Panama City and its 3.3 million inhabitants – about half of the number of people living in the country as a whole – occupy roughly 2.500 square kilometers just east of the Panama Canal. There are foreigners from the United States, from Europe or Mexico, immigrants and seasonal workers from Nicaragua, Honduras or Guatemala, as well as native and indigenous people.
Not only in architectural terms, with a Dubai-like skyline in the western part of the city and a much older, historic city center that is protected as cultural world heritage by UNESCO, Panama offers a variety of extremes. Here, you’ll find monstrous towers of glass and steel reflecting the sunlight, there you can see basic houses made from wood, showing that even here, in the linchpin of Panama’s economy, in the shadows of the towers housing big business, social disparity is apparent. In the rural areas of the richest country of Central America, the picture changes once more, offering a view on simple and poor life, as well as on the remaining indigenous communities. Together, Kuna Indians, Bokota and Guaymí people and the other native inhabitants of Panama make up about 5 percent of the total population. They pose a striking opposite to the business part of the country – not only in terms of poverty and wealth, but in terms of culture as well.
For the tourist’s eyes, these visual and cultural extremes of Panama, symbolized by both ethnic groups and architecture, are what make city and country such an attractive place to visit. The many faces of the country are mirrored in its capital city, and together they form a mosaic that couldn’t be more intriguing.
If anyone knows the secret of the harmonious coexistence of peoples, places, and – seemingly – times, it must be the bronze-colored cock sitting on top of an obelisk at the French Square. High up from his position in the sky, he has a great panoramic view of the spectacle. Around the endless waters of the Pacific, he overlooks the small, romantic alleyways of Casco Antiguo with colorfully dressed Kuna women selling their traditional molas, the hustle and bustle of the new town with businessmen in suits and ties in front of office-towers, and huge steel constructions in the next angle, already offering a glimpse of the entrance to what is still Panama’s tourist attraction number one: the canal.
Panama City is growing rapidly: The urbanization rate rises by 2.3 percent every year. Meanwhile, 75 percent of all Panamanians already live in urban areas, where there is opportunity to work. The international financial crisis has hardly had any effects on the country at all. Panama lures investors, banks record a surplus liquidity. The economy, based mostly on services and the financial sector, has grown by 7 percent in 2011, a year in which most countries faced recession. The expected figure for 2012 is 8.5 percent – which means a top position for Panama in global comparison: According to the CIA World Fact Book, this is the 11th best figure. With only 4.4 percent, the unemployment rate is comparatively low as well.
Panama lives on the bright side of life. And more so, Panama has always lived on the bright side of life: The country’s history is determined by its geographical position at the Isthmus of Darien. At its most narrow part, Panama is no broader than 80 kilometers. For ages, the country has offered the shortest possible passage across the Americas. The Spanish Colonists used the route to transport Incan gold to Europe from 1513 on, later they also used it as a short passage to Asia. Back in 1534, the Spanish researched the possibility of building a canal, but abandoned the idea. Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, was the first to try the seemingly impossible from 1880 on. Due to financial problems and many cases of Malaria and yellow fever, the French never finished their project and it took until 1903 that the Americans took over the project. The Panama Canal, finished and opened in 1914, is, since that date, the most important trading route of the world.