Puerto Armuelles Rising,
Panama's most prosperous port?

David Dell.
June 2008.

As a travel writer I have been visiting Panama for over ten years. Even though my wife and I have lived here for the past three years, we have been in a constant search across Panama to find the perfect retirement spot – finally we have found it.

Most VISITORS to our great county never venture out of Panama City - a pity because the real jewels of this country are to be found west of the bridge of the Americas. Puerto Armuelles is as faraway from Panama City as it is possible to get. Any further and you would be in Costa Rica. The town has had many economic reversals of fortunes, yet despite all that has happened this great little port city has constantly picked itself up, dusted itself off and started all over again.

Puerto, as most locals refer to it, is blessed because of several geographic and physical features. Half a mile off shore the ocean drops off to over 250 feet. Enabling large ships to dock at its long wooden pier. This same drop off means the local sport fishing company can have you hauling in enormous game fish before you have downed your first beer.

A few miles south of town is Petro Terminal Panama, another beneficiary of the deepwater anchorage. The petro terminal facility used to pump Alaskan North Slope crude oil in an 131 kilometer pipeline across Panama for shipment to refineries in the eastern United States. The pipeline had the capacity to pump over 850,000 barrels of crude per day. Several reasons led to the decline in 1996 of this important business, Not least of which was when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh reef in Prince William Sound just after midnight on March 24th 1989. The inherent danger of shipping oil in single hulled tankers forced the United States to rethink how the black gold was transported.

In November of 2003, crude oil once again flowed through the pipeline – but this time it came from Ecuador. The big oil news for Puerto Armuelles is the plan by American Occidental and Quatar Petroleum to build a multimillion dollar refinery close to the existing petro terminal facility. This project will bring millions of dollars into the local economy and become the areas biggest employer.

When Puerto went Bananas.
In 1928, the United Fruit Company started growing bananas in the Esperanza district close to town. Eventually, they built a railroad that connected to the existing system at Progresso. Despite the disastrous effects of a disease called Sigatoka, which decimated the banana crop, the company, through innovative spraying techniques, managed to overcome the problem. United Fruit eventually became the Chiquita company, a brand recognized throughout the world. Ecuador, the worlds biggest banana producer, with the advantage of lower labor costs dominated the market. Production closed in both Colombia and Panama and on February 29, 2008 Chiquita ended its operations in Puerto Armuelles. Local banana growing cooperatives refused to roll over and die. Their struggles finally paid off when they signed a big deal with Europeans to buy their bananas.

With a population of 55,000, Puerto has charm unlike any other port city in Panama. For me it is the Puerto Vallarta of Central America. A stroll along the malecon brings back memories of its former glory. Albert Einstein came here with his wife Eloise. On a rain soaked car trip, they traveled as far as Esperanza and were entertained by fruit company boss Mark Trafton. “Papillon” author Henri Charriere arrived penniless in Puerto and begged for money from the patrons of the “Miramar Hotel.” Promises of a signed copy of his soon to be written book, produced enough cash for him to board a United Fruit Company ship to California. Hollywood’s favourite Irish priest, Pat O’Brien was a frequent visitor to the port until his death in 1984.

I sat and talked with “Señor Armuelles” restaurant owner of Don Carlos Pizzeria and local doctor, Alberto Carbono. Alberto was one of the prime motivators to have the seawall built in 1994. He is passionate about his town and graciously gave my wife and I a tour. The quiet tree lined streets, the swaying palms and the wonderful sea breeze makes a trip to Puerto Armuelles well worth the journey.

The ten kilometer law.
A word of caution if you plan to buy property here. Puerto lies within ten kilometers of the border and within that ten kilometers foreigners are not legally able to buy property.

In follow up articles I will write about Puerto’s big oil reserve – yes they have oil. Millions of barrels of it and the best part, it grows on trees. If that doesn’t get your interest, how about if I tell you where there is a fortune in buried treasure! Puerto Armuelles a port full of history, mystery and breathtaking scenery.