30 min. by boat from Almirante; 1 hr. by boat from Changuinola; 1 hr. by plane from Panama City

Christopher Columbus arrived at what is now known as Bocas del Toro in October 1502, on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. It is said that he repaired his ships at Isla Carenero (thus the moniker "Careening Cay") before continuing on to present-day Portobelo and back to the Veraguas coast in the never-ending quest for gold and riches for the Spanish crown. Columbus never found the fabled gold mines of the highlands backing Bocas del Toro, and the area therefore piqued little interest in the region for the Spanish. By the 17th century the archipelago became the haunt of renegade pirates and buccaneers.

The United Fruit Company first settled Isla Colón in the early 1900s for large-scale banana production, designating Bocas Town as headquarters and regional capital. A wave of immigrants from Jamaica, as well as from San Andrés and Providencia, Colombia, followed, so that by the 1920s, Bocas Town had more than 20,000 residents. It ranked as one of the most prosperous regions in Panama, but when a banana blight forced the company to shut down in the 1930s and move operations to the mainland, Bocas Town retreated into a state of relative anonymity.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and really there hasn't been much change in Bocas Town. But not for long: Tourism, though nascent, is alive on Main Street, and developers have their eye on the waterfront. Yet, there is still little in the way of upscale accommodations and services here. Finicky travelers will be happiest visiting Bocas Town only as a jumping-off point to a lodge away from the hustle and bustle.