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While remembered mostly for the famous Panama Canal, and the 1989 invasion by American forces to oust de facto Panamanian leader Manual Noriega, the small nation is one with a rich history and unique culture.
The land was home to a pre-Colombian culture, and the first settlers likely arrived as early as 12,000 years before the arrival of the Europeans. Several advanced civilizations occupied the region that is today modern Panama, and it was probably an important center of trade among the South American and Central American tribes due to its location, and the fact that this narrowest strip of land gives access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Spanish explorers discovered the region in the early 16th century, which had been settled by the Chibchan, Chocoan and Cueva tribes. While Chris Columbus reached the isthmus during his voyages, it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who trekked across the land to discover the Pacific Ocean. This discovery would help make Panama a very important place in the centuries to follow.
The Spanish established permanent settlements in Panama, and these would be crucial in helping Spain build its vast New World Empire, and would remain under Spanish control for another 300 years. Sadly, the toll was would be paid by the various indigenous peoples, and many of the local tribes would essentially disappear completely.
The isthmus was joined with several of the northern South American colonies to form Gran Columbia in the early 19th century, and over the next few decades that nation would be governed by other powers, along with brief periods of self-rule and independence.
Various world powers also looked to the region, in hopes of building a canal to aid their maritime efforts, but pressure from the United States prevented foreign dominance of Panama. The first transcontinental railway of the Western Hemisphere was completed in 1855, stretching from Colón to Panama City. This created renewed interest in a canal.
From 1880 until 1889 a French effort to build a canal ended in utter disaster, and would take an American visionary to realize the dream and make it happen. President Teddy Roosevelt convinced the U.S. Congress to complete what the French had been unable to do. As a result of the efforts Panama won its independence from Colombia, and the United States was granted a strip of land stretching the width of the country called the Panama Canal Zone. The agreement was that the United States would build the canal, administer and protect it. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914, and the zone was eventually handed back to Panama in 1999.
Today the canal remains one of the most important man-made sea routes in the world, vastly reducing the shipping time of goods from Asia to the East Coast of the United States and South America. There will be a competing canal in Nicaragua in the years to come.