Northwest coast

Panama's Caribbean banana-growing region has historical links with Columbus' fourth voyage and with the black slaves imported to work the plantations. Ports of varying age and activity lie on the Laguna de Chiriquí, providing an alternative land route to Costa Rica. This region is subject to heavy rainfall, which may take the form of daily afternoon downpours or violent tropical storms. Only from January to March is there much respite from the regular soakings.

Towards Laguna de Chiriquí

From Chiriquí on the Pan-American Highway, 14 km east of David, there is a road north over the mountains to Chiriquí Grande (98 km). Beyond Gualaca the road passes the Fortuna hydroelectric plant, the Cricamola Indigenous Reservation and descends through virgin rainforest to the Caribbean. On the way up the hill, just north of Valle de la Mina is
Mary's
, a simple restaurant. If travelling under your own steam you can stop to admire the views across Lago Fortuna resevoir, from where the road is a tough, steep and twisting climb to the the continental divide, 62 km from the Pan-American Highway, and marked by nothing more than an altitude marker sign.

There is a 10-m waterfall 2.5 km north of the divide. Going north from the continental divide to Chiriquí Grande is a cyclist's delight - good road, spectacular views, little traffic and downhill all the way, but nowhere to eat until Punta Pena, just outside Chiriquí Grande. The road reaches the sea at
Chiriquí Grande
, once the embarkation point for travellers catching the ferry to Almirante and beyond, but now, with the new road heading north, rarely visited.

Banana coast

Fifty kilometres north of Chiriquí Grande, one of Central America's most important banana-growing regions extends from
Almirante
northwest across the border to Costa Rica. Today Almirante is a small commercial port, usually just a transit point for tourists heading to or from the Bocas archipelago. The banana railway starts/ends here. In the 1940s and 50s, disease virtually wiped out the business and plantations were converted to
abacá
and cacao. With the development of disease resistant strains of banana, the
abacá
and cacao have been all but replaced, and banana plantations once again thrive. The main players in the industry are large multinational companies.
Cobanat
, who export through
Chiquirí Land Company
(a subsidiary of
Chiquita Brands
) and
Dole
(a subsidiary of
Standard Brands
), who export bananas to Europe and the US from Almirante. In April 1991 a devastating earthquake struck northwest Panama and southeast Costa Rica. An island in the bay which sank during the earthquake now shows as nothing more than a patch of shallow turquoise water.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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