Panama, a small Carribean country that sits on the continental divide between Central and South America, between the Atlantic and Pacifics oceans, is ever-changing. While best known as the site of the Panama Canal – a critical passway carved through 50 miles of land to allow the world’s freighters easier passage, the country is also a stunning mix of traditional practices and cosmopolitan lifestyles, of natives and newcomers, of poverty and extreme wealth.
Nowhere is this changing landscape more apparent than in the country’s capital, Panama City. Home to 1.8 million of the country’s 4.3 million inhabitants, the area is a study in contrasts, of old and new. Glass skyscrapers that started to emerge in the 1960s contain banks, real estate companies, hotels, offices and shopping centers that cast their long shadows over a skyline that, below, include neighborhoods where the impoverished dwell. Here, advances have been overlooked in some places, though the country’s history and traditions endure. What follows is a glimpse through photographs of Panama that shows how the country’s past, present and future coexist as one vibrant and colorful place.
Panama is a small country known for trade that connects Costa Rica and Colombia as well as joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Caribbean Sea. Its strategic geographic position makes it a hotspot for international maritime trade. A worldwide crossroads with 4 percent of global trade moving through its canal and two of Latin America’s busiest ports, its role on the global stage has been cemented through the Panama Canal. Once under U.S. control, the waterway passed to Panama in 1999. Its expansion, a $5 billion project, was approved in 2006 and completed in 2016.
In Panama, the country’s landform is defined by the central spine of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide. Spanning across multiple continents, the continental divide of the Americas, or the “Great Divide,” separates the water that runs toward the Pacific Ocean from the water that runs toward the Atlantic and Arctic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. A naturally occurring boundary or raised terrain, it separates a continent’s river systems, allowing them to flow into a distinct ocean, bay or sea. When precipitation falls, the basin it will flow to is dependent on the side of the divide the watershed occurred on. Climatic regions are therefore determined by the rainfall rather than temperature alone. In general, rainfall is much heavier on the Caribbean than on the Pacific side of the continental divide because the Caribbean provides moisture and the continental divide acts as a rain-shield for the Pacific lowlands.
The Mamoní Valley Preserve is a 12,900-acre land conservancy aiming to conserve the land as well as function as a buffer zone protecting the southern border of the Guna Yala indigenous territory and the eastern edge of the Chagres National Park from the development along the Panamerican Highway corridor. Pictured above, the preserve intersects with the continental divide, joining both the northern and southern sides of the isthmus. This tropical environment, dominated by forests, supports an abundance of plants interrupted in places by grasslands, scrub and crops.
Valentina Guevara, 5, is seen wearing a “pollera,” which is a traditional costume of Panama worn by women. Generally a woman will own two polleras in her life: one before the age of 16 and one at adulthood. Polleras originally came from Spain during colonial times. The dominant color is white, while the adornments are colorful flower designs to represent Panamanian flora and fauna. Different styles of necklaces accompany the dress, including a rosary and a “guachapali,” a fragile chain with a pointed instrument at the end used to clean fingernails, teeth and ears. Hair is normally parted into two braids and pulled back behind the ears with a headdress, otherwise known as a “tembleque,” resting on top. The price of a single pollera varies from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on whether they’re handmade or commercial, and may take up to a year to create. The gold and pearl decorations are generally passed down as heirlooms from mother to daughter.
Although the area is now a tourist destination, brimming with bars and restaurants, Casco Viejo, or the Old City, has been able to preserve and replicate the stylistic features of the architecture that followed the Spanish conquest of the country in the 16th century. This has not come easily. The principal movements in 20th-century architecture made their mark on Panama, but the difficulty of obtaining funds for conservation populated the city with abandoned buildings. In 1997 the city’s historic district was designated a World Heritage Site. This launched a number of restoration projects including the construction of hotels and residential and commercial buildings, while in some places, social programs that create jobs for locals and support the local community have fallen behind.
Pictured above, these buildings once determined the vitality of streets, but have descended into such poor condition that they’re often inhabitable. The photograph on the left is one of an abandoned building bordering Plaza de la Independencia. In such cases, the buildings are left empty in hopes of being sold to a foreign investor at a hefty price tag. The contrast of old versus new is quite visible compared to the newly renovated building that borders it. The photograph on the right is one of Iglesia San Jose (Church of San Joseph). Located in the western side of Casco Viejo, it was built in the late 1600s to protect the renowned Altar de Oro (Golden Altar). Despite the draw of this artifact, the church hasn’t been restored to the extent of some of the others and is wedged between crumbling structures and beautifully renovated buildings.
The traditional making of the pintao hat has been recognized worldwide as a fundamental part of Panamanian culture. In the town La Pintada, Reinaldo Quirós was taught the craft of hatmaking from his father. Practiced by men and women alike, the process starts with collecting the plant from the stock. After preparing the leaves, the fibers are used for weaving. Different types of hats are used for a variety of occasions, from everyday wear to weddings and traditional dances. The ones requiring more advanced weaving techniques are often saved for the latter.
Currently, Panama’s GDP is the fourth highest in Latin America and it has been experiencing a steady growth ranging between 7% to 10% every year. Its GDP per capita is reported to be $25,628, meanwhile its neighbor Colombia has a GDP per capita of $15,720. The country experienced an extended period of economic stability in the 20th century, until the deposing of General Manuel Noriega in the 1980s whose regime was crippled by international sanctions. Now the U.S. dollar-based economy is 64 percent service-driven, primarily from operating the Panama Canal, as well as logistics, banking, container ports, flagship registry, tourism industry and offshore banking. Its main exports include banana, pineapples, watermelon, shrimp, sugar, iron, steel waste and gold, a majority of which are traded to the United States and Colombia. The principal imported commodities are fuel, machinery, vehicles, pharmaceuticals and cell phones from Singapore and China.
People in Casco Viejo are seen strolling along la Cinta Costera, otherwise known as the Coastal Beltway. The walk is a 64-acre land reclamation project completed in 2009. The new city is seen shooting out of the background. Recent investment in new infrastructure has also seen the extension of the Colón Urban Regeneration scheme, an existing duty-free commercial area and construction of a retail mall and bus terminal. This development aims to fuel the economy and encourage foreign direct investment. The U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement of 2012 saw over 87% of U.S. industrial goods and exports to Panama become duty-free. This included IT, agricultural, construction, medical and scientific equipment. Over half of U.S. exports of agricultural commodities also became duty-free. Despite these advances, the downfall is that public debt surpassed $37 billion in 2016 because of this excessive government spending and public works projects.
The City of Knowledge, known to locals as “La Ciudad del Saber,” is quiet at sunset as the Panamanian summer comes to a close. With more than 200 buildings of what was once the Clayton military base, it is now home to a booming international community with the primary objective of collaboration and sustainable development. Entrepreneurs, scientists, government organizations and NGOs are invited to work together to create social change there. The business and technology park is also popular for bordering the Miraflores Locks. The Canal Zone is a 10-mile-wide strip of land along the Panama Canal that extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Formerly a zone over which the United States exercised jurisdictional rights, it housed several towns and military bases from 1903 to 1979.
The lumber industry, booming urbanization, livestock ranching and agricultural expansion are all factors in Panama, actively encouraging an increase in deforestation. Illegal logging also runs rampant, especially in the Darién, a jungle area close to the Colombian border. The poachers can range from a craftsman who chops down a tree without permission to build a table, to a farmer who deforests land for agriculture purposes, to a logger who cuts trees and sells them to a multinational company that makes furniture. Deforestation and illegal logging are two environmental issues that led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which directly affects global warming. In the Darién, actions to reduce deforestation includes the establishment of a one-year moratorium prohibiting new lumbering permits. Another policy suggestion is increasing the penalties for environmental offenses.
Water is the Panama Canal’s lifeblood but decreasing rainfall has threatened the canal with droughts. Less precipitation means that the dry season, which usually lasts from December to April, is lengthening. In 2019 it began one month earlier and ended one month later. Directly attributed to climate change, the canal’s water levels are sinking. This means that limitations are being placed on the amount of weight cargoes are allowed to carry. Since canal income is based heavily on cargo loads, this could lead to millions of dollars lost in revenue. In 2016, it was announced that the canal would undergo another expansion to accommodate “ultra-large” vessels, but the water shortage has delayed such plans. Shipping firms will therefore have to turn to more expensive alternative routes, such as rail lines, because the global supply chain depends on consistency. To secure the canal’s future, actions the Panama Canal Authority have taken include halting the production of hydroelectricity from the Gatún dam. They are also considering investing in the excavation of a third artificial lake to supply Panama City with water.
The youth of Panama are faced with overcoming economic obstacles imposed by older generations. This perseverance is further needed considering the shortage of skilled labor the country is struggling with. In addition to this, decades of poor schooling has obligated businesses to bring in more costly foreign labor. Panama Bilingue is part of a five-year federal “Strategic Development Plan,” which began in 2015 and ended in 2019 under the former presidency. The scheme covered five key concepts, all designed to boost inclusion and competitiveness in the country. These included the goal of enhancing productivity and diversifying growth, improving quality of life, strengthening human capital, improving infrastructure and environmental sustainability.
Jhoan Anzola migrated to Panama City from Colombia with his family five years ago. The two countries have a history that runs deep. Although these two countries cannot be considered true “rivals,” they share many concerns about the illicit drug trade and occasionally feel the need to blame the other.
Thomas Rodriguez poses next to a bean tree on his farm in La Candelaria, a rural farming community in the Coclé province of Panama. Rodriguez recently graduated from a five-year organic farming program through Sustainable Harvest International. Subsistence farming, widely practiced from the northeastern jungles to the southwestern grasslands, consists largely of corn, bean and other plots.