Location: Middle America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea
and the North Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica
Geographic coordinates: 9 00 N, 80 00 W
Map references: Central America and the Caribbean
total: 78,200 sq km
land: 75,990 sq km
water: 2,210 sq km
Area - comparative: slightly smaller than South Carolina
total: 555 km
border countries: Colombia 225 km, Costa Rica 330 km
Coastline: 2,490 km
contiguous zone: 24 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
territorial sea: 12 nm
Climate: tropical maritime; hot, humid, cloudy; prolonged
rainy season (May to January), short dry season (January to May)
Terrain: interior mostly steep, rugged mountains and dissected,
upland plains; coastal areas largely plains and rolling hills
lowest point: Pacific Ocean 0 m
highest point: Volcan de Chiriqui 3,475 m
Natural resources: copper, mahogany forests, shrimp, hydropower
arable land: 7%
permanent crops: 2%
permanent pastures: 20%
forests and woodland: 44%
other: 27% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 320 sq km (1993 est.)
Natural hazards: NA
Environment - current issues: water pollution from agricultural
runoff threatens fishery resources; deforestation of tropical rain
forest; land degradation and soil erosion threatens siltation of
Environment - international agreements:
party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto
Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes,
Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection,
Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands,
signed, but not ratified: Marine Life Conservation
Geography - note: strategic location on eastern end of isthmus
forming land bridge connecting North and South America; controls
Panama Canal that links North Atlantic Ocean via Caribbean Sea with
North Pacific Ocean
Background: With US backing, Panama seceded from Colombia
in 1903 and promptly signed a treaty with the US allowing for the
construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land
on either side of the structure (the Panama Canal Zone).
The Panama Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between
1904 and 1914. On 7 September 1977, an agreement was signed for
the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by 1999.
Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over
the Canal were turned over in the intervening years.
With US help, dictator Manuel NORIEGA was deposed in 1989. The entire
Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military
bases were turned over to Panama on 31 December 1999.
Size: Approximately 77,082 square kilometers.
Topography: Dominant feature of landform is central
spine of highlands forming continental divide. Highest elevations
near borders with Costa Rica and Colombia. Lowest elevations at
waist of country where it is crossed by Panama Canal. Most of population
concentrated on Pacific side of divide southwestward from Panama
Climate: Tropical climate with high temperatures
and humidity year round; pleasanter conditions prevailing in highlands
and on Pacific side of continental divide. Seasons determined by
rainfall rather than by changes in temperature. Prolonged rainy
season between May and December; short dry season between December
and April in parts of Pacific slope and for shorter periods on Atlantic
slope of divide.
Data as of December 1987
Panama is located on the narrowest and lowest part of the Isthmus
of Panama that links North America and South America. This S-shaped
part of the isthmus is situated between 7° and 10° north
latitude and 77° and 83° west longitude. Slightly smaller
than South Carolina, Panama encompasses approximately 77,082 square
kilometers, is 772 kilometers in length, and is between 60 and 177
kilometers in width.
Panama's two coastlines are referred to as the Caribbean (or Atlantic)
and Pacific, rather than the north and south coasts. To the east
is Colombia and to the west Costa Rica. Because of the location
and contour of the country, directions expressed in terms of the
compass are often surprising. For example, a transit of the Panama
Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean involves travel not to the
east but to the northwest, and in Panama City the sunrise is to
the east over the Pacific.
The country is divided into nine provinces, plus the Comarca de
San Blas, which for statistical purposes is treated as part of Colón
Province in most official documents. The provincial borders have
not changed since they were determined at independence in 1903.
The provinces are divided into districts, which in turn are subdivided
into sections called corregimientos. Configurations of
the corregimientos are changed periodically to accommodate
population changes as revealed in the census reports.
The country's two international boundaries, with Colombia and Costa
Rica, have been clearly demarcated, and in the late 1980s there
were no outstanding disputes. The country claims the seabed of the
continental shelf, which has been defined by Panama to extend to
the 500-meter submarine contour. In addition, a 1958 law asserts
jurisdiction over 12 nautical miles from the coastlines, and in
1968 the government announced a claim to a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive
The Caribbean coastline is marked by several good natural harbors.
However, Cristóbal, at the Caribbean terminus of the canal, had
the only important port facilities in the late 1980s. The numerous
islands of the Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro, near the Costa Rican
border, provide an extensive natural roadstead and shield the banana
port of Almirante. The over 350 San Blas Islands, near Colombia,
are strung out for more than 160 kilometers along the sheltered
The major port on the Pacific coastline is Balboa. The principal
islands are those of the Archipiélago de las Perlas in the middle
of the Gulf of Panama, the penal colony on the Isla de Coiba in
the Golfo de Chiriquí, and the decorative island of Taboga, a tourist
attraction that can be seen from Panama City. In all, there are
some 1,000 islands off the Pacific coast.
The Pacific coastal waters are extraordinarily shallow. Depths
of 180 meters are reached only outside the perimeters of both the
Gulf of Panama and the Golfo de Chiriquí, and wide mud flats extend
up to 70 kilometers seaward from the coastlines. As a consequence,
the tidal range is extreme. A variation of about 70 centimeters
between high and low water on the Caribbean coast contrasts sharply
with over 700 centimeters on the Pacific coast, and some 130 kilometers
up the Río Tuira the range is still over 500 centimeters.
The dominant feature of the country's landform is the central spine
of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide . The divide
does not form part of the great mountain chains of North America,
and only near the Colombian border are there highlands related to
the Andean system of South America. The spine that forms the divide
is the highly eroded arch of an uplift from the sea bottom, in which
peaks were formed by volcanic intrusions.
The mountain range of the divide is called the Cordillera de Talamanca
near the Costa Rican border. Farther east it becomes the Serranía
de Tabasará, and the portion of it closer to the lower saddle of
the isthmus, where the canal is located, is often called the Sierra
de Veraguas. As a whole, the range between Costa Rica and the canal
is generally referred to by Panamanian geographers as the Cordillera
The highest point in the country is the Volcán Barú (formerly known
as the Volcán de Chiriquí), which rises to almost 3,500 meters.
The apex of a highland that includes the nation's richest soil,
the Volcán Barú is still referred to as a volcano, although it has
been inactive for millennia.
Nearly 500 rivers lace Panama's rugged landscape. Mostly unnavigable,
many originate as swift highland streams, meander in valleys, and
form coastal deltas. However, the Río Chepo and the Río Chagres
are sources of hydroelectric power.
The Río Chagres is one of the longest and most vital of the approximately
150 rivers that flow into the Caribbean. Part of this river was
dammed to create Gatun Lake, which forms a major part of the transit
route between the locks near each end of the canal. Both Gatun Lake
and Madden Lake (also filled with water from the Río Chagres) provide
hydroelectricity for the area of the former Canal Zone.
The Río Chepo, another major source of hydroelectric power, is
one of the more than 300 rivers emptying into the Pacific. These
Pacific-oriented rivers are longer and slower running than those
of the Caribbean side. Their basins are also more extensive. One
of the longest is the Río Tuira, which flows into the Golfo de San
Miguel and is the nation's only river navigable by larger vessels.
Panama has a tropical climate. Temperatures are uniformly high-
-as is the relative humidity--and there is little seasonal variation.
Diurnal ranges are low; on a typical dry-season day in the capital
city, the early morning minimum may be 24°C and the afternoon
maximum 29°C. The temperature seldom exceeds 32°C for more
than a short time.
Temperatures on the Pacific side of the isthmus are somewhat lower
than on the Caribbean, and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most
parts of the country. Temperatures are markedly cooler in the higher
parts of the mountain ranges, and frosts occur in the Cordillera
de Talamanca in western Panama.
Climatic regions are determined less on the basis of temperature
than on rainfall, which varies regionally from less than 1.3 to
more than 3 meters per year. Almost all of the rain falls during
the rainy season, which is usually from April to December, but varies
in length from seven to nine months. The cycle of rainfall is determined
primarily by two factors: moisture from the Caribbean, which is
transported by north and northeast winds prevailing during most
of the year, and the continental divide, which acts as a rainshield
for the Pacific lowlands. A third influence that is present during
the late autumn is the southwest wind off the Pacific. This wind
brings some precipitation to the Pacific lowlands, modified by the
highlands of the Península de Azuero, which form a partial rainshield
for much of central Panama. In general, rainfall is much heavier
on the Caribbean than on the Pacific side of the continental divide.
The annual average in Panama City is little more than half of that
in Colón. Although rainy-season thunderstorms are common, the country
is outside the hurricane track.
Panama's tropical environment supports an abundance of plants.
Forests dominate, interrupted in places by grasslands, scrub, and
crops. Although nearly 40 percent of Panama is still wooded, deforestation
is a continuing threat to the rain-drenched woodlands. Tree cover
has been reduced by more than 50 percent since the 1940s. Subsistence
farming, widely practiced from the northeastern jungles to the southwestern
grasslands, consists largely of corn, bean, and tuber plots. Mangrove
swamps occur along parts of both coasts, with banana plantations
occupying deltas near Costa Rica. In many places, a multi-canopied
rain forest abuts the swamp on one side of the country and extends
to the lower reaches of slopes in the other.
Data as of December 1987