Are you planning a trip to Panama? Or, maybe you’re an armchair traveler wanting to be carried away to a tropical destination?
Panama is a country near and dear to my heart, as I spent three years there as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Whatever your situation, the books on Panama I’m about to share can help feed your wanderlust.
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Books on Panama by Category
Since everyone has different interests, I’ve broken down this list of books on Panama into four categories. Click on the category of your preference to arrive at book recommendations for that particular topic.
Some people say paperback travel guides are out of fashion. While it’s true that you can usually find the most up-to-date information online, there’s nothing like being able to refer to a physical travel book when you’re on the road.
I know some travelers even enjoy collecting travel guidebooks as their form of a souvenir for the countries they’ve visited.
Lonely Planet Panama by Steve Fallon, Regis St Louis, & Carolyn McCarthy
An introduction shouldn’t be needed for Lonely Planet. Their most recent guide on Panama was updated in June 2022. You’ll receive a book chock-full of colored maps, suggested itineraries, insider tips, and reviews of hotels, shops, and restaurants, among other information.
The Rough Guide to Panama by Rough Guides
The Rough Guides is known for putting out material that’s opinionated, straightforward, and with unique tips. It’s a great Panama travel guide for travelers with various budgets. The many colorful photos, including colored maps, will surely draw you in.
Find a hammock and coconut water before settling in for these Panama reads. Whether you’re looking for a love story, thriller, or historical fiction, these novels set in Panama are your virtual ticket to the tropics.
The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré
The Tailor of Panama, written by New York Times best-selling author le Carré, is a spy novel. The storyline revolves around the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal to Panama and how things were done behind the scene to prevent the Panama Treaty from passing. The main character gets involved with British Intelligence to work against the U.S. government.
God’s Favorite by Lawrence Wright
Award-winning author Wright compiled a stunning historical fiction novel about Panama’s former dictator, Manuel Antonio Noriega. The novel follows the time period of the late 1980s in an equally comical and dark take on Noriega’s attempts to flee and try to redeem himself for bad behavior before he’s caught—whether that be via God, voodoo, or anything else he can find.
The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez
This novel by prizewinning author Cristina Henriquez follows the story of a woman, Miraflores, who finds her mother’s letters that were written by her father, whom she had never met. The letters offer a conflicting account of what her mother, who now has Alzheimer’s, told her.
So, Miraflores travels to Panama to meet her father and discover the missing pieces. The World in Half paints a vivid image of Panamanian culture. Along the way, Miraflores does a lot of self-exploration and self-discovery.
Beneath a Panamanian Moon by David Terrenoire
Beneath a Panamanian moon is a thriller about a retired spy from D.C. who takes an assignment in Panama. He plays piano at a resort as a coverup. Meanwhile, he’s in charge of keeping an eye on the American mercenaries and Colombians at the hotel. This fast-paced novel will leave you laughing and glued to the book until the very last page.
Panama has a complex history, and books can help you make more sense of it. Whether you’re looking for books on the Panama Canal, Panama Papers, or more, you’ll find them here.
Path Between the Seas by David McCullough
At 698 pages long, Path Between the Seas is seemingly only fit for die-hard history buffs. But the story is so captivating that many people who normally aren’t drawn to historical books enjoy it too.
Historian McCullough covers the history of the creation of the Panama Canal and the obstacles that occurred along the way. He’s a National Book Award winner, bringing the Panama Canal’s history to life with his storytelling prose.
The History of Panama by Robert C. Harding
The title says it all. The History of Panama chronicles 500 years of Panama’s history from Columbus to modern day. Harding offers a comprehensive account of major events in Panama’s history, including Panama’s colonial period, post-Spanish times, the trials and errors of outside nations intervening to build the Panama Canal, and the impact of U.S. invasions on Panama.
Emperors in the Jungle by John Lindsay-Poland
Emperors in the Jungle is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the United States’ involvement in Panama. Written by Lindsay-Poland, Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean, this book describes what America’s reasoning was for invading Panama numerous times and the aftermath that the U.S. presence had on Panama.
The Panama Papers by Frederik Obermaier & Bastian Obermayer
This explosive book written by two journalists reveals how the largest data leak in history took place. It details the revelations that came from four hundred journalists who took part in uncovering how the rich from all over the world hid billions of dollars. The people involved ranged from banks to diamond miners to celebrities and politicians. This is a fascinating read from an event that only recently became history.
Panama Fever by Matthew Parker
There’s no shortage of books on the history of the Panama Canal, so the difficulty comes down to which ones to read. Panama Fever compliments Path Between the Seas since it includes stories from people who built the canal. A large portion of the book also focuses on politics; an impossible point of discussion to miss when talking about the history of the Panama Canal.
Few things put life into perspective more than hearing about someone else’s. The memoirs below will immerse you in the experiences of people who’ve lived in Panama.
The Cloud Garden by Tom Hart Dyke & Paul Winder
In The Cloud Garden, Tom Hart and Dyke Paul recount their nine-month experience of being kidnapped by the FARC. They seemed like innocent enough travelers—one was an orchid lover and the other an adventurer. But they made the risky decision to cross the Darién Gap with the goal of traveling by foot from Panama to Colombia.
The Darién Gap is the only part of the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to South America that doesn’t connect due to its remoteness and danger with the Colombian FARC guerrilla. They make it out alive to tell their story, but this memoir will keep your eyes glued to the page until the end.
Canal Zone Daughter by Judy Haisten
Canal Zone Daughter is a memoir about Haisten’s life growing up in the Panama Canal Zone, which was, at the time, part of the United States. She touches on its history, her the ups and downs, and how disappointed she felt when Jimmy Carter reached an agreement with Panama and she realized that the Panama Canal Zone would no longer be her home.
What Am I Missing?
This is by no means a complete list of books on Panama, but I hope it gives you a good start to your Panama literature endeavors.
What are your favorite Panama reads? I’d love to hear about them in the comments so that me and other readers can check them out.
P.S.- Are you headed to Panama City? If so, check out my guide on Where & Where Not to Stay in Panama City. Also, if you’re looking for more great travel books, give my post on the best books for wanderlust a read.