Central Panama is a strikingly diverse region. Heading west from Panama City the Interamericana runs along a narrow plain squeezed between the Pacific and the slopes of the Cordillera Central. Your bus will barely have hit top speed before you can hop off and spend some time sprawled on one of the abundant beaches just south of the Interamericana. Though they’re fine for a weekend escape from Panama City, they don’t compare with the offerings on the islands of the Golfo de Chiriquí, Bocas del Toro or Guna Yala. It is, however, worth heading north off the Interamericana to spend a night in the relative cool of El Valle, a popular weekend getaway for wealthy Panama City residents, before venturing further into spectacular mountain scenery round the village of El Copé and the Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos.
At the border of Coclé Province, 193km from Panama City, the road forks at Divisa: the Interamericana continues west to Santiago, the capital of Veraguas Province, but consider turning south down the Carretera Nacional into the Península de Azuero, which hosts some of the country’s most vibrantfestivals in the colonial towns of Guararé and Las Tablas, contains some splendid surfing beaches, and has two fascinating islands – Isla Iguana and Isla Cañas – to explore.
The capital of Herrera Province and the largest town on the Azuero Peninsula, CHITRÉ is a slow-paced market centre studded with colourful discount stores. Other than the market and a museum, there’s not much to see here, but the town is the peninsula’s main transport hub and a good base for exploration. Chitré centres on the bandstand, trees and benches of Parque Unión. The square is flanked on one side by the gleaming-white Catedral San Juan Bautista, with its impressive, vaulted wooden roof and extensive gilded wooden panelling.
About 100km west of Panama City, a twisty road climbs up into the cordillera to EL VALLE, a small village in a fertile valley that was once the crater of a volcano. At 600m above sea level, El Valle is comparatively cool, and the surrounding countryside is good for walking or horseriding. Renowned for its flowers – particularly orchids – the area is a popular retreat for wealthy Panama City residents at weekends, when the place is awash with 4WDs, 4WDs and golf carts and golf carts.
Most of the village’s amenities can be found on Avenida Central (also called Avenida Principal), along with signposts pointing the way to local attractions, mostly located on the outskirts of the village. In the centre, the modest daily market draws the biggest crowds, especially on Sundays, when locals sell fruit, flowers and crafts. A small museum, run by nuns, houses exhibits on local history and folklore and stands next to the church of San José. Beyond the church by the Río Anton, a side road leads to the enjoyably quirky thermal baths, or pozos termales, reputed to have medicinal powers – they are best avoided on summer weekends and during holidays. Meanwhile, to see wonderful specimens of the orchids that grow around here, explore the APROVACA Orchid Nursery, signposted off to the left from the main road as you enter the town.
Jan 6 Fiesta de los Reyes and Encuentro del Canajagua, Macaracas.
Jan 19–22 Fiesta de San Sebastián, Ocú.
Feb (date varies) Carnaval in Las Tablas (and everywhere else in the country).
March/April (date varies) Semana Santa, celebrated most colourfully in La Villa de Los Santos, Pesé and Guararé.
Late April Feria International del Azuero, La Villa de Los Santos.
May/June (date varies) Corpus Christi, La Villa de Los Santos.
June 24 Patronales de San Juan, Chitré.
July 20–22 Patronales de La Santa Librada and Festival de la Pollera, Las Tablas.
Aug (second week) Festival del Manito in Ocú.
Late Sept Festival de la Mejorana, Guararé.
Nov 10 The “First Cry of Independence”, La Villa de Los Santos.
LAS TABLAS, south along the peninsula’s coast from Chitré, was founded in the seventeenth century by refugees fleeing by sea from Panamá Viejo after Henry Morgan and his band of pirates sacked it. The settlers dismantled their ships to build the first houses, hence the town’s name, which means “the planks”.
Though you wouldn’t believe it if you turned up at any other time of year, this quiet, colonial market town hosts the wildest Carnaval celebrations in Panama. For five days in February the place is overwhelmed by visitors from all over the country, who come here to join in the festivities. The town divides into two halves – Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo – to fight a pitched battle with water, paint and soot on streets awash with seco, Panama’s vicious firewater. Less raucous but just as colourful is the fiesta of Santa Librada in July, which includes the Festival de la Pollera, celebrating the peninsula’s embroidered, colonial-style dresses. Produced in the surrounding villages, they are something of a national symbol.
In addition to its few sights, Las Tablas is also a choice spot to experience the extremely festive atmosphere of a baseball match (Jan–May) at the Estadio Olmedo Solé.
Straddling the continental divide just over 30km northwest of Penonomé is the little-visited but spectacular Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos (often called “El Copé” after the nearby village of the same name), named after Panama’s flamboyant populist leader whose plane mysteriously crashed into one of the park’s highest peaks. Scenery ranges from mist-shrouded cloudforest to abundant subtropical vegetation, offering excellent opportunities for birdwatching and hiking, and the park is chock-full of wildlife.
It’s 42km south through cattle country from Las Tablas to PEDASÍ, a friendly, quiet little village that is fast becoming a surf destination, best known as a jumping-off point for Isla Iguana, Isla Cañas and a wealth of beaches in the surrounding area. Other than having a quick peek at the unlikely chandeliers in the church on the town square, activities in Pedasí involve day-trips to the islands and the nearby surf breaks. Playa El Arenal, a very long, very empty and very flat beach, is just a thirty-minute walk from town.
Archeological evidence suggests that people have been coming to the area now designated as the ISLA CAÑAS WILDLIFE RESERVE to hunt turtles and harvest their eggs for many centuries, although the island was only settled in the 1960s. Since 1988, the hunting of turtles here has been prohibited and a co-operative has been established to control the harvest. Members watch over the beaches at night and collect the eggs as soon as they are laid, keeping eighty percent for sale and consumption and moving the rest to a nursery where the turtles can hatch and return to the sea in safety.
A night-time turtle walk, at least half an hour in each direction along the beach, will set you back about US$15/group. Torch use is stringently rationed as the turtles are frightened by the piercing beams. The long, near-silent walk along soft sand, the lapping water and the incredible number of stars may just lull you to sleep on your feet. The functional but unmemorable main village on Isla Cañas is prepared for visitors – as are the mosquitoes and sandflies.
Isla Cañas has one of the few beaches in the world that sees the phenomenon known as the arribada, when thousands of female sea turtles simultaneously come ashore to lay their eggs. It’s still not entirely understood what triggers this mass exodus from the sea at one particular moment, though smaller numbers emerge at other times, too, within a roughly ten-day period on either side of a full moon (when tides are highest, allowing the turtles to lay their eggs further up the beach).
Whether or not your visit coincides with an arribada (usually Aug–Nov), if you come between May and January you’ll almost certainly see olive ridley or green turtles – with a small chance of spotting loggerhead and hawksbill – laying their eggs at night. From December to March there’s also a chance of seeing leviathan-like leatherbacks, which can weigh over 800kg.
Some 7km off the coast of Pedasí lies Isla Iguana, an uninhabited wildlife reserve managed by the state and surrounded by the most extensive coral reefs in the Bahía de Panamá, making it one of the best sites for snorkelling and diving in the country. The island has white-sand beaches, crystalline waters and a vast colony of magnificent frigate birds, and between June and December you may see whales. Despite the island’s name, iguanas have become scarce due to the locals’ fondness for their meat – though since the island was declared a national park, their numbers have been increasing.
Founded in 1581 as a reducción de Indios – a place where conquered indigenous groups were forcibly resettled so as to be available for labour service – and briefly the capital of the isthmus after the destruction of Panamá Viejo, PENONOMÉ was named after Nomé, a local chieftain cruelly betrayed and executed here by the Spaniards after years of successful resistance. Now the capital of Coclé Province, Penonomé doesn’t have much to see apart from a small museum, though it makes a good enough base for exploring the surrounding area, and if you’re in the area during Carnaval, make sure you catch Penonomé’s unique aquatic parade.
From the junction with the Interamericana, Penonomé’s busy commercial main street, referred to as either Vía Central or Avenida Arosemena, runs a few hundred metres to the Plaza 8 de Diciembre. Featuring a statue of Simón Bolívar and the inevitable bandstand, the square is flanked by government buildings and the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. A few blocks southwest, a small museum exhibits pre-Columbian ceramics and colonial religious art.