The Republic of Panama covers 75,517 square kilometers, which makes it slightly bigger than Ireland and slightly smaller than South Carolina. Panama is young in geological terms. It emerged from the sea just 2.5 million years ago, dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific and forming a natural bridge that connects the North and South American continents. The bridge has allowed North and South American species to intermingle. Known as the Great American Interchange, this mingling had a profound effect on the ecology of South America.
Panama’s peculiar shape—like the letter “S” turned on its side—causes confusion for many visitors. It takes a while to get used to the notion that the Caribbean Sea is to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Many also find it strange to be able to watch the sun rising over the Pacific and setting in the Caribbean, or to realize that when a ship transits the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean it actually ends up slightly west of where it started.
Panama is at the eastern end of Central America, bordered to the west by Costa Rica and to the east by Colombia. It’s far longer than it is wide. The oceans are just 80 kilometers apart at the Panama Canal, near the middle of the country, and that isn’t even the narrowest spot on the isthmus. But the country stretches surprisingly far to the east and west; Panama has nearly 3,000 kilometers of coastline along its Caribbean and Pacific flanks.
People often wonder which body of water is the “higher” of the two. The reality is that there’s no difference in elevation—sea level is sea level. A locks canal was necessary in Panama not to keep the oceans from spilling into each other, but to carry ships over the landmass of the isthmus. But there is a dramatic difference between the tides on each side. The Caribbean tide averages less than half a meter; Pacific tides can be more than five meters high.
Many visitors are surprised to discover how mountainous Panama is. The most impressive mountain range is the Cordillera Central, which bisects the western half of the country, extending from the Costa Rican border east toward the canal. It contains Panama’s highest mountain, Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano that is 3,475 meters high. Another impressive range runs along Panama’s eastern Caribbean coast, starting at the Comarca de Kuna Yala and ending at the Colombian border. It officially comprises the Serranía de San Blas to the west and the Serranía del Darién to the east, where it enters Darién province.
Most parts of Panama experience few significant earthquakes, which is one of the reasons it was chosen as the site of an interoceanic canal. However, western Panama, particularly Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí, is far more seismically active. In 1991, an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale struck along the Costa Rica–Panama border, leaving two dozen people dead in Bocas del Toro and thousands homeless.
Besides the humid tropical forests that people expect to find, which compose a third of Panama’s remaining forests, Panama has a great variety of other ecosystems, ranging from cloud forests to an artificially-made “desert.” Extensive mangroves, coral reefs, and hundreds of islands can be found on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the isthmus. Panama also has at least 500 rivers.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition