La Palma (pop. 3,884) is the provincial capital of the Darién , with the accent squarely on “provincial.” Branches of the major government offices are here, including ANAM (the environmental regulatory agency), a police headquarters, a grim jail, and even an outpost of the national lottery.
La Palma’s location is striking. It’s at the wide mouth of the Río Tuira, just where it races into the Golfo de San Miguel. Balboa became the first European to discover the Pacific near here. The ruins of Spanish fortifications are on craggy islets topped with emerald vegetation a few minutes’ boat ride away. It’s a natural launching point for trips by water  into the heart of the Darién.
Look away from the water, though, and the view becomes less appealing. La Palma is a hot, humid town where garbage piles up on the side of the road or is just chucked into the fast-flowing river. It consists of a strip of road wedged between an unbroken chain of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bars, stores, and hotels perched above the river mouth on one side and a steep hill crowded with shanties on the other side.
A remarkable number of minibuses ply this single road, which leads to the village of Setegantí, about 20 kilometers south of the airstrip. Walking the length of “downtown,” from the airstrip at one end to the Cable and Wireless office at the other, takes about 10 minutes at a slow pace. The town does not have a friendly vibe. Be prepared for lots of poker-faced stares.
As with Yaviza  and El Real , most visitors use La Palma as a way station and provisioning post on the way to somewhere else. Still, town life in La Palma can be fascinating for an hour or two: a drunk staggering around at 10 in the morning, a surly Colombian shop owner grumbling about being ostracized by the locals, a tailor working his foot-pedaled Singer on the street, kids setting off to school in neat blue-and-white uniforms.
An important festival day here is the Fiesta de San José, held on March 19.
The crumbling “airport” at the edge of town doesn’t inspire much confidence, but most visitors come and leave by air.
Aeroperlas (tel. 315-7500, www.aeroperlas.com ) flies between La Palma and Panama City  on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Flights leave Panama City around 10:25 a.m. and return around 11:15 a.m.
Air Panama (tel. 316-9000, www.flyairpanama.com ) flies on Monday and Friday, leaving around 10:45 a.m., returning to Panama City around 11:35 a.m. Sometimes there are intermediate stops in El Real  and Sambú . The flight is around an hour, depending on stops. Tickets cost US$72 each way.
These times are approximate at best. One time the flight back to Panama City was so late I could have gotten back faster by boat and bus.
A water taxi runs from Puerto Quimba  to La Palma, 7:30 A.M.–6:30 P.M., and from La Palma to Puerto Quimba, 5:30 A.M.–5 P.M. The water taxi to La Palma theoretically runs every 60–75 minutes, but in reality only the first one of the day is reliable. After that, the boat leaves when it gets a full load. The trip costs US$3 one-way and takes about 30–45 minutes.