Tourism pamphlets boast that Veraguas is the only province with coasts on both oceans. This attribute doesn’t help the tourist because the Caribbean side across the mountains of the Continental Divide is still an undeveloped wilderness un-reachable by road. But the Pacific side has attractions in good measure.
The provincial capital, Santiago, has simple but good hotels and restaurants. Outside of town two excellent lodging options are the Hotel Vista Lago Ecoresort and the Mykonos Hotel. While in Santiago, a visit to the Veraguas Regional Museum might be of interest to see, among other things, archaeological exhibits donated by the Smithsonian Institute. It is open Monday to Friday.
A seemingly unlikely attraction is provided by a school, the Escuela Normal Superior Juan Demostenes Arosemena, built in 1936 and considered a national monument for its architecture. It also contains murals by the painter Roberto Lewis, including depictions of ‘The Holocaust of the Race’ and ‘Indian Nobility’ with Indian princesses riding on slave-borne litters.
Just 10 minutes from Santiago on the Pan American Highway is the turn-off to the picturesque village of Atalaya. Thousands flock to its church, Basilica Menor de San Miguel Arcángel, in March each year to revere the 18th century Atalaya Christ.
Veraguas has an excellent camping site at the forest reserve of La Laguna de la Yeguada. To get there, go up the Pan American Highway to Aguadulce and look for the road to El Jaguito. From here the campsite is 50 km up into the mountains on a good asphalt road by way of the town of Calobre. The forest reserve is supervised by the Environment Authority, ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Medio Ambiente). Park rangers charge a small fee for entrance to the reserve.
The province of Veraguas offers majestic mountain scenery. The mountain town of San Francisco de la Montaña, is proud custodian of an 18th century baroque church whose altar was restored by a Vatican artist and features carvings which depict the mixing of Spanish Catholicism with Indian culture.
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 Fé where the conquistadores arrived in 1557 to open the region’s gold mines and were given a hard time by the Indians under their fierce chieftan, the legendary Urraca. A swim in the Santa Maria River is an option on the way up – or down. A worthwhile place to visit is the charming Casa Mariposa hotel in Santa Fé which has an excellent restaurant and is also a sanctuary for toucans.
Veraguas’ main attraction is Coiba National Park, one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries and a corner- stone of the Eastern Pacific Marine Corridor, an area of protected zones for migrating fish and mammals from Ecuador to Costa Rica.
In 2005, after being a prison island for most of the 20th century Coiba, with it’s surrounding islands, was awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage site. This allowed Coiba to maintain its virgin nature in and above the water and is currently one of Panama´s top choices for divers. The Lonely Planet calls it “the best diving…between Mexico and Colombia”.
Non divers enjoy whale encounters, snorkeling on the largest coral reef in the East Pacific, visiting primary rain forest and wild life viewing including the rare Scarlet Macaw. Sport fishermen are still allowed to fish tuna, marlin and other large game fish inside the park.
Coiba can be visited via several dive or nature tour operators in Santa Catalina. This quiet fishing village on the Pacific coast of Veraguas can easily be reached (110 km or 1:45 hours) on a newly paved road south from Santiago through Soná. If you are coming from the west (Chiriquí) you turn off the highway at Guabala, passing on a newly paved road through Pto. Vidal and Soná.
Santa Catalina has a long-standing reputation as a surfing mecca and it’s consistent year round break is considered the best point break in Central America. For this reason, a variety of local and foreign owned hotels and restaurants have cropped up, offering a wide selection of activities, lodging and dining options. Whether you are interested in diving, surfing, snorkeling, whale watching, or you just like the beach or exploring new destinations and cultures, Santa Catalina could be your perfect destination.
Visit www.visitsantacatalina.com for more information.