Santiago and around

Back on the Pan-American Highway, from the junction at Divisa the roads enters the Province of Veraguas - the only one with seaboards on both oceans - and arrives after 37 km in Santiago. Capital of the province, Santiago is one of the oldest towns in the country, in a grain-growing region that is very dry in summer. Very good and cheap
chácaras -
macramé bags used by male
campesinos
as a convenient holdall for lunch and other necessities in the fields - are sold in the market here. Heading north for 18 km is
San Francisco
; which has a wonderful old church with wooden images, altar pieces and pulpit. The swimming pool is adjacent to the church.

East of Santiago is the turn-off to
La Atalaya
, site of a major pilgrimage and festival in honour of a miraculous statue of Christ, and home of the
Instituto Jesús
Nazareno
, an important agricultural school for rural boys. West of Santiago is
La Mesa
(turn-off at Km 27), with a beautiful, white colonial church. The old rough road heads south through
Soná
and rejoins the Pan-American at
Guabalá
. The paved highway from Santiago to Guabalá saves a couple of hours.

Las Lajas
, has good beaches. Facilities are limited: there is a small restaurant,
La Estrella del Pacífico
, about 1 km to the east, but apart from that remember to bring your own food and drink from town. Watch out for strong waves and sharks. From there it's a short taxi trip to the beach (taxis US$3), or you can walk the 3 km from San Félix. A turning left, 38 km west of Las Lajas, leads to Horconcitos and 13 km beyond on a dirt road, is the tiny fishing village of Boca Chica. From there you can cross in a few minutes to the island of
Boc a
Brava
 in the
Parque Nacional Marítimo Golfo de Chiriquí
.

Isla de Coiba

Some 80 km to the southeast is Isla de Coiba, which, at 503 sq km, is the largest island within Panamanian territory. A former penal colony, the limited interaction has ensured the protection of the plant, animal and marine life in the area which has been protected since 1992 as
Parque Nacional Coiba
. The park itself covers over 2700 sq km and includes areas of rich open ocean, Coiba and outlying islands and the second largest coral reef in the Eastern Pacific. On land the mostly untouched rainforest supports Panama's largest surviving colony of scarlet macaws, along with 146 other avian species. The marine environment, which in terms of pelagic life can only be rivalled by islands such as Cocos and the Galapagos, boasts 23 recorded species of whale and dolphin, including humpback, sperm and killer whales, some of which can spotted on dive trips to the island. Marine life of the fishy kind includes whitetip, bull, hammerhead and whale sharks in addition to manta and eagle rays.
Santa Catalina
, accessible from Santiago and then the small town of Sona, a route served by a few local buses per day, is a relaxed but fast-developing coastal village. Santa Catalina's main claim to fame has been as the location of some of Central America's best surfing breaks.
Scuba Coiba
, www.scubacoiba.com
, provides access to Coiba's unique submarine world. Numerous hotels in Santa Catalina cater to a wide range of budgets.

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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