The islands of the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago were formed between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. As the sea level rose with the melting of the polar caps at the end of the Ice Age the Bocas Del Toro islands were separated from the rest of Central America by the higher water levels of ocean. The archipelago was originally inhabited by native Indians – Ngobe-Bugle, Teribe (Nazo), Bokota and Bri Bri.
In more recent times, Christopher Columbus arrived at Bocas Del Toro in October, 1502 on his fourth and final voyage. His ships had been damaged by storms and he was fortunate to find the sheltered waters round Bocas Del Toro to repair his damaged vessels.
The Spanish, however, did little to settle or establish a real presence in the Bocas Del Toro area. The English were the ones who established settlements like Boca Del Drago, where in 1745 they were raising cattle and chickens. In the beginning of the 19th century, English ships from Jamaica traded with Bocas del Toro for marine turtle shell, live marine turtles, cocoa, mahogany wood and sarsaparilla.
In 1826 Bocas Del Toro town was founded on Isla Colon by wealthy Scottish and English immigrants from Jamaica, San Andreas and Providenci. These citizens of the British Commonwealth came to Bocas Del Toro to avoid the British taxes. They brought with them to Bocas Del Toro thousands of slaves from the Caribbean Islands.
Bocas Del Toro soon grew into a banana boomtown. United Fruit Company, the large banana producer, known for its Chiquita Brands, was based in Bocas Del Toro. Large tracts of land in the Bocas Del Toro area were also dedicated to sugar cane, cocoa, and coconut palms plantations.
At the height of Bocas Del Toro’s prosperity there were five consulates, three newspapers, a bottling plant and the first lottery in Panama located in the Bocas Del Toro area. Coconuts, turtle shells, sarsaparilla and cocoa beans were exported along with bananas from Bocas Del Toro.
Bocas Del Toro’s prosperity ended in the 1920s with the demise of commercial banana production. As the plantations closed many residents left the Bocas Del Toro area.
Today, although the Bocas Del Toro archipelago has over 100 islands and small cays, only six islands are actually inhabited. The town of Bocas del Toro remains the center of the archipelago commerce and is the seat of government for the Bocas Del Toro island region. Today Bocas Del Toro’s main industry is tourism. There are many hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars, dive shops, boat tour companies, water taxis and ferries and an airport with a 5,000 foot runway. The other inhabited islands in the Bocas De Toro Archipelago are Bastimentos (1,500 inhabitants), Solarte, (1,500 inhabitants), Isla Cristobal (700 inhabitants), Isla Popa (600 inhabitants), Isla Caranero(300 inhabitants) & Cayo Agua (600 inhabitants).