From Panama City: Chitré is 250km (155 miles), Las Tablas is 282km (175 miles), and Pedasí is 324km (201 miles)

Entering the Azuero Peninsula past Divisa, you'll feel as if you've gone back in time a hundred years. The Azuero Peninsula is considered the cradle of Panamanian folklore and rural culture, passed down from Spanish colonists who settled here during the 17th and 18th centuries. The region is dotted with terra-cotta-tile-and-gingerbread representations of early Spanish villas, and everything is very, very slowly paced -- except when residents join together for the raucous festivities for which this region is famous. Nowhere in Panama is Carnaval celebrated with as much gusto as it is here in the Azuero, especially in towns such as Las Tablas and Chitré; and religious festivals honoring saints are livened with fireworks, music, and costumed folkloric dances that are as pagan as they are Catholic. Really, the best time to visit the peninsula is during Carnaval, though you'll want to be sure to book your hotel in advance. The Azuero Peninsula is the birthplace of the pollera, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful traditional dresses in the world. Seco, the sugar-cane alcohol and national drink, hails from this region, too. But what makes the Azuero Peninsula special are its people. Panamanians are remarkably friendly, but Azuero residents are beguiling in their fondness for greeting strangers, so practice your "buenos días" and get ready to smile.

The Azuero Peninsula protrudes south from the Panamanian isthmus into the Pacific Ocean, separating the Gulf of Panama to the east and the Gulf of Chiriquí to the west; most of the peninsula is within the Herrera and Los Santos provinces. It is about 100km (60miles) wide and 90km (55 miles) long and, sadly, most of the terrain has been completely denuded because of the region's large-scale cattle production. Indeed, a visitor who has just come from the green and lush panorama farther north is in for a surprise here in the Azuero. Some areas, such as Sarigua National Park, have been so thoroughly stripped of vegetation that they are now considered a desert. Oddly, most towns sit inland despite the beautiful coastline here -- but investors and foreigners are starting to move in, especially near Pedasí and Playa Venado. This pristine coast could see changes during the next few decades.

So where to go and how to best see this region? You'll notice that destinations or towns in this section seem to include only the highlights, but in most cases there is just one museum or one church to see in each village. Also, decent lodging is scarce here, the reason you won't see much listed outside of Chitré and Pedasí. My advice is to rent a car in Panama City or Chitré and take in the sights at your own pace, stopping from town to town and lodging near Pedasí. This picturesque village has the widest range of lodging and dining options, is close to beaches, and has snorkeling, surfing, and diving, too. If you have a car, you'll also be able to stop at roadside stands that dot the Carretera Nacional and sell everything from fresh watermelon to sausages; there are fondas, or cheap food stands, too, with fried Panamanian snacks, as well as open-air cantinas that sell three beers for $1 (50p). There are no commercial flights to Chitré and Pedasí (though there are charter flights). Bus service is inexpensive, but you'll need a taxi to get around from the station. It takes more than 4 hours to reach Pedasí by vehicle from Panama City; those with enough time might consider breaking up the trip with a stay in El Valle or on the Pacific Coast.