Golfito’s history is inextricably intertwined with the giant transnational United Brands – known locally as “La Yunai” – which first set up in the area in 1938, twenty years before the Interamericana hit town. The company built schools, recruited doctors and police and brought prosperity to the area, though “problems” with labour union organizers began soon afterwards, and came to characterize the relationship between company and town. What with fluctuating banana prices, a three-month strike by workers and local social unrest, the company eventually decided Golfito was too much trouble and pulled out in a hurry in 1985. The town declined and, in the public eye, became synonymous with rampant unemployment, alcoholism, abandoned children, prostitution and general unruliness.
Today, at the big old muelle bananero (banana dock) container ships are still loaded up with bananas to be processed further up towards Palmar. This residual traffic, along with tourism, has combined to help revive the local economy. Many visitors come to Golfito because it’s a good base for getting to the Parque Nacional Corcovado by lancha or plane, and also a major sports-fishing centre. The real rescue, though, came from the Costa Rican government, who in the early 1990s established a Depósito Libre – or tax-free zone – in the town, where Costa Ricans can buy manufactured goods imported from Panamá without the 100 percent tax normally levied. Ticos who come to shop here have to buy their tickets for the Depósito 24 hours in advance, obliging them to spend at least one night, and therefore colones, in the town.