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Panama has the second-largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere. (The largest is the Amazon rainforest.)
The Darien Gap, a stretch of almost impenetrable rainforest between Panama and Colombia, is the only place in North America where the Pan-American Highway breaks. The Darien Gap is notorious for guerillas, illegal drug trafficking, mountains, treacherous swamplands and wild animals. Traveling between Panama and South America, therefore, requires flying or booking a boat trip through the Kuna Yala Archipelago.
Panama was part of Colombia until 1903, when it seceded. Its secession allowed the US Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of the Panama Canal in 1904.
The origin of the name Panama is uncertain, but there are a number of legends and theories. They include:
- "Many butterflies" in an indigenous language, due to settlers arriving in butterfly season
- A common species of tree
- "An abundance of fish", after a seafront village with the same name
Voting is compulsory for all Panamanian citizens 18 and older, although it is not enforced.
Panama boasts nearly 500 rivers. Though it has no natural large lakes, the man-made Gatun Lake was once the largest man-made lake in the world.
Forty percent of Panama's population lives in Panama City.
Just like the entire Central American sub-continent, Panama is an isthmus: a skinny land bridge bordered by bodies of water on both side (in Panama's case, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans). Its unique location linking North and South America has resulted in some of the world's most unique biodiversity, with plant and animal species from both American continents.
According to the CIA World Factbook, 70 percent of Panama's population is Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and European), 14 percent is mixed Amerindian and West Indian, 10 percent is white, and 6 percent is Amerindian (indigenous). There are seven indigenous populations in Panama: the Kuna, Naso, Emberá, Wounaan, Ngöbe Buglé (formerly the Guaymí), and Bribri.
Panama City is the only capital city in the world boasting a rainforest within its city limits: Metropolitan Natural Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano). Although the Panamanian currency is officially the balboa, in practice Panama uses the United States dollar almost exclusively, with the exception of balboa coins.
Adopted in 1925, the flag of Panama's Kuna Yala people is based on a swastika design. The symbol represents the octopus that created the world in ancient Kuna culture. In 1942, a ring was added to the flag's center to differentiate it from Nazi Germany's swastika flag, but that version is no longer used.
After Costa Rica, Panama was the second Latin American country to abolish its standing military.
The Panama Canal is undoubtedly one of mankind's greatest feats. Built between 1904 and 1917, the canal allows ships voyaging between San Francisco and New York to save 7,872 miles of travel, instead of going around Cape Horn. The estimated cost was $375,000,000 US. The canal is presently undergoing expansion, scheduled for completion in 2014; the estimated cost is $5.25 billion US.
More than 12,000 people died during the construction of the Panama Railroad. Built between 1850 and 1855, it's the world's oldest operating transcontinental railroad.
In 1928, Richard Halliburton swam the entire length of the Panama Canal. He was required to pay a toll: 36 cents, since he weighed 150 pounds.
Due to the its serpentine shape, Panama is the only country in the world where you can see the sun rise in the Pacific and set in the Atlantic. You can also swim in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean on the same day – the country is 80km wide at its narrowest point.