Are you planning a trip to Panama?
Or are you about to move there?
Perhaps you’re already in Panama and you want to understand the country better.
This list of 25 books on Panama will hopefully give you some ideas on what to read for your Panamanian adventure. You’ll find books on the culture and history of Panama, travel guides, and loads of novels that I hope will spark your wanderlust.
I’ve read nearly all the books in this post, and I’ll give you my honest review. You’ll learn which ones to pick up and read and which ones not to waste your time and money on.
So grab a cup of tea or coffee (especially Panamanian coffee – the BEST) and let’s begin!
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In This Post, You’ll Find…
- Books on the Panama Canal – both nonfiction and fiction
- Nonfiction Books on Panama – history, politics, and economics
- Fiction Books Set in Panama – spy thrillers, historical fiction, romance, and more!
Books on the Panama Canal
Where to start when reading about Panama?
Of course, the Panama Canal.
The Canal is what defines Panama for most speakers of English. This is at least true for those from the United States, as it was part of its history.
The good thing is that the history of the Panama Canal is NOT boring at all. It’s full of stories of tragedy and triumph; incompetence and ingenuity; death and medical innovation; racism and corruption as well as heroism and perseverance.
The Canal also involves a cast of unforgettable characters: the French, Colombians, Americans, Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Panamanians.
The following non-fiction books on the Panama Canal are the most popular ones on the market today.
I would start with one of these books:
Both recount the same period of history with a slight difference in perspective.
After that, you can read about the Canal in more depth with Julie Greene’s The Canal Builders. She looks at the social problems created by the Canal and the unsung heroes of the project: the West Indian workers who did the backbreaking and dangerous work of building it.
Finally, to get a real sense of what it was like in Panama a hundred years ago, there are just 2 books of historical fiction set during the Panama Canal construction:
A Fling in Panama will give you some inspiration and ideas on hitching a ride on a sailboat through the Canal.
For those traveling to Panama, check out this AMAZING guide to visiting the Panama Canal–it’ll give you tips on the BEST ways to see the Canal, the cheapest ways, and the most popular.
1. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal (1870 – 1914)
By David McCullough (1977)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“To him [Theodore Roosevelt] first, last, and always, the canal was the vital—the indispensable—path to a global destiny for the United States of America. He had a vision of his country as the commanding power on two oceans, and these joined by a canal built, owned, operated, policed, and fortified by his country. The canal was to be the first step to American supremacy.”
Let’s start with the most popular book on the Panama Canal—The Path Between the Seas. Written by a famous historian, David McCullough, the book tells the story of the building of the Panama Canal. It begins with the construction of the Panama Railroad during the time of the Gold Rush. The book then thoroughly covers the French attempt to build the Canal before ending with the completion of the American construction of the Canal. He doesn’t cover the post-construction or the handover of it to Panama under Carter.
Most of the book moves pretty fast and goes deeply into the lives of the main characters, reading almost like a novel. However, there are parts that I had to push myself to get through—the technical description of how the canal was built (engineers will like it, though) and the political debate on where to build it (Nicaragua or Panama).
McCullough is fair to both France and the U.S. and he doesn’t spare any criticism toward either, especially the U.S. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t come off as heroic in its behavior toward Panama, Colombia, and the West Indians, who suffered the most from the Canal’s construction.
He does have his heroes and villains. He is especially fond of the chief engineer, John Stevens, and the chief sanitation officer, William Gorgas. On the other hand, he’s not as big of a fan of Theodore Roosevelt as other American historians have been.
My favorite part of the book is the story of how yellow fever and malaria impacted the construction and how the United States scientists conquered the two diseases.
You can’t go wrong choosing The Path Between the Seas over the next Panama Canal book on this list. However, McCullough’s was published 46 years ago, missing out on more recently discovered research.
2. Panama Fever
By Matthew Parker (2007)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“The Washington Post was condemning in its report of the new theory: “Of all the silly and nonsensical rigmarole about yellow fever that has yet found its way into print—and there has been enough of it to load a fleet—the silliest beyond compare is to be found in the mosquito hypothesis.”
I enjoyed Panama Fever as much as The Path Between the Seas. There are many similarities between the two books. Both start with the railroad and end with the completion of the Canal by the Americans. They’re both equally critical of the way the West Indians were treated.
Now for the differences without giving too much away:
While McCullough is a fan of Stevens and Gorgas, Parker has little good to say about either of them. McCullough fails here in giving an accurate and well-rounded picture of the men. At the time same time, Parker doesn’t adequately acknowledge their accomplishments enough.
The other difference is that Parker has a less positive attitude toward the United States’ role in the construction than McCullough. If you only read Parker’s book, you might be surprised that the U.S. was able to pull off the construction at all.
I think McCullough gives a more detailed account of the engineering aspect of the construction than Parker does, so if that’s your main interest, I’d go with The Path Between the Seas. However, Parker has a better understanding of geopolitics than McCullough does.
Overall, both are good books with slightly different perspectives. Panama Fever was published more recently, so Parker probably had access to more and better original sources on the Panama Canal than McCullough did when he wrote his book in the 1970s.
3. The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal
By Julie Greene, 2009
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
First, I need to warn you about this book:
If you want to read about the Panama Canal’s engineering achievements, you will NOT get this in Julie Greene’s The Canal Builders.
The book focuses SOLELY on the social problems created by the Canal’s apartheid system. That means you will read mainly about the men and women who did the backbreaking and dangerous work of building the Canal. These were mainly the Black people from the Caribbean Islands.
This book is ideal for someone who’s already read one of the previous two Panama Canal books by McCullough and Parker, and who wants to go deeper into the Canal’s social and racial issues rather than the technical and medical challenges.
You’ll learn a lot about the employment system that maintained a strict hierarchy based on race. The Canal Builders also covers the paternalistic, authoritarian, and socialist but very popular system that governed the Canal Zone’s whiter and more affluent residents.
4. Silver People
By Margarita Engle (2014)
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“Each work crew is a different shade
of light or dark,
but when the foreman orders us
to stand still while we’re measured
for our coffins,
dark and light faces
all look equally
Margarita Engle’s The Silver People is a unique book that tells the story of the Panama Canal through a collection of interacting poems. It’s known as a free verse novel. Each poem is narrated by someone who worked on the Canal as well as the animals and trees impacted by it.
The title of the book refers to the apartheid system the U.S. government put in place in the Panama Canal Zone. The U.S. divided the employees into two groups: Gold People and Silver People.
The Gold People were the White workers. They were paid in American dollars and had better living conditions. They were usually the managers, engineers, and medical personnel. The Silver People were the Black and Latino workers who were paid in the currency of Panama and had poorer living conditions. They were the ones who did the backbreaking and dangerous work of actually constructing the Canal. Even if a Black or Latino were engineers or managers, they were still considered Silver People.
Most of the poems are narrated by the Silver People. This is rather refreshing since most accounts of the Canal ignore these people. However, I’m not into poetry and I would have preferred a good old-fashioned novel, instead.
5. Clara’s Way
By Roberta Carr
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“The newspapers say that President Roosevelt will not stop until he builds the canal. How many men will die from disease or accidents caused by unskilled laborers before the first ship passes through? A thousand? Five thousand more? I can’t let that happen.”
Clara’s Way should get the award for (1) worst cover and (2) worst title.
Neither entice you to want to read the book.
The first several pages of the book also gave me even less hope that it would be worth finishing.
Boring characters and stiff writing.
And a very religious tone.
I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
Because Clara’s Way turned out to be an interesting book with some interesting surprises.
The setting of Panama in 1904 is the #1 star. This is when the Americans began building the Canal. Star #2 is the cast of historical figures Clara interacts with. Not sure, though, that the author portrayed them accurately, but they were still fun
Clara is a young nurse from rural Ohio. She’s about to be married to her childhood best friend when her brother, who is working on the Canal, writes to say that he’s very sick and needs help returning home. Clara’s father sends her to Panama to help her brother. In the end, Clara ends up staying in Panama and working for the historically important Dr. Gorgas, the Chief Sanitation Officer of the Canal Zone and the one responsible for eradicating yellow fever and malaria from Panama.
There’s also a romance, but surprisingly and refreshingly, Clara falls in love with another woman.
Clara is at the center of the construction of the Panama Canal. She gives you a sense of what it must have been like to be there when the workers were dying one after another from disease and accidents and when Dr. Gorgas kept on running up against the ignorance and arrogance of the chief engineer, John Walker.
However, one big complaint.
Why does Carr not once mention the racist system of the Canal Zone? Even in the hospital where she worked the Black and White patients would have been kept in separate and unequal parts of the hospital. Strange.
Overall, Clara’s Way is so far the best book of historical fiction on the Canal.
6. The Great Divide
By Christina Henriquez, 2024
I am very excited that a new work of historic fiction set during the Panama Canal construction is coming out in 2024. I am 100% sure it won’t ignore the race issue that Clara’s Way did.
This new book, The Great Divide, is by Christina Henriquez, who has written two other books on Panama (Jump to the Fiction Section of this post). The book has been pre-released to certain reviewers, and overall, the reviews on Good Reads have been positive.
The book follows several people whose lives are affected by the construction of the Canal. There’s Ada, a woman who comes to Panama from Barbados hoping to make enough money for her sister’s surgery. Then there’s the local fisherman, Francisco, who resents the building of the Canal, and his son, Omar, who works on the Canal. The scientist, John Oswald, travels to Panama, hoping to eliminate malaria, but his wife falls ill with the disease. As the novel progresses the lives of these people intersect.
Once The Great Divide comes out in 2024, I’ll update this post with my own review of it.
Books on Panama – Non-Fiction
Now for some nonfiction books on Panama that don’t involve the Canal.
But let’s get the bad news out of the way first.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive book on Panama’s history, you’ll be sad to know that I couldn’t find one in English.
I did, though, find plenty of books on the pirate Henry Morgan, the Panama Papers, and Manuel Noriega.
The good news is that most of them are worth reading.
Let’s look at which Panama books are worth your time and money. If you’ve read any of them, let me know in the Comments Section at the bottom of this post!
I’d love to hear your opinions.
7. Panama: A Whole Story
By Kevin Buckley
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“And then there were the files that U.S. troops gathered from Noriega’s offices and other sites around the city. U.S. forces bundled up Noriega’s legendary archives, all the film, video, paper, and disks that made up the hidden history of Panama and the people from all over the world who did business there.”
Panama: A Whole Story is a terribly misnamed book. It’s not the whole story. Only part of the story of Panama.
The book covers the final 5 years of Noriega’s reign. It begins in September 1985 with the torture and murder of Noriega’s enemy, Hugo Spadafora. According to Panamanians, this heinous crime marked the beginning of Noriega’s downfall. The book ends with the U.S. invasion of Panama on December 20, 1989.
I liked this book because it focuses a lot on how average Panamanians reacted to Noriega and the invasion. Panamanian society comes across as very politically active, while in other Panama books, the Panamanians are rarely mentioned and if they are, they are portrayed as pathetically apolitical. I’m not sure which one is true, but as I type this sentence, there are huge protests across Panama (October 2023).
Buckley’s book does have some limitations. The book is missing a lot of information about the American side and it doesn’t analyze the events enough. The next two books on this list were written by journalists who are perhaps better than Buckley at uncovering the machinations of Washington.
The writing is dry but for me, that didn’t get in my way of enjoying Panama: A Whole Story because the events surrounding Noreiga are so riveting and wild and the characters are so fascinating and bizarre that the content itself is the real reason to turn the page.
Even the most boring writer couldn’t write a boring book on Noriega.
8. Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair With Noriega
By Frederick Kempe, 1990
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“With the December 1989 invasion, the United States had brought down Noriega, but it had destroyed a little of itself.”
Written by Frederick Kempe, Divorcing the Dictator is a fascinating and well-researched biography of Manuel Noriega.
The book follows Noriega’s life story starting with his childhood growing up on Sal Si Puedes (it means “Get out if you can Street” in Spanish), a street that runs between Casco Viejo and the not-so-savory area of Panama City. I actually stayed on Sal Si Puedes Street when I first visited Panama City!
The book ends with the invasion of Panama and the arrest of Noriega.
Divorcing the Dictator is one of those books that made me look at my own country in a whole new light. Before I used to think of the U.S. government as this omnipotent puppet master that murdered presidents, controlled governments, and instigated coups. Panama, especially, was this innocent victim controlled by the evil U.S.
Divorcing the Dictator shows that it was the other way around. Panama under Torrijo and Noriega were the puppet masters and the U.S. was the puppet (but not a victim), or at least a country of bungling fools run by greedy idiots who were more concerned with remaining in power than about the welfare of the United States.
Kempe’s book is better written than Buckley’s. There’s a lot more detail here about how Noriega manipulated everyone around him. You also learn a lot more about what President and former CIA Director George Bush knew and didn’t know about Noriega. George Bush lied a lot.
I highly recommend Divorcing the Dictator.
9. Our Man in Panama
By John Dinges (1989)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“Cocaine flowed in and around war traffic, overlapping and duplicating the clandestine network. The rising curve of cocaine imports to the United States followed almost exactly the flow of U.S. exports of arms and military advisers to Central America. Experts still debate whether there is any causal link—just as they debated the same question about the flow of heroin during the Vietnam war—but the factual coincidence of the cocaine explosion with the Central Americans political crisis was undisputable.”
Tired yet of books on Noriega?
Just one more.
Our Man in Panama is another one that is an equally riveting book.
I thought I’d get bored reading another book about this no-good dictator, but surprisingly I didn’t.
Our Man in Panama looks in depth at two other sides of Noriega:
- His role as an arms dealer to Central American communist revolutionaries
- His role in the Colombian drug cartels’ trafficking of illegal drugs into the U.S.
There are a few things that this book does that the other two on Noriega don’t do:
It gives some background on the social fabric of Panama. This aspect of the book gave me a better understanding of how revolutionary both Torrijo and Noriega’s rise to power was in Panama. These two men from the wrong side of the tracks took away power from the elites who’d controlled Panama since its inception.
Dinges also provides more information on the background of the various Central American revolutions going on at the time of Noriega’s rise, giving you a better understanding of the importance of his arms dealing and double-crossing.
But probably the most interesting part for me was learning about how the drug cartels did business in Colombia and Central America.
Overall, Our Man in Panama is an enlightening and fascinating book on Noriega and Latin America-U.S. relations. You can’t go wrong with this one.
10. Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama
By John Lindsay-Poland, 2003
My Rating: 1 out of 5 Stars
“Private enterprise, local elites, and officials within the military itself also called on racial tropes to justify using force on the isthmus and establishing a more permanent U.S. presence, effectively preventing Panama from developing its lands and economy independently.”
First, a warning:
This review of Emperors of the Jungle is going to be harsh.
I can’t help it. I paid good money for this book, and I really hated it.
This book is so dry, so dull, and so biased that I could not finish it (got up to page 100).
I like my books to be objective and I like writers to first do their research and then come up with a theory based on the research. It feels like John Lindsey-Polad instead, starts with a theory (the U.S. is evil) and then cherry-picks examples from history that are rather tame and not shocking or very egregious at all.
I know you’re probably thinking that I’m incapable of criticizing the United States and I am blind to its bullying, killing of world leaders, and coupe plotting.
Not true! Take a look at my Guatemala books article and you’ll see that I’m very critical of the U.S. The other books on this list about Noriega are very critical of the U.S.
Let’s talk about what Emperors of the Jungle is about so that you can decide for yourself whether you want to read it:
To do that, I’m just going to quote the author’s own words from the book’s Introduction:
“Instead, the book examines the manner in which Panama served as an instrument for grander U.S. aims and the role of ideas about race and the tropics by recounting several key episodes in the history of U.S. military experiments and interventions in Panama.”
My impression is that this book is NOT really about Panama. Instead, it’s about the United States. If that’s what you want to read, then go for it. Just don’t expect a book with Panamanians in it. In fact, within the first 100 pages, I don’t believe more than a handful of Panamanians are ever mentioned.
The author basically cherry-picks evidence to prove his point.
The first chapter is on the construction of the Panama Canal. Here the author quotes a naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, to show that the aim of the Panama Canal had a racial purpose: “to allow for Europeans to avoid contact with the “savages” of Panama when trying to reach the West Coast of the U.S.”
Who is Alfred Thayer Mahan?
Was he important? No, he wasn’t. So why should I care what he says?
Quoting a minor figure to prove a point is like quoting Marjorie Taylor Greene to make a statement about all Americans.
The second chapter focuses on U.S. testing of chemical weapons on U.S. soldiers in the Panama Canal Zone and on San Jose Island. I admit that I wouldn’t want another country to test chemical weapons on my country’s soil. But the US military used their own soldiers as their test subjects. Not Panamanians.
Chapter three is painfully dull! The author spends 30 pages trying to show that the U.S. is evil because it conducted studies in the 1950s on excavating a sea canal using nuclear explosives. Now if the U.S. had actually used the nuclear explosives, then I’d say, yes, they are pretty awful. But they didn’t. They only researched it.
Most of the examples the author gives are small potatoes. None of them are the smoking gun and none really prove anything. If you want to prove the U.S. is evil, give your readers some real dirt.
There are much better books on Panama that are critical of the U.S. but they’re more objective, sophisticated, and interesting than Emperors of the Jungle.
11. Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign
By Stephen Tatly, 2007
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“What Worsley recognized was that the pirates were a kind of super-virus: They represented an extreme form of predatory capitalism, where the strongest, who produced nothing, preyed on the weak, who were forced to give up the goods they’d made or extracted from the earth with great effort.”
Don’t you love it when you come across a history that you didn’t know anything about before? And it’s just so fascinating.
Before picking up Empire of Blue Water, I didn’t know anything about pirates, privateers, or buccaneers beyond the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I thought they were just harmless guys with patches over one eye who plundered the seas for profit—like Johnny Dep’s character in all the Pirates movies.
In fact, they were part of a larger geo-political narrative that involved a rivalry between Spain and England over control of the Americas. The government of England used pirates to terrorize the citizens of Spain’s colonies—sort of like 17th-century terrorists.
The history is fascinating but what about this book by Stephen Tatly?
Empire of the Blue Waters tells the story of Henry Morgan.
Yes, THAT Henry Morgan of the famous brand of rum.
Morgan was the most notorious pirate (or privateer) in the history of the Americas. He terrorized Spain’s colonies: Mexico, Colombia, and especially Panama. Morgan was the one responsible for the sacking of Panama City. It was this event that made Panama City move from its original location (known today as the ruins of Panama Viejo) to present-day Casco Viejo.
Tatly’s writing is engaging and accessible. It’ll give you a bit of the history of early Panama, especially Panama City and Portobello. I love how he explains the geo-political context during this time in history—Spain was largely weak and incompetent, and England was a rising power that took advantage of its rival’s weaknesses to gain a foothold in the Americas. FASCINATING history!
12. The Pirate King: The Incredible Story of Captain Henry Morgan
By Graham Thomas, 2015
The Pirate King is another interpretation of the story of Henry Morgan. This one is largely pro-Morgan and claims that he was more a patriot than a pirate. The stories of torture, rape, and murder are mostly exaggerated. Morgan was a nice guy.
Actually, pirate, technically is not even the correct term for Morgan. He’s more of a privateer, which is someone who raids and plunders at the permission of their government. Since Spain was England’s enemy at the time (but sometimes an ally), what Morgan did was acceptable, according to the author. In my opinion, I don’t think it matters if you had the correct papers that allowed you to rape, plunder, and torture or not. It still makes you a bad guy.
I got as far as the introduction when my library made me return the book. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to borrow it again. When I do, I’ll keep you updated to see if the book is worth it and if it reveals any interesting insights into Panama.
13. Panama: From Occupation to Crossroads of the Americas
By Michael L Conniff and Gene E Bigler
I scoured the internet and Amazon for books that would give me a comprehensive history of Panama and Modern Panama was the closest one I could find. Unfortunately, it’s not even that comprehensive. It only covers the last 40 years of the country’s history.
The book is also, sadly, out of my price range (US$35 last time I checked) and it’s gotten 3.6 out of 5 stars from reviewers on Amazon. I’ll pass for now.
Modern Panama is an account of the economic and political developments of Panama since the 1980s.
The authors argue that Panama’s development since the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama has been largely positive. Even though corruption is rampant in both the private and public sectors, Panama now has a stable, functioning democracy, a booming economy, and an educated workforce. Both the standard of living and the administration of the Panama Canal have improved. The transfer of the Canal has also strengthened Panama’s national identity and sense of itself as a nation. The book attempts to explain how Panama was able to achieve all these improvements.
Let me know if you’ve read Modern Panama! I’d love to hear what you think.
14. The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money
By Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermayer, 2017
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“So in theory, behind every anonymous company there may be a corrupt politician siphoning money out of the country, an unscrupulous dictator paying for weapons for his army of child soldiers, or a terrorist group moving money in preparation for an attack.”
The next book, The Panama Papers, looks at Panama’s role in the world of international money laundering and tax evasion. Panama happens to be one of THE premier countries where drug cartels, wealthy tax evaders, multinational corporations and banks, and corrupt government officials can hide their money. They do it by hiring Panamanian law firms to set up shell companies for them. These shell companies are basically fake companies. They don’t do any kind of real business and they’re never registered in the names of the real owners.
The book’s authors, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermayer, are the two German journalists who led the investigation into the dirty clients and dirty deeds of a Panamanian law firm called Mossack Fonseca.
The book recounts the Obermayers’ investigation. It starts from the evening the Obermayers received an email from an anonymous source. This source gave the journalists 11.5 million documents on Mossack’s clients.
The book ends with the publication of the famous Panama Papers in 2016 in almost every newspaper in the world. At the time, it was sensational news because some of Mossack’s clients were related to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Bashar al-Assad.
The one thing this book is lacking is a comprehensive explanation of how Panama became such a favorite place for money laundering and tax evasion.
Overall, The Panama Papers is a fascinating and revealing book on how Panama helps the wealthy, powerful, and criminally inclined hide their money.
15. Panama – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture
By Heloise Crowther, 2006
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Culture Smart books are great introductions to anyone traveling in or moving to another country. The Panama book gives practical advice for anyone interacting daily with Panamanians and valuable insights into its history and culture.
The best part of the book is the section on guidance for social interactions, providing essential tips on behavior, dining etiquette, and respecting the local social hierarchy.
The other reason to buy the book is that it explains why Panama is the way it is and how indigenous culture, colonization, and the U.S. have influenced it.
But don’t expect the book to go too in-depth on topics. It’s just a primer. To understand the country more deeply, pick up some other books on Panama AND get to know the average Panamanian.
Overall, I highly recommend Panama Culture Smart for those traveling to Panama for the first time.
16. Lonely Planet Panama
By Regis St. Louis, 2022
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
I love the Panama guide as it takes you to every corner of the country–from the Costa Rica border where you’ll find coffee fields and the beautiful mountains and hiking trails around Boquete to the wild and dangerous Darien Gap. You’ll get info on BOTH popular and off-the-beaten-path destinations.
It’s the perfect book for planning your trip. You’ll find practical information on visas, money, health issues, and safety as well as sample itineraries, ideas on attractions, and lists of accommodations and restaurants.
The one limitation is that it lists out all the things you can do in a place, but it doesn’t always distinguish between must-see and possible-to-skip attractions. Sometimes it’s geared too much for people with their own wheels and not enough information for those relying on public transportation.
Still, Lonely Planet Panama is the BEST book out there for independent travelers no matter if you have a tight pocketbook or a big budget.
You might be interested in these posts about Panama:
Books Set in Panama – Fiction
Let me start with the bad news:
There aren’t a lot of good novels set in Panama that are written in English or translated from Spanish to English.
I found ONLY one book that I recommend wholeheartedly:
- God’s Favorite – a BRILLIANT book about Manuel Noriega and the invasion of Panama
There are 3 books that are not bad but not great:
- The Tailor of Panama – spy thriller
- The Bookshop of Panama – romance
- Come Together, Fall Apart – short stories
17. God’s Favorite
By Lawrence Wright, 2013
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“Panamanians rarely took themselves seriously—a delightful quality. They were dedicated to pleasure and business and the multilayered intimacy of society. The entire county was Rome all over again, the Nuncio thought, soft and shallow but also beautiful and dear.”
Let’s start with my favorite novel set in Panama: God’s Favorite by Lawrence Wright. It’s thrilling, eye-opening, and unputdownable—the perfect book for both those of you wanting to know more about Panama or just wanting something to read while on the beaches of Bocas del Toro or San Blas or in the highlands of Boquete.
The book tells the story of Manuel Noriega and the United States’s invasion of Panama in 1989. It has a small well-developed cast of main characters including a fictional priest who struggles with saving his own skin or doing what is right, and a wily archbishop who’s been shipped off to Panama because he’s pissed off too many powerful people in the Vatican.
However, the star character of the book is Manual Noriega himself. Lawrence Wright does a fabulous job of getting inside Noriega’s psychopathic head and showing us his reasons for doing what he did. Of course, this is how Wright imagined Noriega to be and you can’t be certain it’s true.
The other eye-opening part of this book is the reaction of the U.S. and the CIA toward Noriega and all the attempts by Panamanians to overthrow him.
If you love historical fiction and you’re truly interested in learning more about Panama or you just want to read something on your holiday, God’s Favorite will not disappoint you. It is a gem!
18. The Tailor of Panama
By John Le Carre, 1996
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Panama boasts as many varieties of human being as birds, a thing that daily gladdens the hybrid Pendel’s heart. Some were descended from slaves, others might as well have been, for their forefathers had been shipped here in their tens of thousands to work and sometimes die for the Canal.”
The next book on this list is the most well-known Panama novel written in English, The Tailor of Panama by the famous writer of spy stories, John le Carre.
The tailor of Panama is Harry Pendel—a British citizen with a shady past. He moved to Panama, married a “Zonian,” became a father, and started a tailoring business making expensive high-quality suits for the rich and powerful of Panama. In the movie, Harry is played by Michael Caine.
At the beginning of the book, Harry’s life is going well. But then Andrew Osnard walks into his tailor shop and his life takes an unexpected turn.
The story takes place in the early 1990s, about a year after the United States’ invaded Panama and ousted Noriega. The country has yet to fully take over the canal. It will in 1999.
I love the way le Carre describes Panama—its unbearable heat and humidity, the social dynamics of Panamanian society, the diversity of its people, and the busy, chaotic, crime-ridden streets of Panama City with its mix of rich and poor.
Le Carre is so good at creating intricate and interesting characters that it’s easy to become emotionally attached to them. So then when he takes them in a direction that you don’t want him to go in, your heart breaks. It’s all rather disappointing.
Although the book’s last one-third turns out to be a stinker, I still highly recommend The Tailor of Panama for those visiting Panama. It does capture Panama well (at least what I imagined the 1990s Panama to be like) and it gives you some historical background to the country. Plus! The writing is beautiful.
19. The World in Half
By Christina Henriquez, 2009
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“I’m not sure why, but I want them to know that. I want them to know that I’m not just any tourist visiting their country, that I have a claim to this place and a reason for being here, that I belong to them, at least a little bit. I wonder whether, or how, they would treat me differently if they knew.”
Miraflores grows up thinking her father never wanted her. She only knows that her mother had an affair with her father while she and her husband were stationed in Panama. Then one day while home from college, she discovers letters her father wrote to her mother She learns that her father and mother were deeply in love and that her father really wanted to be with his child.
Miraflores hatches a secret trip to Panama to find her father. While in Panama, she gets help looking for him from some local Panamanians. One is a young street merchant named Danilo. The two travel all over Panama City looking for her father. They spend most of their time looking for her father at tourist attractions, which seemed very odd.
I expected a deep and thought-provoking book about identity and belonging. However, I didn’t feel that Henriquez explained well enough what it must feel like for Miraflores to be caught between two cultures.
The book also never satisfactorily explains why Miraflores’s mother didn’t want her father to join her in the United States and help raise their child together. And why did the mother not tell Miraflores the truth? Why all the secrecy?
Overall, The World in Half felt more like a teen romance than a book for adults.
20. Come Together, Fall Apart
By Christina Henriquez, 2007
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“The newscasters said that Panama had officially declared a state of war. Anything they reported next, I didn’t hear. Despite the heat from the ovens pressing against my back, I remember feeling a chill run through me at the sound of those words. I remember feeling a quiet, creeping fear throughout my body, and I remember thinking about Sofia. Before that, every moment had felt like waiting. As though we were all, as a country, teetering on the edge of a cliff. We were peering down; we were holding our breath. We were on the brink of something, but we were waiting for some signal, some gust of wind to push us forward, to catapult us into action, into change. It came then. And we all, I think, wanted to believe that whether we jumped or fell, there would be something there to catch us, that things would be better once it was over.”
Luckily, Henriquez’s second book on Panama is one that does capture Panama and does tell lots of good stories with complex and interesting characters. Come Together, Fall Apart is a collection of short stories and one novella all set in Panama. It mostly involves young Panamanians and their relationships with their family, friends, and lovers.
I’m not a fan of short stories (that’s why it’s 4 stars). But these are pretty good. They’re deep and emotionally fulfilling. They’re not happy stories either. All the people in them are damaged and most of that damage has been done to them by the people who are supposed to love them the most, their fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, grandparents, and uncles. This damage then carries over into adulthood and their relationships.
The last story is a gem! It’s set during the US invasion of Panama. The story focuses on a tight-knit family in Panama City. Henriquez brilliantly captures the tension in the air as the city braces for the US to invade. It’s hard to find any books in English covering this historic event that will give you a sense of what Panamanians were thinking back then. I hope one day Henriquez gives us a full novel set during this period.
I’m not an expert on Panamanian culture, but I get a sense that Henriquez captures it well in Come Together Fall Apart because the characters feel authentic.
21. The Bookshop of Panama
By Suzanne Hope (2023)
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Maybe lovers of fiction enjoy living these fantasy lies more than living their own? Dusting off those books I start wondering: Am I living through the literature I read? Do I live my own life to the full? Am I escaping into my books and not making things happen for me in the real world?”
The Bookshop of Panama is the PERFECT escape-from-reality novel for bookworms.
Don’t read it BEFORE your trip to Panama or else you won’t get it. Instead, read it AFTER your trip to remind you of your time there.
The star of The Bookshop of Panama is Kate, the least likely person to quit her job and move to a foreign country. But that’s just what Kate does when her fiancée announces that he wants to move to Panama for a job.
Then her fiancée dumps her and Kate is left stranded in Panama broken-hearted. Luckily, she’s got an apartment with air-conditioning (I assume) in Casco Viejo. Yeah, that part about Casco Viejo sounds too good to be true. Unless you’re wealthy, an average person would never be able to afford an apartment in that part of Panama City. But without the location, the book wouldn’t be so darn fun, I guess.
Kate is a bookworm—my favorite kind of character. Her dream has always been to open a used bookstore. So why not in Panama City? The rest of the book goes into her adventure of opening one.
I think The Bookshop of Panama makes Panama seem like an exciting and up-and-coming country. It makes you want to move there and open up your own business in Casco Viejo and spend your free time drinking cocktails outside in Panama’s unbearable humidity!
My only complaint is that there’s only one Panamanian character in the whole book. Everyone else is an expat.
But, you know, that’s OK if you just want to escape a bit from reality. No one’s judging!
22. Beneath a Panamanian Moon
By David Terrenoire, 2014
Beneath a Panamanian Moon is a spy novel set in Panama with a lot of weird Americans.
The book stars ex-CIA officer turned piano player, John Harper. He’s left the CIA and is now playing piano at Washington DC functions. He has no intention of working for the CIA again. However, he finds himself in a situation in which he doesn’t have a choice. The CIA sends him to Panama to go undercover at a resort in Panama run by American mercenaries. They are planning some kind of revolution or coup on New Year’s Eve.
The main character is interesting. The setting, dialogue, and story are ok. I would have finished Beneath a Panamanian Moon but before I could, I had to return it. Then the book disappeared from my library.
By Shelby Hiatt, 2009
Panama is another work of historical fiction on this list that is set in the Panama Canal Zone. However, I haven’t read it.
The main character, whose name is never revealed, is a 15-year-old girl whose father is sent to Panama to work on the Canal. She’s frustrated with the way the Zonians live—in a little American bubble isolated from the real Panama.
She meets Federico, a Castilian who is twice her age. He works as a laborer digging ditches but seems to be quite well-educated. She immediately falls in love with him and pursues him. The 15-year-old and 30-year-old end up having a torrid romance.
I haven’t read Panama yet and I’m not sure I want to as the reviews have been pretty negative. On Amazon, it gets 2.5 out of 5 stars.
24. The Captain and the Enemy
By Graham Greene, 1988
My Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
‘If I had the money, I’d like to go where Drake went—Panama and all the countries over there where the gold came from, but Liza wouldn’t be happy—she wouldn’t feel at home. All the same one day, perhaps…’
Written by Graham Greene, The Captain and the Enemy is another Panama book I disliked. Set partly in Panama, it’s basically a boring story with boring characters.
The premise is strange. A shady con artist named the Captain wins 12-year-old Victor (later changes his name to Jim) from his father in a game of backgammon. Yeah. I know. Kind of weird, right? The Captain thinks that his friend, Liza, is lonely and would like a son.
If this book had been written in 2023, the writer would have Captain and Liza running a child sex trafficking business. The book was written too long ago for this more likely scenario to have entered Greene’s brain. No, there’s nothing sexual here. It’s all very mundane.
Over the years Liza raises Jim while the Captain comes and goes. He’s a criminal and he’s always on the run from the cops. Liza is not the motherly type though and she never treats Jim like a son. In fact, no one ever treats Jim like their child. It’s rather sad. But Jim seems to not care, which is actually the hardest part to believe.
Eventually, Jim grows up and becomes a journalist. The Captain sends word that he’s in Panama and sort of invites Jim to come.
Greene supposedly became good friends with Panamanian dictator, Torrijos. He wrote a book about him even. Yet Greene’s description of Panama is sparse and shallow. All he manages to say about it is that the country has 123 banks (this is repeated a million times) and that it rains a lot (true). Panama comes across as dull and lifeless like everyone else in the book.
The Panama portion of the book takes place in the 1970s, a month before the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty between Trujillo and Carter.
Maybe there’s some deep meaning hidden somewhere in the pages of The Captain and the Enemy. I couldn’t find it or maybe I just didn’t care to look.
25. The Fling in Panama
By Liz Alden
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”
Out of all the books on this list, The Fling in Panama is the one that is going to really spark your wanderlust to travel to Panama.
It’s too bad the characters are so dull and wooden and the plot is uneventful. Nothing much happens.
Australian Lila is on her first leg of a South American backpacking trip. Her first stop is Panama and her first adventure is to hitchhike on a boat down the Panama Canal.
She manages to find a sailboat owned by a couple of handsome Norwegian brothers. Lila also manages to get into a hot romance with one of the brothers as she sails down the Canal and then across the Pacific.
You will learn a lot about sailing and a little about the Panama Canal.
After reading this book, I want to go back to Panama and do what Lila did and try to get onto a sailboat down the Canal. Now I have some ideas on how to do it!
Overall, if romances are your kind of book and you’re planning a trip to Panama, then you might enjoy The Fling in Panama.
Those are 25 books on Panama. A few FANTASTIC ones but also too many duds, I hate to admit.
Panama is such a fantastic country to visit but it needs better books written about it that give the attention it deserves.
These are my favorite books:
- God’s Favorite – BEST Book on Panama
- The Path Between the Seas
- Panama Fever
- Panama: A Whole Story
- Divorcing the Dictator
- Our Man in Panama
- Come Together, Fall Apart
- The Tailor of Panama
Have you read any of these books on Panama?
What did you think?
Which book do you plan on picking up?
Have I left any books off this list that should be on it?
Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you!
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- 25 Books on Panama
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