I have always believed Azuero is one of the top 5 places to go in Panama for one reason: it encloses and portrays the mestizo-Panamanian culture in one place. Regardless of being a local, I must tell you that after traveling to over 15 countries and living in a multicultural environment for the past 3 years studying abroad, the expectation of being in a country is to be directly surrounded by that country’s culture.
I don’t mean that I dislike the nice resorts in Panama but I don’t think this is real tourism because you don’t engage or connect with the country you visit. The Azuero Peninsula is one of the places that you can explore Panama’s real culture, people, and beauty.
This is a guide to discovering Azuero based on my experience.
Four hours and 20 minutes from Puente de Las América and you should be touching down in Chitré. Don´t go to Chitré yet; make a stop by Parita first. It should be 15 minutes before Chitré. Why Parita is part of the trip? It is the oldest mestizo settlement in the Azuero peninsula. Wow! Visit the Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzm¡n. Go inside. Take pictures and remember you are in one of the oldest settlements of the isthmus of the whole Western Hemisphere. Be polite and make a prayer (it doesn’t matter if you are not Catholic, just do it as part of the experience). Light a candle and embrace the moment of being in a place that remained intact over time. Walk the main streets of the town, say hi to people, and ask them how they are doing. These are probably one of the kindest people in Panama. Don’t forget your bottled water! Azuero can be very dry depending on the season, but it is pretty much drier that the rest of the country. (Azuero does not have a heavy rainy season unlike other parts of the country. I recommend January just to be safe).
You have stretched your legs in Parita for at least half an hour. You can now drive through Azuero’s highway and arrive in Chitré.
Chitré, or ¨la ciudad que crece sola (which literally translates into the city that grows on its own) will welcome you warmly. It’s a small city and it is very easy to get around.
Based on my experience, and if it is noon, I’d go to Hotel Azuero to have a nice lunch. It is not the ultimate authentic Panamanian cuisine but the prices are decent and the food portions are just great. Enjoy international food as well as the daily special. These are usually targeted to the working class but anybody can dine there of course. After this, you should park close to the main park. (Remember that basically all towns in Panama have the main church or Catedral next to the park). Visit the church and see its interior. Many people don’t notice the combination of baroque and diversity in styles inside the churches in Panama. Take more pictures of course. If you stand in front of the main street with the church behind you, at your right you should see a green building. The architecture is very interesting so try to walk and see all of the buildings.
Hint: Don’t think too much about maps or where things are. Just ask people. Everybody knows where things are.
Walk the main street and you will eventually arrive to the local history museum. I paid 0.75 cents to go inside, so for foreigners it should be $1. If you are lucky, it may be open (remember office jobs and the ¨lunch time¨), you can go inside and learn about the local history and tradition from a local tour guide. The museum has no more than 4 exhibition rooms but it is worth it because the small collection they have has been well preserved.
If you want to further immerse yourself into the culture, cross the street and you will see a large number of ¨chanceras¨ (people, usually ladies, who sell government-owned lottery tickets). See if you are truly lucky and buy some ¨chances¨. Depending if it is raffle day or not, you may see more people buying. It is probably one of the most active sectors of the economy by far. Although I personally never buy lottery tickets, it would be fine to one day actually win something. Who knows, it may be your lucky day!
Chitré also has a mall, Paseo Central, and a variety of commercial plazas. The economy is very active towards all sectors. Real estate, banking, services, consumer goods, and retailing are some examples. Unless you need to buy a house or a new pair of jeans, you should focus on relaxing and continue the tour into discovering Azuero.
Now it is time to go non-stop to Pedas
Pedas’s coast is more or less 1 hour and half from Chitré. You will cross a bridge that divides the 2 provinces that make up Azuero: Herrera and Los Santos. Cross the bridge and you will be in Los Santos.
After 30 minutes, you will arrive to Las Tablas. You will see a major concentration of big placards and pictures of Carnavales and the Reinas. These are huge cultural celebrations in this region but this is not the main reason to go visit. Google Carnavales in Las Tablas Panama and you should get more info on this.
Don´t stop here! Las Tablas is a very beautiful town and calm most of the times. However, our main is goal is to arrive to Pedas. On the way back there will be plenty of chances to explore Las Tablas as well.
Now, one of the major attractions start to show up and you don´t even need to get out of the car.
The landscape that surrounds you is a must-enjoy thing! Look around you, feel the breeze, smell the countryside, watch the cattle, and rock out to your favorite song. I have done this every time I drive there and it feels really good. It’s like a therapy.
You will reach Pedas eventually. The first thing to do is to check-in. This link has a list of hotels in the area. I recommend for a $90 or above budget on lodging per night, assuming there are at least four people, Hostal Doña Mara. The hostel has clean amenities and includes breakfast. If you want to save money and time, there are other options available. If you go, for example,to encuentra24.com you can find people renting their properties. In this case, houses. Or if you really want to spend the minimum possible, try Hospedaje Moscoso. A room with 3 twins beds and 1 master king bed and A/C for only $50 per night. It is really convenient if you only need a place to sleep.
Watch the sunset at Playa Venao
Well, after a fast check-in, drive to Playa Venao (25 min). Don’t forget to bring light snacks and music of course. The idea is to see the sunset here! This is another attraction of Azuero, the sunset. Those who have been there know what I’m talking about. I recommend not doing something too extreme since it’s your first day after a long drive from the city. Enjoy your time with yours friends have a late picnic on the beach, with people from all over the world, watching the colors of the sunset painting the skies, and listening to your favorite music in the background.
After returning to Pedas you are ready to have dinner (dinner options listed here)! I recommend Pizza Tiesto in the square plaza. These folks serve awesome pizza and the prices are just great!
Since it is a small town, just ask someone where the bar with the pool tables is. Go and enjoy the $1 pints. This is a good chance to show your pool abilities! The bar also has a jukebox! The last time I went, the jukebox was probably my favorite part of the night. The music selection is incredibly diverse. I recommend having at least $3 dollars in quarters for the jukebox.
If you don’t want to stick to one place, ask locals where the places are! The rest is up to you!
Vol. II of this article (coming soon).