The Azuero Peninsula
Panama’s Azuero Peninsula is a paradoxical place. It’s a heavily settled, terribly deforested land where wilderness has largely been supplanted by farms. In some places erosion has transformed forest into wasteland.
Yet it still feels isolated from modern Panama, frozen in an idyllic past, and there’s lots of charm and natural beauty left. It’s a land both much beloved and much abused.
The Azuero is inevitably called Panama’s “heartland,” a designation that overlooks the country’s widely scattered indigenous populations, not to mention, for instance, those of African descent.
Still, the peninsula occupies an important, almost mythological, place in the Panamanian psyche. It is the wellspring of Panama’s favorite folkloric traditions, many of which originated in Spain but have taken on a uniquely Panamanian form—often thanks, ironically enough, to borrowings from the above-mentioned indigenous and African peoples.
Beautiful traditional clothing, such as the stunning pollera (hand-embroidered dress), and handicrafts, such as ceramics based on pre-Colombian designs, originated and are still made on the Azuero. The same is true of some important musical and literary traditions.
Even Panama’s national drink, the sugarcane liquor known as seco, is made here. Traces of Spanish-colonial Panama—rows of houses with red-tile roofs and ornate ironwork, centuries-old churches overlooking quiet plazas—are easy to find, especially in well-preserved little towns such as Parita and Pedasí.
Most of all, the Azuero is known for its festivals. It has the biggest and best in the country, from all-night bacchanals to sober religious rituals. It’s rare for a single week to go by without some festival, fair, holy day, or other excuse for a major party somewhere on the peninsula.
At the top of the heap is Carnaval, held during the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday. No Latin American country outside of Brazil is more passionate about Carnaval than Panama, and no part of Panama is more passionate about it than the Azuero.
For all the affection the Azuero inspires among Panamanians, most who live outside the peninsula know it only as a place to come for festivals. It flies below the radar of most foreign visitors altogether. But those who want a taste of an older, more stately Panama should consider a visit. In some places, it’s as though the 20th century never happened.
Tourism is, however, beginning to come to the east-coast beaches, especially Pedasí, Playa Venao, and, most recently, Playa Cambutal. Some of the lodgings and tour operations are appealing. Others seem to exist primarily to create a market for real-estate sales. Buyer beware.
Don’t expect pure white sand. But those who don’t mind brown, gray, and in some cases black sand will have no trouble finding a deserted seaside paradise. The beaches are wide and long, often backed by rugged cliffs and facing rolling surf. Their waters are filled with big fish and, in some places, extensive coral. Isla Cañas, off the south coast of the Azuero, is the most important nesting spot for sea turtles on Panama’s Pacific coast: Tens of thousands lay their eggs there each year.
The interior of the peninsula is taken up mostly by farmland, cattle pasture, and towns. There are few facilities for visitors there, but visiting this heart of the “heartland” is like stepping back in time.
The people of the Azuero are among the friendliest in Panama, and the percentage of smiles per capita seems to go up the farther south you head. People seem not just content but genuinely happy. It’ll probably rub off on you.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition