Chitré is the capital of Herrera Province, and it is the largest town on the Azuero Peninsula, founded in 1848. Many of the streets here ooze charm, yet on the whole Chitré isn't as picturesque as Pedasí. Many of its colonial buildings have been replaced by more utilitarian structures, and the downtown bustles with shops hawking cheap plastic goods and clothing. Chitré does offer plentiful services, including lodging and car rental, and it can be a convenient base for exploring the region, but don't expect 17th century colonial charm. Visitors during Carnaval will find higher-quality lodging here than in Las Tablas, but this option is better for those with a rental vehicle (don't forget that Chitré is pretty lively, too, during Carnaval). Before arriving at Chitré, you'll pass through the tiny village of La Arena.

You'll see an ATP tourism office just before you enter La Arena, but the location is not very convenient, on Calle 19 de Octubre -- when the road forks in La Arena, head right toward La Villa los Santos (tel. 974-4532; daily 8:30am-4:30pm). The tourism office has a helpful staff and a limited amount of printed information about the history of the area and attractions.

Fast Facts -- Banks: There are 24-hour ATMs at HSBC bank on Avenida Herrera, 1/2 block north from the plaza; and Banco Nacional on Paseo Enrique Greenzier, near the Hotel Versailles. Internet: Sanchi (tel. 996-9040), at Calle Aminta Burgos de Amado, 1 block west from the plaza, is open daily from 8am to midnight. Laundry: Lavandería Express is on Avenida Herrera, 1/2 block from the plaza. Police: tel. 996-4333.

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Getting There & Departing

By Plane -- At press time, there were no regularly scheduled commercial flights between Panama City and Chitre. To charter a private flight, contact Air Panama (tel. 316-9000).

By Bus & Taxi -- The Transportes de Herrera bus terminal, a $1.15 (60p) taxi ride from the center of town, is located on Calle 19 de Octubre (also called Av. Roberto Ramírez de Diego). The turnoff for this street is next to the Hotel Hong Kong. Buses to and from Panama City cost $7 (£3.50) and run every hour between 6am and 6pm; the trip is 3 1/2 hours. Buses to Las Tablas leave every 15 minutes from 6am to 6:30pm and cost $1.25 (65p). For buses to Pedasí, you'll need a bus to Las Tablas, and then you must transfer to a Pedasí-bound bus. Or you can take a taxi for $25 (£13).

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By Car -- When you arrive at La Arena, just before Chitré, the road forks; take the left road and continue along the Carretera Nacional, which will take you directly into the center of town. If you turn right at the plaza, the road will funnel back into the Carretera Nacional south to La Villa de los Santos. Chitré is 37km (23 miles) from the start of the Carretera Nacional at Divisa, and 252km (157 miles) from Panama City.

For rental cars in Chitré, try Hertz (tel. 996-2256; www.hertz.com), located in front of the bus terminal; or Thrifty (tel. 996-9565; www.thrifty.com), which is on Paseo Enrique Geenzier, just west of the Hotel Versalles.

What to See & Do

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There really isn't much to do in the town itself, other than pay a quick visit to the Museo de Herrera (tel. 996-0077; Tues-Sat 9am-4pm; admission free at press time) at Calle Manuel María Correa and Avenida Julio Arjona; you'll recognize the whitewashed colonial building -- it sticks out from its more modern neighbors. The museum staff has put a lot of effort into providing visitors with a better understanding of the anthropology and ecology of the Herrera Province, but however well-meaning the staff is, the museum is clearly under-funded. Still, there are a few gems here, including pottery dating back to 2500 B.C., and folkloric costumes and polleras. There is a small library with research books about the region; signs are in Spanish only, but the staff is working on an English-language informational brochure.

Take a step into the lovely Catedral de San Juan Bautista on the plaza, built at the turn of the 20th century with a bold stone exterior and exposed-wood interior with stained glass and chandeliers.

La Arena

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This tiny artisans' village is almost entirely dedicated to pottery making, which began during pre-Columbian times. Most of the vendors who hawk their ceramics along the two principal streets here sell gaily-painted pots called tinajas, which traditionally were used as all-purpose storage vases but are now primarily decorative. There are also wall hangings, flower pots, and animal figurines, but the best buy here: reproductions of terra-cotta-colored pre-Columbian vases and other such storage vessels. You'll have to look around to find these since it seems that the artisans are opting to create more modern styles, most of which are a little gaudy and not particularly attractive. For a good selection, head to the Mercado de Artesanías in the large, white building found where the road divides near the center of town (no phone; daily 9am-4:30pm). For traditional, pre-Columbian-influenced pottery, visit Cerámica Calderón (tel. 974-4946; daily 8am-5pm), whose owner, Angel Calderón, has been handcrafting beautiful, museum-quality pieces for half a century. Angel and his artisans offer to show visitors how the pieces are made, from pottery wheel to the voluminous ovens out back. The workshop is on the right just as you enter town. La Arena is only 2km (1 1/4 miles) west of Chitré.

Parque Nacional Sarigua (Sarigua National Park)

Ranking as one of the more bizarre national parks in Panama, Sarigua National Park protects nearly 809 hectares (2,000 acres) of lunarlike wasteland caused by the total destruction of native forest by settlers clearing land for cattle. The park protects large mangrove swamps along the coast, but mostly the protected area is something akin to a desert -- or so they'd like you to believe, but really, a visit here provides you with a vivid example of the devastation that occurs when indiscriminate deforestation takes place. After settlers cleared the region of its coastal forests, the forces of wind, ebbing tides, and rain eroded the acidic soil here, leaving deep fissures and oddly shaped land formations. The fascinating sight is, more than anything, a good lesson about protection of forests.

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The park lies along the coast and is reached by a well-signed road off the Carretera Nacional, about 10km (6 miles) from Chitré; after the turnoff continue following the signs. There is an ANAM park-ranger station with a lookout point over the expanse of Sarigua (tel. 966-8216 or 996-8165; admission is $3/£1.50), and that's about it. But if you've got the time, stop for a quick look.

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.