Panama is the first Central American country. It is located on the narrowest and lowest part of the Isthmus of Panama that links North and South America. 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. It is bordered on the west by Costa Rica, on the east by Colombia, on the north by the Caribbean coastline and on the south by the Pacific coastline. The total land area is 78,046 sq km. The Panama Canal, which is about 80km long, divides the country into eastern and western regions.
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 of San Blas. The provincial borders have not changed since they were determined at independence in 1903.
The country’s two international boundaries, with Colombia and Costa Rica, have been clearly demarcated, and in the late 1980’s there were no outstanding disputes.
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 1980’s. The numerous islands of the Archipelago of 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 Caribbean coastline.
The major port on the Pacific coastline is Balboa. The principal islands are those of the Archipelago of Las Perlas in the middle of the Gulf of Panama, the penal colony on the Coiba Island in the Chiriquí Gulf, 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.
The dominant feature of the country’s landform is the central spine of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide. 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 of Talamanca near the Costa Rican border. Farther east it becomes the Serranía of 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 Central.
The highest point in the country is the Volcán Barú, which rises to almost 3,500 meters.
Nearly 500 rivers run through Panama. 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. 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.
The two main island groups, both in the Caribbean, are the San Blas and Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake is home to a world renowned rainforest research station operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Gatun is a large manmade lake in the middle of the Panama Canal.