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Land and Resources, Natural Regions

length of Panama, banana disease, Serrania, Coiba Island, Cordillera Central

A discontinuous backbone of mountains runs east and west almost the full length of Panama. A gap between the eastern and western mountain ranges provided a natural passage for travelers. This gap, located in the central region of the country, eventually allowed construction of a railroad and canal to join the two coasts. The central region, known as the transit zone, consists of narrow coastal plains and a mountainous middle section. Half of Panama’s people, 90 percent of its industry, its largest cities, and its major transportation routes are located in this area.

In the west, the mountain range is called the Cordillera Central, and the highest section, with an average height of about 1,500 m (about 5,000 ft), is called the Serrania de Tabasara. The highest point in the country, the Baru volcano (3,475 m/11,401 ft), is located in this range. The mountains in the country’s eastern half are divided between the Serrania de San Blas and the Serrania del Darien, with an average elevation of about 900 m (about 3,000 ft). Panama is geologically stable and experiences only moderate earthquake activity. None of its volcanoes are active.

West of Panama’s central zone is the Interior, including the province of Cocle, with its capital at Penomone, and the province of Veraguas, centered on its capital of Santiago. This region produces and processes agricultural commodities and livestock for the urban population. Many of the country’s oldest Hispanic families come from here. In the far south is the Azuero Peninsula, a dry area of rolling hills covered with grasslands and scrub forest. This region is known for its ranching and crafts industries.

Bocas del Toro in the northwest of Panama is a mountainous, densely forested region, centered on the provincial capital of the same name. It is home to the Ngobe-Bugle (formerly known as Guaymi) and several other native peoples, as well as many West Indians and other immigrants. The Bocas region has historically been tied to the banana industry, but a banana disease that appeared in the 1930s led the banana companies to move most operations elsewhere.

In the southwest, centered on the capital city of David, the province of Chiriqui has mountain slopes covered with rich volcanic soils. The region’s rich agricultural industry produces strawberries, coffee, and other temperate crops. On its Pacific coast, extensive banana plantations produce the country’s single largest export commodity.

Eastern Panama contains the country’s most extensive and dense rain forests and is very lightly populated. The eastern province of Darien is home to the indigenous Choco people and to a sprinkling of immigrants from the rest of Panama and from Colombia. The principal economic activities in Darien are logging and agriculture. Along the northern shore is the San Blas Archipelago, which is inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people.

Both of Panama’s coasts are indented with many lagoons, bays, and gulfs, including the Gulf of Panama on the Pacific side. Major Pacific islands include Coiba Island, used as a penitentiary, and the Pearl Islands (Archipielago de las Perlas), in the Gulf of Panama, which are being developed for tourism and fishing. The San Blas Archipelago is formed of coral atolls inappropriate for development.

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