When it comes to guidebooks, Veraguas usually gets the shaft. Santa Fe in the north gets a nod and of course Santa Catalina and Isla Coiba to the south claim a few pages, but everything else seems to be absent. And while those are wonderful places to visit, if you’re looking for waterfalls, mountains, rivers, […]
When it comes to guidebooks, Veraguas usually gets the shaft. Santa Fe in the north gets a nod and of course Santa Catalina and Isla Coiba to the south claim a few pages, but everything else seems to be absent. And while those are wonderful places to visit, if you’re looking for waterfalls, mountains, rivers, and a genuine Panamanian experience, you have some wonderful and less-explored alternative options in the area.
As Santa Fe de Veraguas rises as a popular tourist destination and a refreshing alternative to the heavily gringo-populated Boquete, another quaint, charming town lies nearby. In terms of tourism infrastructure, Santa Fe is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else in the area. But if you’re looking for an authentic Panamanian, small-town experience and would like to be the only foreigner around, allow us to suggest a day trip to Cañazas.
Cañazas is located just an hour bus ride direct from Santiago. Nestled at the foothills of the mountains, the gorgeous ride in alone makes the trip worth it as the bus weaves through the Cañazas Valley. As you approach the town, keep your eyes pealed for the deep, man-made lakes that served the old gold mine. The mine is now closed, but rumor has is that you can still pan in the rivers and not come back empty handed.
The town center, surrounded by mountains on either side, contains a lovely church, a brand-new park, several convenience stores, a bar, and two restaurants. But the real allure lies in the experience of simply strolling around this quaint town and taking in the daily activities: the baker making bread, kids picking fruit from the trees, campesinos headed to the countryside with machetes in hand, the church bells singing out the hour. The district is one of the poorest in Veraguas, but the little town serves as an economic and cultural hub for the surrounding villages. Don’t forget to take a short walk uphill from the town center for a drink at Los Alpes, an appealing Panamanian bar named for it’s elevated location in town.
Locals will recommend a day at Rio Cañazas, a river about 25 minutes walking (although often one can hitch a ride) from the town center and popular for picnics. A closer option, and my recommendation, is the quebrada de Corozal, which translates as the ravine in Corozal, a neighborhood in town. From the town center, it’s a quick, ten minute walk. During the rainy season (June-December), this rock canyon fills up and makes for an excellent swimming hole. The views are beautiful and the location known as “el negro” is a great natural diving board. From the top of the rock, it’s about a 13 foot leap down into the blue pool below. Bring your camera for some stunning photos of the natural rock formations.
For the really adventurous, there is an enormous waterfall about a 4 hour hike away. First you need to take a pickup truck (known as “chivas”) to Las Lajones. From there, it’s a hike through a valley, across a few shallow rivers, and then up the mountain. Technically, this isn’t even Northern Veraguas anymore, as at this point you’ll enter the jungle of the Comarca Ngabe Bugle. To do it in a day, you’ll have to leave early in the morning and get back by late afternoon, and you’ll definitely need a local guide. It’s out there, but the sheer size of this waterfall is worth the visit. Note that it might not be accessible in the later part of the wet season. For a local guide, contact Manuel (6720-1612). He only speaks Spanish but he’s patient and helpful.
A smaller and more accessible waterfall, known as Chorro El Barniz, a beautiful swimming oasis, is located in Los Panamaes. From the main terminal in Cañazas, you catch a ride in a chiva to Los Panamaes and from there it’s a quick walk to the swimming hole. You’ll most likely have the waterfall and natural pool all to yourself. Note that normally there are only two chivas that run this route each day, one around 7:00AM and the other around 1:00PM. If there is no transport, it’s fine to hike there as it’s not too far and the path is clearly marked the whole way. Ask locals for advice or call Manuel (6720-1620).
When to go:
December 3rd is Patronales in Cañazas and the town is lively with fireworks, music, traditional dances, and discotecas in the open air cantinas, known as “jardines.”
November 11th is the date when the news of independence reached Cañazas, and while other days during the month are independence holidays as well, locals celebrate the 11th with special pride. A long parade, with participants coming from all over the country, characterizes the festivities. One local tradition is the climbing of a tall wooden pole put in the center of town specially for this day. The kids cover themselves with flour to help them grip and then stack one on top of the other trying to reach the flag at the top of the pole. It’s a sight to be seen, and you surely know it’s independence month in Cañazas when flour-covered children are seemingly falling from the sky.
A great camping destination in Northern Veraguas is located just north of Calobre. La Yeguada is a nature reserve created in the 1960’s. Wikipedia refers to it as a “massive volcano complex” and I’m not totally sure what that means but it sounds like somewhere you’ll want to visit. Upon arrival, you might be perplexed as to whether you’re still in Panama or somehow stumbled into the wilderness of Michigan. Planted over 40 years ago, the expansive Caribbean pine tree forest spreads around the banks of the lake. The reserve is great for fishing, hiking, and horse-back riding. The area also boasts waterfalls, hot springs, and a coffee farm. If you ask the locals, tours should be easily available.
The word is out about Santa Fe. You’ll now find it in almost all tourist guidebooks about Panama. Yet, in comparison to other highland tourist towns, Santa Fe still retains a very Panamanain, tranquilo vibe and is a great escape from the heat. Here are our top recommendations for Santa Fe:
Hostal La Qhia: Great prices, nice facility, cool owner. Also they can hook you up with sweet activities to do around Santa Fe. But avoid the overpriced breakfast in favor of one of the local restaurants (fondas). Dorms or private rooms available. Their website, here.
The Blue Iguana: Owned by Ed, a friendly expat from Austin, Texas, this place debatably has the best burgers in Panama. Expect U.S. prices. Sit in the outdoor patio area for a great view of the mountains. Additional reviews, here.
William Abrego (6583-9544) leads this beautiful trip down the river. It’s not white water rafting, but, especially in the rainy season, don’t expect a lazy river either.
Cool market in the center of town that sells fruit, vegetables, and artisan crafts like indigenous woven bags (chacaras) and wallets made of recycled milk cartons.
Ask the staff at La Qhia for their recommendations or if you are interested in a guided tour by foot or by horse, Cesar Miranda (6792-0571) comes recommended.
Organic Farm Tour
Coffee, orchids, organic produce, etc. Call Hector Gallego Foundation to arrange a tour (954-0737) or talk to the La Qhia staff.
Manuel (Cañazas waterfall guide): 6720-1620
William Abrego (tubing): 6583-9544
Cesar Miranda: 6792-0571
Hector Gallego Foundation (organic coffee tour): 954-0737