Planning Your Time
It’s a straight shot, for instance, to pull off the road for a quick look at Parita, shop for pottery in La Arena, visit La Catedral de San Juan Bautista and El Museo de Herrera in Chitré, then pop by La Villa de Los Santos before ending up in Las Tablas for the night.
Those who have their own transportation can do all that in a day. Those relying on buses and taxis, however, should plan on spending at least two days in the area, probably making Chitré home base for excursions to the surrounding area.
And those who arrive during festival times should plan to stay longer than that, as many of the festivals are several days long. The biggest celebration is Carnaval in Las Tablas; Chitré’s Carnaval runs a close second. Bear in mind that just about everything shuts down during big celebrations.
Add at least one more day to visit more remote destinations, especially along the coast, where you’ll want time to enjoy the beach.
Nearly the entire Azuero is well served by buses. Bus service between the peninsula and other parts of Panama is also good. Buses run constantly, for instance, to and from Panama City and Chitré and Las Tablas.
Las Tablas and Chitré are the major transportation hubs on the Azuero. They can be used as bases for exploring the east coast of the peninsula, but those looking for good beaches should head all the way down to Pedasí, near the southeast tip of the Azuero.
To drive to the Azuero Peninsula from Panama City, head west on the Interamericana until Divisa, which is little more than a crossroads. Divisa is about 215 kilometers from Panama City, a drive that takes around three hours. There’s a new overpass across the highway there. Head south (left) here. Straight leads to Santiago and from there to western Panama.
Most of the notable towns in the Azuero are on a single main road, an ambitiously named carretera nacional (national highway) that runs down the east coast of the peninsula. The stretch of road from Divisa all the way to Pedasí is about 100 kilometers long and takes a little under two hours to drive. The stretch between Chitré and Las Tablas was widened to a divided four-lane road in 2010.
As is so often the case in Panama, it’s easy to drive right by a town that time forgot without noticing it. That’s because the part of the town abutting the main road is often quite ugly and industrial. It’s worth pulling off the highway or hopping off the bus from time to time to explore the older parts of the towns, which are set back from the road. The best bet for finding a slice of colonial quaintness is to head for the town church and check out the buildings set around its plaza.
The interior of the peninsula has a confusing network of roads of various quality. But a closer look reveals reasonably well-maintained loops that link up the towns of most interest to travelers. These are also served by buses.
The largest of the loops connects Chitré, Las Tablas, Pedasí, Tonosí, and Macaracas (a tiny town whose sole claim to national fame is its Epiphany Festival, held around January 6, during which it stages a reenactment of the gift of the Magis to the baby Jesus). The loop ends back at Chitré.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition