Panama for Spanish Students

Central American nation is best known for its canal

Panama City
Los rascacielos de Panamá, la capital de Panamá. (Skyscrapers of Panama City, the capital of Panama.).

Matthew Straubmuller / Creative Commons.

Panama is is the southernmost country in Central America. It historically has had closer ties with the United States than any country in Latin America other than Mexico. The country is known best, of course, for the Panama Canal, which the United States built for both military and trade purposes at the start of the 20th century. The United States maintained sovereignty over parts of Panama until 1999.

Vital Statistics

Panama covers an area of 78,200 square kilometers. It had a population of 3.8 million as of 2018 with a growth rate of 1.24 percent, and about two thirds live in urban areas. The life expectancy at birth is 72 years. The literacy rate is about 95 percent. The country's gross domestic product is about $25,000 per person. The unemployment rate was 16 percent in 2002. Main industries are the Panama Canal and international banking. The economic disparity between rich and poor is the second highest in Latin America.

Linguistic Highlights

Spanish is the official language. About 14 percent speak a creole form of English, and many residents are bilingual in Spanish and English. About 7 percent speak indigenous languages, the largest of them being Ngäberre. Panama historically has been welcoming of immigrants, and there are pockets of Arabic, Chinese, and French Creole speakers.

Studying Spanish in Panama

About half a dozen reputable Spanish schools operate in Panama City, and there are also language schools in the the western city of Boquete near Costa Rica and the remote Bocas del Toro along the Atlantic Coast.

Most of the schools offer a choice of classroom or individual instruction, with courses beginning at about $250 U.S. per week. Most of schools offer specialized classes such as for teachers or medical professionals as well as classes than can qualify for college credit. Costs for a home stay tend to be higher than in some Central American countries such as Guatemala

History

Before the Spanish arrived, what is now Panama was populated by 500,000 or more people from dozens of groups. The largest group was the Cuna, whose earliest origins are unknown. Other major groups included the Guaymí and the Chocó.

The first Spaniard in the area was Rodrigo de Bastidas, who explored the Atlantic coast in 1501. Christopher Columbus visited in 1502. Both conquest and disease reduced the indigenous population. In 1821 the area was a province of Colombia when Colombia declared its independence from Spain.

Building a canal across Panama had been considered as early as the mid 16th century, and in 1880 the French tried—but the attempt ended in the death of some 22,000 workers from yellow fever and malaria.

Panamanian revolutionaries secured Panama's independence from Colombia in 1903 with military support from the United States, which quickly "negotiated" the rights to build a canal and exercise sovereignty over land on both sides. The U.S. started construction of the canal in 1904 and finished the greatest engineering achievement of its time in 10 years.

Relations between the U.S. and Panama in coming decades were strained, largely due to popular Panamanian bitterness over the prominent role of the U.S. In 1977, despite controversies and political snags in both the U.S. and Panama, the countries negotiated an agreement turning over the canal to Panama at the end of the 20th century.

In 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to Panama to oust and capture Panamanian President Manuel Noriega. He was forcefully brought to the United States, put on trial for drug trafficking and other crimes, and imprisoned. 

The treaty turning over the canal was not fully accepted by many political conservatives in the United States. When a ceremony was held in Panama in 1999 to formally turn over the canal, no senior U.S. officials attended.

Tourist Attractions

With more than a million visitors per year, the Panama Canal is by far the most popular attraction in Panama. Also, because its main international airport airport is a hub for most of Latin America, the country is easily accessible by international tourists, who often come to Panama City for its wealth of nightlife and shopping districts.

In recent years, Panama has become a growing ecotourism destination, thanks to its national parks, coastal and mountain rain forests, and Caribbean and Pacific beaches. Many parts of the country remain inaccessible to vehicles, and efforts to complete the Pan-American highway through the Darien Gap at the Panamanian-Colombian border have been indefinitely suspended.

Trivia

Panama was the first Latin American country to adopt the U.S. dollar as its own, and has done so since independence in 1904. Technically, the balboa is the official currency with its value pegged at $1 U.S., but U.S. bills are used for paper money. Panamanian coins are used, however. Panama uses the symbol "B/." for dollars rather than the dollar sign.