Isla Colon is one of a cluster of islands off the coast of Panama, near the country's border with Costa Rica. The whole archipelago is properly called Bocas del Toro, but Isla Colon is itself commonly referred to as Bocas del Toro, or simply Bocas. Isla Colon is the cultural hub of the archipelago, and is the political center of the Bocas del Toro Province, which includes a sizeable area of the adjacent mainland. The island is easily accessible by small plane or by a short ferry ride.
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The climate in the archipelago, using Köppen climate classification, is tropical rainforest. There is no sharp or predictable dry or wet season: the driest months are October, January, and March. Of course it rains a lot on Isla Colon, about 11 feet a year, and sometimes it pours for two or three days straight. During these times the forest paths become small lakes with sucking mud bottoms in which you can easily lose a boot. The temperature stays around 90 during the day and goes down to 75 at night, and the humidity is generally very high. Since Bocas is very close to the equator, the sun rises at 6AM and sets at 6PM year-round.
The most interesting chapter in Isla Colon's natural history, at least as far as this project is concerned, is the separation of the islands from the mainland by rising sea levels at the end of the most recent ice age, 10,000-15,000 years ago. Prior to this event, the entire archipelago was a series of coastal hills. The rising waters, which ultimately claimed 300 feet of alititude, forced animals, including insects, onto higher ground. The relatively recent isolation of these populations makes for some interesting conjecture about the effect of geographical isolation on populations. One of the best-known examples of isolated varaiation between the islands is the color of the common Oophaga frogs, which varies radically between island populations separated by less than a mile. Situations like this are the domain of island biogeography, and this site is potentially interesting for people working in that field.
An event in Panama's history gives my work on Isla Colon an added dimension. Shortly after the turn of 20th century, when the Panama Canal was nearing completion, naturalists around the world saw that an unprecedented event was on the horizon: the new canal would introduce the biomes of two oceans to one another, and the outcome, it was assumed, would be an environmental catastrophe. This was an impetus for the formation of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), which helped direct the concerted effort of scientists and workers from all disciplines to document the wildlife of the canal zone before the rising waters inundated everything. The report is one of the earliest and most thorough inventories of plant and animal life in the Neotropics. After the canal was opened (and the anticipated disaster for flora and fauna did not, as it turned out, materialize), STRI maintained its presence in the area. Over time STRI has become one of the most active and important facilitators of natural studies in the world. Visitors to the Canal Zone may be lucky enough to gain admittance to Barro Colorado, an island in the middle of Gatun Lake, which was formed by the rising water and is now essentially a living laboratory maintained by STRI. And, like Isla Colon and the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, two hundred miles away, Barro Colorado was formed by rising waters that forced the local wild life to sink, swim, or climb.
Isla Colon's political history has been shaped most definitively by two factors, both imposed from the outside: the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the course of his fourth voyage to the New World, and the establishment of the banana industry around the turn of the 19th century. In the case of Columbus, who arrived in the archipelago in October of 1502, the island was little more than a rest stop, a harbor where is ships found shelter from wind and storm. It's likely little more than legend that it was Columbus who named the area "Mouths of the Bull" after geographical features along the coast. In any case, the Spanish didn't establish a lasting presence in Bocas del Toro, and it wasn't until 1745 that Europeans established permanent settlements in the form of English farmers who came seeking refuge from high taxes on neighboring islands, particularly Jamaica. By the laste 1800's, when the banana industry began claiming and clearing land on Isla Colon and elsewhere, the white presence on Isla Colon had increased to the point that both towns on the island, Bocas del Toro and Boca del Drago, were genuine boomtowns with electricity, newspapers, and legitimate governments. With the crash of the banana industry, Bocas returned to being an out-of-the-way fishing village, and Drago became a ghost town. Bocas Town has since rebounded as one of the main backpacker destinations, but Drago remains a tiny remnant of the bustling banana port it once was.
Assumptions about a pre-historical human presence on Isla Colon are being revised by findings in a series of recent archeological digs on the northern end of the island, in the vicinity of the town of Boca del Drago. Evidence suggests substantial settlements, with farming and trading with other communities, as early as 900AD. The native people on Isla Colon are primarily Ngöbe Buglé Indians (formerly known as Guaymi). Following the arrival of Europeans, they were slowly pushed into less desirable areas in the higher elevations of the island, although today they have reclaimed much of the farmland taken away for banana and other cultivation by Europeans. Ngöbe Bugle culture and communities thrive on Isla Colon and elsewhere in the Bocas del Toro Province, and as a rule locals are kind and patient with outsiders.