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Steeped in history written by the canal, Panama is a country defined by this feat of engineering genius: every day, 365 days a year, dozens of oceangoing ships make the 51-mile passage through the Panama Canal's three sets of locks between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Conceived by the French and built, owned, and operated by the United States until 1999, the canal took 10 years to build (1904-1914) and claimed over 20,000 lives, mostly due to yellow fever. By most accounts, the canal has been run efficiently since the Panama Canal Authority assumed its management from the USA and voters recently approved a multi-billion dollar plan ...

Steeped in history written by the canal, Panama is a country defined by this feat of engineering genius: every day, 365 days a year, dozens of oceangoing ships make the 51-mile passage through the Panama Canal's three sets of locks between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Conceived by the French and built, owned, and operated by the United States until 1999, the canal took 10 years to build (1904-1914) and claimed over 20,000 lives, mostly due to yellow fever. By most accounts, the canal has been run efficiently since the Panama Canal Authority assumed its management from the USA and voters recently approved a multi-billion dollar plan to widen it (containerships were once built to the maximum 110-feet-wide locks, but modern ships are even wider). Needless to say, the canal is a significant source of pride and jobs. The same could be said for Panama's natural bounty, which, in parts, is unrivaled on the planet. With large tracts of tropical rainforest, over 1500 islands, and the hemisphere's last truly wild frontier — the famed Darién Gap where no road penetrates — Panama's biodiversity draws an increasing number of visitors anxious to glimpse endangered species such as the harpy eagle, jaguars, Baird's tapir, and five species of sea turtle. The country is considered a birdwatchers paradise, with macaws, quetzals, toucans, parrots, and tanagers abounding; migrating birds such as raptors and hawks are also in abundance between August and December. Alas, development, logging, and other unsustainable practices are threatening this global treasure: adventurers and activists should apprise themselves of Panama now, before it's too late.

Conner Gorry
About the Expert

Conner Gorry is a contributor to more than a dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks and is the lead writer for Lonely Planet's Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala guides.

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Conner Gorry for Triporati

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