains caused massive flooding in the canal’s waterway. Although storms had caused temporary pauses in the flow of the canal in the past, 2010’s storm caused closure for 17 hours due to landslides in Lake Alajuela and overflowing of Gatun Lake over the canal’s locks.

Interestingly, lack of rain has also been a problem. The 2015’s El Niño-induced drought almost forced the canal to close due to reduction of the water level in the canal. Although closure was not necessary, restrictions were implemented reducing ship size.

National symbols across (part of) the tree of life

Natural history plays an essential role in Panamanian culture. Thus, as in many other creatures, different plants and animals are part of Panama’s national symbols. First, the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) has been the national bird of the Republic of Panama since 2002. The eagle is also present in Panama’s coat of arms. Native to the neotropics, the harpy eagle’s range has been severely reduced due to deforestation of rainforests in the Americas. However, Panama has the largest breeding population of the species.


Some species are important as Panama’s national symbols, including A) the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), B) the Panamanian Golden Frog (Atelopus zeteki), and C) the Holy Ghost Orchid (Peristeria elata). 

Another important species is the Holy Ghost Orchid (Peristeria elata), the national flower of the Republic of Panama. The species heavily endangered, particularly due to illegal poaching from its natural habitat. Thankfully, the government of Panama has been taking heavy action towards the protection of the orchid, including the development (in collaboration with Taiwan) of an in vitro growth program (link in Spanish, sorry). The aim of the project is to assist in the germination of plants that there could be later reintroduced into its natural habitat.

Last, but certainly not least, is the Panamanian Golden Frog (Atelopus zeteki). A massive cultural symbol in Panama, this species has been part of the native folklore for many years. Images of La Rana Dorada can be found everywhere, from lottery tickets, to signs and souvenirs (I even bought a golden frog souvenir a few days ago, in Casco Viejo). The little guy even has its own BBC documentary (narrated by Sir Richard Attenborough nonetheless!) and a national holiday. Sadly, the species has been severely affected by the amphibian-wide postulation collapse caused by Chytrid fungi to the point that is almost (if not fully) extinct in the wild. Populations of this species have been successfully kept in captivity for conservation purposes, like those kept in the San Diego Zoo.

The Balboa and “Dollarization”

Panama, like others countries including El Salvador, Ecuador, East Timor and Zimbabwe, uses the US Dollar (USD) as its official legal tender. What’s interesting is that they technically also have their own currency: the Panamanian Balboa (PAB). What’s more interesting is that Panama has a case of what has been described as full dollarization: the Balboa is permanently locked to the value of the US dollar at a 1:1 exchange rate. 1 PAB is always equal to 1 USD, 1,000,000,000 PAB will also be equal to 1,000,000,000 USD. Moreover, since the balboa is only circulated as coins (up to 2 PAB), the dollar has a role as the everyday currency for Panamanians. This locked exchange rate it is often seen as an advantage for tourism and investing, becoming one of Panama’s main appeals. At the same time, it sometimes creates problems for Panamanians, as changes in value of the dollar has direct repercussions over the balboa, which was a problem following 2008’s US recession.

A highway across the Americas… almost

In the 1920’s, there was an idea of building a network of roads interconnecting the Americas. The Pan American Highway, as it is officially known, was gradually built during the 20th Century, and contains over 30 thousand kilometers of road connecting 17 countries. This highway system enabled you to travel from Alaska in the north, to Argentina and Chile in the south. Well, almost. To this day, the Pan American Highway doesn’t completely connect the North American and South American continents. The highway system is interrupted by a relatively small (just a few hundred kilometers) area of undeveloped forest and swamplands between the borders of Panama and Colombia. Known as the Darien Gap, this forested region is home of several indigenous populations, alongside protected natural areas. This means that if you were to use the highway to cross the American continents, you would travel from Alaska to Panama, and would then need to travel in boat to Colombia before you could continue your trip south. Although the stretch of land has been crossed by car before, it contains no official roads or trails making it an arduous task. Adding to this, the area is part of a drug-smuggling corridor and, on the Colombian side, is home of the FARC guerrilla. As you might expect, the boat ride to Colombia is usually preferred.


Route of the Pan American Highway across North and South America. Notice the Darien Gap in the yellow square. Photo by brilliantmaps.com. 

There has been various attempts to complete this highway system, thus closing the Darian Gap (or is it opening it?). However, the move has significant opposition from Panama, particularly because concerns with the indigenous populations and impacts over the area’s natural resources. Construction of the highway over El Darien would likely results in increased mining and logging in the area. As Michael J. Ryan, professor from the University of Texas, said: “The loggers will follow the road, forests will fall, and huge chunks of paradise will be lost forever”.



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