Chitré and around

Passing through
Parita
, with a church dating from 1556, the road reaches the cattle centre of Chitré (37 km), capital of Herrera Province and the best base for exploration. The
cathedral
(1578) is imposing and beautifully preserved. The small
Museo de Herrera
, has historical exhibits, a few archaeological artefacts, and some local ethnographic displays. The town is known primarily for its red clay pottery, especially its roofing and floor tiles, which are exported, and for its woven mats and carpets.

There are some nice beaches close to Chitré served by local buses, for example
Playa Monagre
and
El Rompio
, which are busy at weekends and holidays. It is a 30-minute walk south along the beach from Monagre to El Rompío, where you can catch a bus back to Chitré or head further south at low tide for mangroves and solitude. There are a few restaurants at Monagre, but no accommodation.

At
Puerto Agallito
, 15 minutes by bus from Chitré, many migratory birds congregate and are studied at the
Humboldt Ecological Station
. Along the swampy coast just to the north is the 8000-ha
Parque Nacional Sarigua
, established in 1984 to preserve the distinctive tropical desert and mangrove margins of the Bahía de Parita. Ancient artefacts have been unearthed within the park's boundaries. The pre-Columbian site of
Monegrillo
is considered very significant but there is little for the non-specialist to appreciate.

La Arena
, the centre for Panamanian pottery, is 2 km west of Chitré. The Christmas festivities here, 22-25 December, are worth seeing . To get there, take a bus from Chitré. Alternatively, tour operators in Panama City can arrange shopping tours here.

Los Santos
, only 4 km across the Río La Villa from Chitré in Los Santos province, is a charming old town with a fine 18th-century church (San Anastasio) containing many images. The first call for Independence came from here, recognized in the interesting
Museo de la Nacionalidad
, set in a lovely house where the Declaration was signed on 10 November 1821.
Azuero regional IPAT office
, is next door.

The main road continues 22 km southeast through agricultural country to the tiny town of
Guararé
, notable only for its folkloric museum, the
Museo Manuel Zárate
, where examples of Azuero's many traditional costumes, masks and crafts are exhibited in a turn-of-the-20th-century house. There is also a wealth of traditional dance, music and singing contests during the annual National Festival of
La Mejorana
(24 September).

Las Tablas and around

Las Tablas (6 km further) is capital of Los Santos province and the peninsula's second largest city, 67 km from the Divisa turn-off. The central
Iglesia de Santa Librada
with its gold-leaf altar and majestic carvings is one of the finest churches in this part of Panama and is now a National Historic Monument.
El Pausilipo
, former home of thrice-President Porras - known to Panamanians as 'the great man' - is in the process of being turned into a museum. Las Tablas is widely known for its
Fiesta de Santa Librada
, 19-23 July).

The lovely and unspoilt beach of
El Uverito
is located about 10 km to the east of town but has no public transport. A paved road runs to
Mensabé
.

Smaller paved roads fan out from Las Tablas to the beaches along the south coast and the small villages in the hills of the peninsula. A circular tour around the eastern mountain range can be done by continuing south to
Pocrí
and
Pedasí
(42 km), then west to
Tonosí
, all with their ancient churches and lack of spectacular sights, but typical of the Azuero Peninsula. Another 57 km of paved road runs directly over the hills from Tonosí to Las Tablas.

Pedasí

Pedasí is a peaceful little town and the municipal library near the church has many old volumes. The local festival, on 29 June is
Patronales de San Pablo
. President Mireya Moscoso was born in Pedasí and the family figures prominently in the town's history. Beautiful empty beaches (
Playa del Toro
,
Playa La Garita
and
Playa Arena
) and crystal- clear seas are 3 km away, but beware of dangerous cross-currents when swimming. There is no public transport to the beaches but it is a pleasant walk early in the morning. You can also walk along the seashore from one beach to another, best at low tide. The local fishing craft are based at
Playa Arena
(also the safest for swimming) and boats can be hired for sport fishing, whale watching and visits to
Isla Iguana
, a wildlife sanctuary 8 km offshore, protecting the island's birdlife, reptiles (including turtles) and forest. Locally hired boats cost about US$40 for half a day. The
IPAT
office in Los Santos arranges tours with knowledgeable naturalist René Chan who lives locally.

Playa Venado and Tonosí

About 31 km from Pedasí, and 12 km before Cañas, a small sign points to the black-sand beach of
Playa Venado
, a surfers' paradise. There are five
cabañas
for rent here. The road onwards goes to
Cañas
(no hotel), running near the Pacific coast for a short distance, with a string of lovely coves and sandy beaches accessible by rough tracks.

From Tonosí a branch road goes a few kilometres further south to
Cambutal
, west of which begins
Parque Nacional Cerro Hoya
, where sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs from July to November. There is also a 20-km long beach at Guánico Abajo, 20 minutes' drive from Tonosí, but no public transport.

An alternative to the main road returning to Las Tablas takes the inland road north following the Río Tonosí. Crossing a saddle between the two mountain ranges that occupy the centre of the Peninsula (picturesque views of forested Cerro Quema, 950 m), the road arrives at
Macaracas
, another attractive but unremarkable colonial town, from where two paved roads return to Los Santos and Chitré (35 km).

Ocú

About 45 km west of Chitré is Ocú, an old colonial town, whose inhabitants celebrate a few notable fiestas during the year with traditional dress, music, masks and dancing. Ocú is also known for its woven hats, which are cheaper than elsewhere in Panama.

The central mountains effectively cut off the western side of the peninsula from the more developed eastern half. There is only one road down from the highway, a gruelling gravel/dirt ribbon that staggers from near Santiago down the western coastline of the Peninsula as far south as the village of Arenas (80 km) before giving up in the face of the surrounding scrubby mountain slopes. Eastward from here the Peninsula reaches its highest point at Cerro Hoya (1559 m). No roads penetrate either to the coast or into the mountains, ensuring solitude for the
Parque Nacional Cerro Hoya
, which protects most of the southwest tip.
The 32,557-ha park protects four life zones in a region that has been devastated by agriculture, over-grazing, season burning and human population pressure.
More than 30 species of endemic plant have been recorded in the park and it is one of the last known sites to see the red macaw. One research trip in 1987 even found an endemic species of howler monkey. Turtles also use the coastal beaches for nesting from July to November. There are no refuges.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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