Chiquita still dominates the mainland port at Almirante in Bocas del Toro.

In 1502, Christopher Columbus’s fleet of ships sustained significant damage in a storm off the coast of Central America. His crew needed rest and shelter from the open sea to repair the boats. On October 6, 1502, he anchored amidst a group of islands dotting the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea. He anchored in Bocas del Toro.

While repairing boats, Christopher Columbus named some of these islands, including Isla Colón (Columbus Island), home to Bocas Town, and nearby Isla Cristóbal (Christopher Island). Hmm, we think he had an ego. Columbus was later credited with the discovery of these islands although indigenous people have lived there for thousands of years.

Panama was part of the Spanish empire for nearly 300 years, from 1538 to 1821. During this time, Inca silver and gold were shipped from South America to Panama City, carried across the country to the Caribbean side, and loaded onto fleets of treasure ships bound for Spain. This made Bocas del Toro a logical hideout for pirates in the 1600s and 1700s. These raiders frequently attacked treasure caravans and ships bound for Spain.

Fast forward 200 years to 1899 when the United Fruit Company, which later became Chiquita Banana, established itself in Bocas Town. Now, Bocas del Toro is the cradle of the Chiquita empire. Banana farming on the mainland still serves as the largest employer in the region, growing and exporting 750,000 tons of bananas annually.

Bocas Town holds the heart of activity in the cluster of islands, where colorful panga boats work as “cars” and waterways between islands serve as “roads.” In Bocas Town, travelers see more bicycles than cars, adding local charm to the dynamic city center.