Although many travellers only see Veraguas while en route between David and Panama City, there are a growing number of reasons to stop here, from the stunning marine life in Parque Nacional Coiba and the glorious mountains of Santa Fé to the pounding surf of Santa Catalina. Travel in the area is relatively simple as most destinations are accessed from the Interamericana, with the majority of attractions within easy reach of the provincial capital Santiago.
Boasting world-class surf and beautiful beaches, SANTA CATALINA is considered by many to have the most impressive waves in Panama. Catalina’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last decade, through surf tourism and as the jumping-off point for Isla Coiba, which offers similarly world-class diving, but the distance from major cities and airports has left this small fishing village fairly well preserved.
The village and most of its businesses – many owned by expats – are based around the main street, the road from Soná, which ends where the concrete meets Santa Catalina beach. It is an unimpressive pebble-strewn strip, where the fishermen pull up their boats and unload their catch, and where boats leave for Coiba. Most of the accommodation and restaurants are located off what is often called the beach road, which deviates left at the public phone box, ending 2km later in the swath of sand that is Playa del Estero. This is a far nicer beach, where most of the surf classes take place. If you can’t afford to go to Coiba, you’ll find plenty of decent snorkelling and nice white sands at the nearby islands of Santa Catalina and Cébaco.
Blessed with a striking abundance of marine biodiversity, the group of 38 islands that make up Parque Nacional Coiba (including the namesake) has become one of Panama’s most popular national parks, although strict conservation laws and limited access mean that tourism here is still relatively underdeveloped. For independent travellers, Santa Catalina is the closest destination from which you can access the park, on tours run by locals. To really have a chance of spotting wildlife, you should arrange to stay overnight, so that you can get into the forest at first light.
The laidback mountain village of SANTA FÉ has become popular as a retreat from the “backpacker trail” – which ironically has put it firmly on the must-do list. Like El Valle, the village enjoys lush hillsides and a cool microclimate, but the scenery is far more impressive and, unlike El Valle, Santa Fé is a genuine thriving village – rather than a weekend playground for Panama City’s elite. It is famous for its co-operatives, which were founded in the late 1960s by a young Colombian priest named Héctor Gallego, who wanted to help local farmers get a fair price for their goods. For reasons that are unclear he was persecuted and eventually murdered by General Noriega’s henchmen but his presence lives on here: a statue of him marks the village entrance and a foundation in his name continues to help local farmers. There’s a wealth of outdoor activities here, including hiking, tubing, horseriding and waterfall trips.