Eight tiny towns—villages really—run along the coast east of Isla Grande . Five of these are linked by a road, which is in remarkably good condition. All look pretty dismal and deserted, especially during the day, when their inhabitants are out working in the fields or fishing in the ocean.
The first five—Nombre de Dios, Viento Frío, Palenque, Miramar, and Cuango—are lined up one after another on a lonesome, 30-kilometer stretch of road that runs along the edge of the sea. The last three—Playa Chiquita, Palmira, and Santa Isabel—are even more isolated, separated from the others by the Río Cuango. This river is known for gold, and it still attracts wishful-thinking prospectors.
The road ends at the river, and those final three towns are accessible only by boat. Santa Isabel is the last town before the Comarca de Kuna Yala  (the San Blas Islands). All these towns are so sleepy they’re practically comatose.
Frankly, there isn’t much reason for tourists to come to this part of Panama , at least these days. Though some entrepreneurs are making noises about opening up Costa Arriba  to tourism, little has happened so far and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of potential. The beaches aren’t that great, the area is in the middle of the boonies, and the lovely tropical forest covering its rolling hills is being hacked and burned as quickly as possible to make way for cattle farms.
Historically, this is the home of so-called Afro-Colonials, the descendants of escaped African slaves from the Spanish era. These escaped slaves, known as cimarrones, slipped away and established hidden towns called palenques. They would emerge from the forest from time to time to raid Spanish mule trains along the Camino Real, more to harass their former captors than for treasure that was useless to them. It’s fun to think that the anglers chatting with you about the tides may very well be descended from cimarrones who helped Drake in one of his famous exploits.
In modern times, Costa Arriba  has attracted settlers from Los Santos province. They are famous or notorious, depending on your perspective, for their prowess at cutting down trees. Having mostly deforested their own province, they’re diligently working on doing the same to this area, which borders a vitally important national park.
To get to this area by car, first drive through Portobelo , making sure you have a full fuel tank. After about eight kilometers there’ll be a crossroads known, logically enough, as El Cruce. Turn right here.
After about 13 kilometers there’s a rickety suspension bridge. Grit your teeth and drive over it. The first sizable settlement is Nombre de Dios (15 kilometers from El Cruce, about 25 minutes). The paved road ends a little past Nombre de Dios, turning into a rocky dirt road that’s passable in a regular car most of the way. The road continues through Viento Frío (8 kilometers past Nombre Dios), and then through nearby Palenque, Miramar, and Cuango, which are bunched together within a few kilometers of each other toward the end of the road.
The road gets rough beyond Miramar, requiring a four-wheel drive in the rainy season, before coming to a sudden end at the especially rundown Cuango, on the edge of the wide mouth of the Río Cuango.
A small gas station just east of Miramar is the only one in the entire region east of María Chiquita.
Getting to these remote areas by bus can be a hassle, as service is neither frequent nor speedy. Those coming from Panama City  can take a Colón-bound bus to Sabanitas and get off at the El Rey supermarket. Look for buses with “Costa Arriba” or the name of the particular destination painted on the windshield. Buses also run between Nombre de Dios and the Colón  bus terminal. It’s also possible to hire a taxi in Sabanitas or Colón, but the fare will probably be rather steep, depending on the destination.