The Chiriqui province in Panama is a burgeoning hotspot for adventure travel, ecotourism, and cultural experiences. Even as infrastructure improvements (such as the David airport expansion) and new construction projects take shape to accommodate this tourism boom, conscious developers are careful to preserve Chiriqui’s greatest asset – its lush tropical rainforests and rich biodiversity.
But what was Chiriqui like in the years leading up to its debut as a premier travel destination? As you flip through the pages of history, you’ll see that the people of this region have endured many hardships during Chiriqui’s transformation from undiscovered ingénue into tourism star. Part of Chiriqui’s charm comes from the time-tested traditions that have survived a tumultuous 500 years of Western influence in the province. Travelers who visit Chiriqui today can immerse in local culture, observe the pure lifestyle of tribes like the Ngobe-Bugle, and find artisan handicrafts woven with the wisdom of centuries. Once you’ve read this brief history, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for all the authentic customs made stronger by the persevering Chiriqui people.
Chiriqui’s First Visitors
The first Westerners to discover these idyllic Pacific shores were Spanish explorers of the early 15th century. They were astounded to find seven different tribes living in the remote Panamanian province. Although the members of these tribes lived relatively close to one another, they maintained distinctive cultural traditions and spoke their own languages. On a later expedition to Chiriqui, Spanish missionary Padre Cristobal Cacho Santillana recorded six different languages as he approached native people from all over the province in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. The Spaniards had little opportunity to learn much more about the people of Chiriqui because indigenous populations drastically dwindled soon after the arrival of the Spaniards.
The story is, by now, familiar. Throughout the Americas, native populations suffered serious losses due to diseases brought by European explorers. The native peoples in North, Central, and South America lacked the immune defenses that Europeans had been building up for generations, and the indigenous tribes of Chiriqui were no exception. Spanish explorers carried with them the diseases that plagued Europe’s more densely-populated countries in the 15th century: measles, mumps, and other illnesses.
Nearly half of the native population of Chiriqui was wiped out in the span of only a few years.
The Age of Piracy
The surviving natives fled from Spanish settlements dotting the coast of the Gulf of Chiriqui and made their way to the highlands, where they were able to live in relative comfort for a brief period. This comfort was destined to be short-lived; Chiriqui’s indigenous people next fell victim to the the Age of Piracy, enduring frequent assaults and pillages at the hands of English pirates.
Piracy increased dramatically in the Caribbean and throughout Central America as the major European powers vied for control of the area and its wealth of resources. Pirates were known to attack the villages of native Panamanian tribes. The first recorded instance took place in 1686, when English privateers led an assault against a group of natives living in Alanje and San Lorenzo.
The attacks continued, off and on, throughout the remainder of the 17th and well into the 18th century. In 1732, a group of embittered Panamanian natives took to flying pirate flags and plundering from their neighboring tribes and cities.
Once the volatile power-shifting in Europe finally calmed down, Chiriqui’s native tribes were able to reestablish their peaceful coexistence, undisturbed by outside influence. Tribespeople began to regroup and redistribute themselves throughout the highlands of Chiriqui, and many of them took to farming and agriculture.
Impressed by the quality of the soil and the vitality of the crops produced in the area, European immigrants began to settle down in Chiriqui in the latter half of the 19th century, and many of those immigrants have since become prominent members of the Chiriqui community.
Today, expatriates from the United States and Europe are setting their sights on this Panamanian province in search of adventure in the still-unspoiled wilderness of its jungles and mountains.
Despite the long history of European incursion in Chiriqui, this region of Panama retains the unique qualities that made it special long before Westerners discovered its charms. Breathtaking natural beauty, diverse and rare wildlife species, lush jungles rich in exotic plant species, and equally-rich indigenous cultures. The lifestyles of Chiriqui’s native peoples have not changed much, except that today, they welcome outsiders into their midst to share their music, dance, and handicrafts with visiting travelers.