Author Joe Keohane Photography Chris Sorensen
In the beginning, Panama was water. Then an isthmus formed, a strip of land born of immense tectonic forces that joined the American continents. In time, the land fell under Spanish control, then Colombian. In the early 1900s, the Americans stepped in, building the Panama Canal and occupying the zone around it until 1999. It’s been only a decade and a half since Panama has been entirely on its own, but the postcolonial era is off to a rollicking start: For two years running, Gallup-Healthways has named Panama the happiest place in the world, giving the country high marks in work satisfaction, physical well-being, and sense of community. If you’ve ever walked the streets of its capital, Panama City, and seen the smiling faces of its citizens, you don’t need a statistician to tell you that this is a place defined by optimism and invention, possibility and pride.