In 1500, Bocas del Toro was a quiet island group in the Caribbean. Indigenous groups had lived on the mainland and among these islands for thousands of years.
The Ngöbe-Buglé people didn’t know they were about to receive their most famous visitor: Christopher Columbus.
Ancient towns and indigenous artifacts throughout mainland Panama have now largely been claimed by the thick rainforest in an ambiguity that continues to tempt historians and archaeologists.
Spanish Discovery of Bocas del Toro
With 140 crewmen and 4 vessels, a worn Columbus set sail in May 1502 on his 4th and final journey to find a strait that connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Indian Ocean. He ventured from the port of Cadiz to Jamaica and soon to Central America. Traveling south looking for a waterway to take him to the Orient, Columbus and his crew skimmed the rims of Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Soon they found the islands we call home.
On October 6, 1502, Columbus sailed the channels around then-Caribaro, which was renamed Almirante or Boca del Almirante meaning Mouth of the Admiral.
He noted the deep, rock-free channels and the fragrance that came from fruits and flowers on the islands. When Columbus anchored, the men were able to refill their provisions, which had been damaged from recent storms, and refresh their spirits. With this, their island base was named Isla Bastimentos, meaning Provisions.
Refuge on Isla Bastimentos
For ten days the explorers took refuge on Isla Bastimentos, making friends with the native people through offering gifts and hiring translators to communicate. Columbus learned that the mainland was just a narrow isthmus, and over the mountains there was another large ocean. This reassured his goal of finding passage to the Far East, which he never accomplished. The people also told of rich gold mines far to the south which diverted later Spanish explorers away from these islands.
In the following weeks and months in 1502, Columbus led his crew south to other points along the banks of Panama and Central America, and the mainland later fell under Spanish rule in a conquest for gold and influence. In 1503, the ships had seen their share of traveling. The Vizcaino sunk along this part of the trip, yet to be found, and Columbus retreated to Jamaica to await repairs and new ships before returning to Spain in 1504.
Columbus spent significant time of this 4th journey in Bocas del Toro relaxing, learning, and naming his favorite places, including Isla Colon, Isla Cristobal, and Bahia de Almirante. While this is only one page in the rich layers of history and culture here, October is the month to remember this famous explorer’s visit to our favorite island retreat.