Christopher Columbus first explored the coast of Bocas del Toro in 1502 in the search for a route to Asia; later, during the colonial era, European pirates often sheltered in the calm waters of the archipelago. By the nineteenth century, English ships from Jamaica were visiting the coast frequently, but it wasn’t until 1826 that West Indian immigrants founded the town of Bocas del Toro, still the province’s largest settlement.
The arrival of the United Fruit banana plantations in the late 1800s gave the islands a measure of prosperity; by 1895 bananas from Bocas accounted for more than half of Panama’s export earnings, and Bocas Town boasted five foreign consulates and three English-language newspapers. Early in the twentieth century, however, banana crops were repeatedly devastated by disease, causing the archipelago’s economy to suffer.
In recent years, tourism and real estate speculation have come to the economic forefront in Bocas. Foreign investors have bought huge portions of the archipelago in order to develop luxury resorts and holiday homes. While this boom has enhanced the region’s wealth, generating employment and income for locals, much concern still exists over how economically and environmentally sustainable it really is.