When the Spaniards first visited Chiriquí in the early 15th century, they were astonished by what they found. Instead of discovering one or two main population groups, they encountered a large number of tribes living in relative isolation. Often separated by only a few kilometers, each group maintained a distinct language, culture and religion.
Of course, this didn’t stop Spanish missionaries from doing what they did best, namely converting everyone they laid eyes on to Christianity. In the early 17th century, Spanish missionaries led by Padre Cristóbal Cacho Santillana rounded up 626 natives from across the region. Hoping that his work would be easier if he could identify similarities in the languages, Santillana started to record a vocabulary of the most common words, and he was successful in identifying six distinct languages.
Sadly, measles brought by the colonists swept through the towns and killed half the study population. The survivors, having had enough of the Spaniards, their linguistic studies and their religion, took to the hills. Unfortunately, their fate was already sealed – of the Cotho, Borisque, Dorasque, Utelae, Bugabae, Zune, Dolega, Zariba, Dure and others, only the Ngöbe-Buglé survived. Today, the Ngöbe-Buglé are the most populous of Panama’s seven indigenous groups, though their numbers are but a fraction of what they once were.
During the 17th century and into the 18th century, Chiriquí Province was the subject of pirate attacks, much like the rest of Panama. It was just outside Remedios in 1680 that English buccaneer Richard Sawkins, attempting to lead an assault against the well-defended city, was fatally wounded. Six years later, English privateers from Honduras sacked the towns of Alanje and San Lorenzo. Even the Miskito tribes from up north behaved like pirates after invading the region in 1732, and plundering and burning the city of David.
In the 19th century, farmers from North America and Europe viewed the climate and slopes of the Chiriquí highlands as prime for coffee, timber and other crops and their descendants still work the fields today. Although the wave of immigration hasn’t subsided, recent arrivals are mainly foreign retirees and real-estate speculators, which has led many Chiricanos to question who it is that actually owns the land they love so much.