About 25km (16 miles) after Divisa is Parita, one of the most charming villages in Panama. It's a very humble place, but the streets are lined with well-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture. At the plaza is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, but apart from this there really aren't any attractions here other than city streets to be wandered and photographed. If you're driving along the Azuero Peninsula, make this a quick stop on your itinerary.
La Villa de los Santos
Just 4km (2 1/2 miles) south of Chitré, you'll cross over Río la Villa and into Los Santos Province. A few minutes later, you'll arrive at the colonial town La Villa de Los Santos, often referred to simply as "Los Santos." This is the site of the famous "Cry of Independence," when Panamanians issued the first official request to liberate themselves from Spanish rule. The letter of request was signed on November 10, 1821, inside what is now the Museo de la Nacionalidad (tel. 966-8192; Tues-Sat 8am-4pm; admission $1/50p adults, 75¢/40p students, 25¢/15p kids 11 and under). The most interesting aspect of the museum, located on the northwest side of Parque Simon Bolívar, is the lovely building it is housed in, with lofty ceilings and handmade ceramic floors. The curators have set up the room to show how it would have looked during the signing of the declaration. There is also a display of pre-Columbian ceramics and other odds and ends, but not enough to keep you here more than 15 minutes.
More worthwhile is a visit to the most beautiful church in the Azuero Peninsula, Iglesia de San Atanacio, also located on the Bolívar plaza. This baroque, statuesque church was declared a national monument since most of the interior decorative work is intact from the year it opened, 1782. Some features of the church are even older -- the church was built in stages beginning with the retablo (the structure forming the back of the altar) in 1721, and the ornamented archway in 1733. The altar and archway are simply gorgeous, intricately carved with cherubs and flowers that are almost completely covered with gold leaf and decorative paint. There is also a wooden, full-scale sculpture of Christ, as well as plaques designating the names of priests who are buried here.
This blink-and-you-miss-it village is nationally famous for its yearly La Mejorana festival; you'll notice the permanent stage set up in the plaza. Guararé has its charms, but the village is so tranquil it feels almost abandoned. If you're driving past, take a quick spin through town and visit the Museo Manuel F. Zarate (tel. 994-5644; Tues-Sat 8am-4pm; admission 75¢/40p adults, 25¢/15p kids 12 and under), on Calle 21, 2 blocks behind the church. Located within the graceful old home of the founder of La Mejorana festival, this quaint folkloric museum, like all the region's museums, strives to do more but is under-funded. Expect to find dusty displays of polleras from the early 1900s, devil masks, and photos of past reigning queens of La Mejorana festival. Guararé is located 26km (16 miles) south of Chitré; turn on the road at the grocery store.
Las Tablas is the provincial capital of Los Santos, known as the "cradle of national folklore" chiefly for its famous Carnaval festivities. The spruce town is made of adobe colonial homes with iron balustrades and terra-cotta roofs, interspersed with more modern, utilitarian architecture and service-oriented businesses. It has more of a city feel to it than even Chitré, but really, it's a quiet place without much to see or do except wander the streets and relax in the plaza with an ice-cream cone. Most tourists visit Las Tablas only for Carnaval, or on their way south to Pedasí.
The town's sole museum, Museo de Belisario Porras (tel. 994-6326; Tues-Sat 8am-4pm; admission 50¢/25p adults, 25¢/15p kids), located on the south side of the plaza, pays homage to Panama's national hero and three-term president Dr. Belisario Porras, who died in 1942. The museum is inside Porras's old home, and features military decorations, stamps with his likeness, and documents pertaining to his time spent as a national leader, but this museum is easily skipped.
Getting There & Departing -- By Bus or Taxi -- The bus terminal is located about 5 blocks north of the plaza, on the Carretera Nacional and Avenida Dr. Emilio Castro. Buses to Las Tablas from Panama City leave every hour from 6am to 7pm. Buses to Panama City generally leave every hour from 6am until about 5:30pm. Hours change frequently, so it's a good idea to pop in and buy your ticket and check schedules; the fare is $8 (£4) for buses with air-conditioning. To Pedasí, buses run every 45 minutes from 6am to 7pm, and cost $2 (£1). Taxis are plentiful in Las Tablas; there are taxis at the bus terminal and also at the taxi stand at Calle 2 and the Carretera Nacional, next to the Banco Nacional. A taxi to Pedasí costs about $20 (£10).
By Car -- Las Tablas is 282km (175 miles) from Panama City, and 32km (20 miles) from Chitré. The Carretera Nacional funnels into town and passes the main plaza; if continuing on, you'll need to hang a left at the end of the plaza (Calle Belisario Porras) to keep following the Carretera Nacional out of town.
Playa Venado (often called "Venao") is an up-and-coming destination notable for its surfing and half-moon sandy beach. The surf here breaks left and right, great for both pros and beginners. There's no sign to Playa Venado, so keep your eyes open for the turnoff, about 1.5km (1 mile) from the Playita Resort. If you don't have a vehicle, you'll need a taxi, which will charge around $15 (£7.50). Like most of the beaches in this area, currents bring in trash -- also, during high tide the sand fills with crabs, making swimming unpleasant. Low tide brings better swimming conditions. The beach at La Playita is more suitable for swimming, but they charge $3 (£1.50) to use it. There are four very basic cement cabins on the beach, called Jardin Cabañas y Restaurante Vista Hermosa, popular with surfers and backpackers (tel. 995-8107; $14/£7 per night), and camping is free. Their restaurant serves cheap meals of mostly seafood, beans and rice, and cold beer. During surf competitions this area can take on a party atmosphere. Other lodging options are listed below.
The coastline of the Azuero Peninsula is rich with marine life and pelagic fish like tuna -- so much so that it is often called the "tuna coast." Here at Playa Venado, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), which monitors tuna fishing to prevent its depletion, has a research facility, Achotines Laboratory (tel. 995-8166; www.iattc.org), that offers educational tours. It sounds dry, but it's actually fascinating to see the various stages of tuna reproduction (among other fish like sea bass and snapper), and especially to witness the frenzy that occurs when the staff feed huge broodstock yellowfin tuna. Kids love it. Visiting hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30am to noon and from 1 to 4:30pm. You must make advance arrangements.
About 11km (6 1/2 miles) from Playa Venado is the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla de Cañas, an island village that receives more nesting turtles than any other location on the Pacific Coast. From April to October, hundreds of thousands of Pacific green, olive ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, and hawksbill turtles arrive here to lay eggs, but there is no surefire date that guarantees you'll see any. The view of Isla de Cañas, a barrier island reached by boat, is worth seeing even if you do not visit the island itself. Getting here is difficult because there is only one local boat that can take you from the mainland (it leaves from the end of the road); if you show up, it may or may not be there; the aforementioned Buzos de Azuero offers tours to the island.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.