Last update: November, 2009
The "Central provinces" of Panama include the provinces of Coclé, Veraguas, Herrera and Los Santos, situated to the west of Panama City, along the Pan-American Highway.
Their main attraction is their culture. A region of quaint little towns, history and strong religious beliefs, their relative isolation from Panama City during the colonial period contributed to the strength of their Hispanic traditions.
The city of Penonomé, capital of the Coclé province, can serve as a center from which visitors can discover some interesting sites, including the town of La Pintada, known for the famous "Sombrero Pintado" hats, which are an important element of the "Montuno", Panama’s national costume for men.
Other attractions are the archaeological museums of Sitio Conte and El Caño, where skeletal remains and tools dating from the pre-Columbian period are displayed. The museums are located between Penonomé and the town of Natá, which boasts the oldest Catholic church of the Western Hemisphere.
The highway passes through Aguadulce with its thousands of acres of shrimp farms before striking west ward once again to bring the traveller to Veraguas, the only province with coasts on both oceans. Its capital, Santiago, has simple but good hotels and restaurants. Outside of town two excellent lodgins are the Hotel Vista Lago Ecoresort and Posada El Peregrino. The Veraguas Regional Museum has archaeological exhibits donated by the Smithsonian Institute. It is open Monday to Friday. A somewhat unlikely attraction is provided by a high school, the Escuela Normal Superior Juan Demostenes Arosemena, built in 1936 and considered a national monument for its architecture.
Just 10 minutes from Santiago on the Interamerican Highway is the picturesque village of Atalaya. Thousands flock to its church, San Judas Tadeo, in March each year to revere the 18th century Atalaya Christ.
The province of Veraguas also offers majestic mountain scenery. The mountain town of San Francisco de la Montaña, is proud custodian of an 18th century baroque church, which is virtually intact.
On the way to San Francisco de la Montaña you pass the El Rosario farm which, apart from providing a refreshment stop at its "lookout" where you can buy fresh cheeses and yoghurts, offers a look at a working farm and fine paso horses. You can even milk a cow.
Further on and up, to the end of the road in the peaks of the Continental Divide towers the tiny township of Santa Fe. A swim in the Santa Maria river is an option on the way up — or down.
From Santiago, visitors can venture out to the Gulf of Montijo, and from there, to the fishing meccas of Leones, Cebaco, Gobernadores and Coiba, on the Pacific. The port of Mutis, several miles out of Santiago gives access to Coiba, Panama’s largest island, which lies at the heart of the Coiba National Park, an especially rich marine habitat, now a World Heritage Site.
In the early days of the 20th century before "ecology" and "conservation" became household words, the Panamanian Government built a penal colony on the island. Its surrounding waters teemed with sawtooth, deterrants to would-be escapees.
The colony has moved to another location so that now neither tourists nor wildlife will be frightened by the inmates.
Divers say the waters around Coiba and the Gulf of Chiriqui make this one of the world’s top locations for adventure diving for big fish and mammals.
The quiet fishing village of Santa Catalina on the Azuero Peninsula is the best point of departure for Coiba and some of the world’s most spectacular dive sites around Coiba National Park. Surfing is also excellent. The village is accessible by a new, paved road and offers various hostels and cabins. Tourism is new, but exciting, in this remote area.
UNESCO comments: "Coiba National Park, off the southwest coast of Panama, protects Coiba Island, 38 smaller islands and the surrounding marine areas within the Gulf of Chiriqui. Protected from the cold winds and effects of El Niño, Coiba’s tropical, moist forest maintains exceptionally high levels of endemism of mammals, birds and plants due to the ongoing evolution of new species. It is also the last refuge for a number of threatened animals such as the Crested Eagle. The property is an outstanding natural laboratory for scientific research and provides a key ecological link to the Tropical Eastern Pacific for the transit and survival of pelagic fish and marine mammals".