The Interior

Shutterstock/46250095/Gualberto BecerraCross the Puente de las Américas from Panama City and you enter the most densely populated rural quarter of the country, a Panama that is in great contrast to the cosmopolitan capital and the Canal: colonial towns, varied agriculture, traditional crafts and music, Pacific beaches and beautiful mountain landscapes with good walking options. The Pan-American Highway crosses the region known as 'El Interior' (though the term can refer to any area outside the capital), en route to Costa Rica.

Panama City to Costa Rica

The Pan-American Highway, also known as the
Interamericana
, heads westwards along a well graded and completely paved road from Panama City through Concepción to the Costa Rican border for 489 km. Leaving Panama City, the Pan-American Highway crosses the
Puente de las Américas
over the Canal at the Pacific entrance (if on a bus, sit on the right-hand side - north - for the best views). The bridge was built between 1958 and 1962 by the USA to replace the ferry crossing. It is 1653 m long and, with a road surface to seaway distance of 117 m, there is ample room for all ships to pass below. The bridge, which has three lanes, is the only vehicular crossing on the Pacific side of the canal. There is also a pedestrian walkway for the length of the bridge, but muggings have occurred on the bridge even in broad daylight so take care. Buses run to a
mirador
on the far side of the bridge from the city.

La Chorrera

The first place you reach, 13 km from Panama City, is the small town of
Arraiján
. Another 21 km by four-lane highway (toll US$0.50) takes you to La Chorrera with an interesting store,
Artes de las Américas
, filled with wooden carvings. A branch road (right) leads 1.5 km to
El Chorro
, the waterfall from which the town takes its name. At Km 20, among hills, is the old town of
Capira
(good food is on offer next to the Shell station, Chinese- run). Just west of Capira is a sign indicating the turn-off to
Lídice
, 4 km north of the highway, at the foot of Cerro Trinidad (which local tradition calls 'the end of the Andes'). The town was the home of Czech immigrants who in 1945 succeeded in having the name changed from Potero to commemorate Lídice in their homeland, which suffered heavily in the Second World War.

The highway passes through the orange groves of Campana, where a 4-km road climbs to
Parque Nacional Altos de Campana
. Created in 1966, the 4816-ha park - the first in Panama - protects humid tropical forest growing on mountainous volcanic rock that forms picturesque cliffs ideal for walking and hiking.

San Carlos and beaches

At Bejuco, 5 km east of Chame, the road stretches down a 28-km peninsula to
Punta Chame
, with a white-sand beach, a few houses, and just one hotel/restaurant. At low tide, the sand is alive with legions of small pink crabs. There is a splendid view northeast to Taboga Island and the entrance to the Canal in the distance.

Beyond Chame are two beaches:
Nueva Gorgona
, 3 to 4 km long, waves increasing in size from west to east, and a well-stocked grocery store. A little further along the Pan-American is
Playa Coronado
, the most popular beach in Panama, but rarely crowded. Homeowners from Playa Coronado have installed a checkpoint at the turning, unaffiliated with the police station opposite. Be polite, but do not be deterred from using the public beach.

Opposite the turning to Playa Coronado is a road inland to Las Lajas and beyond to the hills and
Lagunas del Valle
, about one hour from the highway. Ten kilometres beyond Playa Coronado is the town of
San Carlos
, where there's good river and sea bathing (beware of jelly fish and do not bathe in the estuarine lake). There are not many restaurants in San Carlos, but there are plenty of food shops.

El Valle

Five kilometres on, a road to the right leads, after a few kilometres, to a climb through fine scenery to the summit of
Los Llanitos
(792 m), and then down 200 m to a mountain-rimmed plateau (7 by 5.5 km) on which is the comparatively cool, summer resort of El Valle. Four kilometres before El Valle is a parking spot with fine views of the village and a waterfall nearby. Soapstone carvings of animals, straw birds, painted gourds (
totumas
), carved wood tableware, pottery and
molas
are sold in the famous Sunday market, which is very popular with Panamanians and tourists. There is also a colourful flower market. The orchid nursery has a small zoo and Panama's best-known
petroglyphs
can be seen near the town. This is one of many good walks in the vicinity (ask directions); another is to the cross in the hills to the west of town.

Beyond El Valle is the
Canopy Adventure
, http://adventure.panamabirding.com, with a series of cables and wires whizzing you through the forest; the last stage swoops across the face of a waterfall. It's good for all ages and the whole experience takes about 1½ hours and includes a short hike through the forest. To get there from El Valle take a bus to El Chorro Macho or taxi to La Mesa.

Santa Clara and Antón

Santa Clara, with its famous beach, 115 km from Panama City, is the usual target for motorists. The beach is about 20 minutes from the Pan-American Highway, with fishing, launches for hire and riding. About 13 km beyond is Antón, which has a special local
manjar blanco
(a gooey fudge) and a crucifix reputed to be miraculous.

Penonomé

A further 20 km is the capital of Coclé province, Penonomé, an old town even when the Spaniards arrived. An advanced culture which once thrived here was overwhelmed by volcanic eruption. Objects revealed by archaeologists are now in Panama City, in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and in the local
Museo Conte de Penonomé
. The local university and the
Mercado de Artesanato
on the highway are worth a visit. There is a delightful central plaza with the air of a tiny provincial capital of times past. The town is often a lunch stop for motorists making the trip from Panama City to the western border.

Balneario Las Mendozas and Churuquita Grande

Just under 1 km northwest of Penonomé is Balneario Las Mendozas, on a street of the same name, an excellent, deep river pool for bathing in. Further down the Río Zaratí, also known as the Santa María, is
La Angostura
where the river dives down a canyon. The dirt access road is usually suitable for ordinary cars. There are copper- and gold-mining activities in this area and further north, beyond La Pintada, where a 35-km road has been built to
Coclecito
on the Caribbean side of the Continental Divide. The mining company is also involved in conservation work including reforestation near La Angostura. Northeast of Penonomé is
Churuquita Grande
(camping is possible near the river with a waterfall and swimming hole). There's a
Feria de la Naranja
(orange festival) held on the last weekend of January . From Penonomé you can visit
La Pintada
, a mountain village that makes a quiet stopping-off point for hiking and horse riding.

El Caño, El Copé and Natá

El Caño is 24 km west of Penonomé, and 3.5 km from the main road is the
Parque Arqueológico del Caño
, which has a small museum, some excavations (several human skeletons have been found in the burial site) and standing stones.

From El Caño (the ruins) you can take a
chiva
up into the mountains, changing to another at Río Grande, to the village of
El Copé
(direct buses from Panama City), which gives access to the
Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos
a protected forest of rubber trees with some good trails.

A further 7 km along the Pan-American Highway is
Natá
, one of the oldest towns in Panama and the Americas (1520). The early colonists fought constant attacks led by Urracá. The Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol (1522) is impressive, with interesting wood carvings. It is sady run-down now; donations gratefully received for restoration work.

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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