Freedom lovers can craft their own unscripted journey on a road trip along Panama’sInter-American Highway
. Unlike much of its Costa Rican counterpart, this road is well signed and well maintained, allowing road-trippers to focus less on the mechanics of driving and more on the journey itself.
Crossing the bustling Paso Canoas border between Costa Rica and Panama, 53 km along the four-lane Inter-American leads to David, the third largest city in Panama and the capital of Chiriquí province. A quick flight from San José, David is also a good place to rent a car and begin a road trip.
Driving through David in the early afternoon sun, the beach beckons. About 72 km down a two-lane strip of the highway stretches Las Lajas beach, a silver-sand expanse lined with beachside palapas. Driving to the newest and nicest hotel in the area, Las Lajas Beach Resort, I park and immediately skip to the beach to dip my feet in the cool Pacific waters. I have the wide, palm-fringed beach to myself and can set my towel anywhere – but I haven’t had enough road time. I decide it’s a “mountain” day.
Panama allows for such spontaneity. With great roads and short distances, you can go from the beach to the mountains within a couple of painless hours. Having heard of a place nestled within a remarkable mountain landscape called Cerro La Vieja, just outside the colonial town of Penonomé, I get back on the Inter-American. Counting down the kilometers stenciled in white on large green signs, I weave along the highway, stopping a couple of times to shop at the many roadside huts constructed by Guaymí indigenous people to protect the colorful, hand-stitched clothes fluttering in the wind. Carloads of tourists stop to stretch and peruse with me.
Almost 200 km later, I reach Santiago, a popular stop for travelers, with banks, gas stations and fast-food restaurants at every corner. Here, the road expands into four lanes, making the remaining 80 km to Penonomé fly by. Approaching the mountains, the air starts to cool, a welcome respite.
Choked with car and pedestrian traffic, Penonomé is not the easiest city to navigate. Finding myself in front of a police station, I stop to receive directions from an obliging officer. His instructions lead me through town and about 30 km into the countryside, the narrow road winding past grazing cattle and scattered houses.
Climbing, the landscape starts to reveal itself. Dramatic limestone hills bubble to the surface out of a green cauldron; round, conical and mushroom-shaped hillocks burst through the Earth’s skin. After 30 minutes and a couple of take-a-chance forks in the road, I start to question my sense of direction.
I venture deeper into the increasingly surreal landscape until, 20 minutes later, I am face to face with one of the thin, steep mountain faces. I know it before I see the sign: I have found Cerro La Vieja.
Turning left, I enter Cerro La Vieja Eco-Hotel and Spa. The hammock-strewn balconies peering over the valley, not to mention the well-equipped spa, grant the perfect reward.
Two days of hearty meals and hikes later, it’s time for a little sand and surf. Backtracking for about 30 minutes along the Inter-American to the small town of Divisa, I follow the turnoff over the bridge toward Chitré, the largest city on Panama’s AzueroPeninsula.
Azuero’s east coast is called the “arco seco,” or “dry arc,” because of scarce rainfall and deforestation. The hot, dusty drive through farmland and Spanish colonial towns provides a classic Western-movie backdrop. Also known as Panama’s cradle of folkloric traditions, the AzueroPeninsula is steeped in culture and history, expressed in more than 700 festivals throughout the year, including some of the most famous carnival festivities in Central America, in towns such as Las Tablas. It’s worth checking the tourism board’s Web site, www.visitpanama.com, to see what might be happening during a visit.
Twenty minutes from the Inter-American turnoff, I cross into Chitré, which, like most towns on the peninsula, sprawls out from a central plaza. Just before the town center is La Arena village, known for its handcrafted pottery: glazed and painted reproductions of pre-Columbian earthenware, as well as other decorative ceramics.
Chitré’s center radiates from Parque Unión plaza. Enveloping the 18th century San Juan Bautista cathedral, the park is a good place to stop and explore, and have lunch at one of the area’s restaurants. In addition, Chitré’s anthropology and natural history museum on the main street houses a fascinating collection of artifacts.
Back on the road, driving across lessertraversed highways through dry plains and Spanish colonial towns, the nostalgic feel of touring starts to set in. I continue some 75 km through Las Tablas to Pedasí. A dot on the map compared to Chitré and Las Tablas, Pedasí’s charm nonetheless outshines its neighbors. Small and picturesque, Pedasí is a throwback to days gone by. Warm breezes caress the sleepy village, and the central plaza’s gazebo invites lingering.
A nice base for exploration, Pedasí has a growing range of accommodations, most of which line the main road. On the economical side is the popular Dim’s Hostel, while the new sunflower-yellow Casita Margarita Boutique Hotel offers more comforts and a limited-menu restaurant. For the ultimate in relaxation and sophistication, 10 km outside of town stands French architect Gilles Saint-Gilles’ artfully crafted, seven-room Villa Camilla. A design-rich showcase for the adjoining Azueros real estate development, the elegant hotel has a wide range of amenities.
A handful of fully equipped beachside loft homes are also available for rent through the hotel. Surfers looking to be closer to the waves might consider Villa Marina at Playa Venado, 45 minutes from Pedasí, which has a beachside pool and a restaurant. In addition, several tour operators in Pedasí can take you to the untrammeled, white-sand beaches of Isla Iguana for snorkeling and diving, sunset horseback riding and fishing.
Returning to the Inter-American southbound, an hour’s drive leads to the El Valle de Antón exit. From here, an ascending 20-minute trip leads to the quaint town of El Valle, set within the crater of an inactive volcano.
A popular weekend getaway for expats and wealthy Panamanians with second homes in the area, El Valle boasts some of the country’s finest hotels and restaurants, including Los Mandarinos Boutique Spa and Hotel and the acclaimed La Casa de Lourdes restaurant. Featuring a distinctly rejuvenating atmosphere, the area offers an array of activities, from hiking to shopping in the vibrant Sunday market. It’s also just 30 minutes from some lovely beaches.
Heading back to the highway, a short drive leads to a new, gated beach resort community called the Bristol Buenaventura, an ultra-luxurious last stop before Panama City. If a casual picnic is more to your liking, Santa Clara beach, just up the road, offers palapas set in the sand. Or, you can squeeze in 18 holes at the nearby Coronado Golf and Beach Resort before heading on to the capital.
Where to Stay
Las Lajas Beach Resort, (507) 832-5463, www.laslajasbeachresort.com
Cerro La Vieja
Cerro La Vieja Eco-Hotel & Spa, (507) 263-4278, www.posadalavieja.com
Dim’s Hostel, (507) 995-2303, [email protected]
Casita Margarita Boutique Hotel, (507) 995-2898, www.pedasihotel.com
Villa Camilla, 2232-0171, www.villacamillahotel.com
Villa Marina, (507) 832-5044, www.playavenado.com
El Valle de Antón
Los Mandarinos Boutique Spa & Hotel, (507) 983-6645, www.losmandarinos.com
Bristol Buenaventura, (507) 264-0000, www.thebristol.com/buenaventura