Within the country, the Azuero Peninsula is regarded as the ‘real’, original Panama, which, unlike the Americanized canal zone, has preserved the traditional rural, Spanish way of life.
The people here mainly live from agriculture, even though tourism has been an additional source of income for some years now. An internationally renowned attraction that attracts thousands of visitors from abroad every year is the Las Tablas Carnival, which boasts the liveliest and most splendid processions and celebrations in Central America. As you travel from Panama City to the peninsula, you should stop at Natá. The small town is the oldest settlement on the American Pacific coast and was founded in 1522 as Natá de los Caballeros after a hundred mounted Spanish soldiers who fought a battle with the followers of the indigenous Kaziken Anatá. The Basílica Santiago Apóstol, the oldest church on the American mainland, stands here on the south-eastern edge of the village. Its wooden figures of saints inside have been restored with funds from the cultural programme of the German Embassy. Only a little younger than Nata is Parita, 10 kilometres north of Chitré, whose colonial centre has been preserved over the centuries. The fact that the inhabitants of Parita are proud of this architectural heritage can be seen from the well-kept streets and the houses built wall to wall with their red tiled roofs. A national celebrity is the mask maker Darío López, whose devilish dance masks are worn every year during the Corpus Christi celebrations in the nearby Villa de los Santos. Also worth a visit are the tranquil Chitré, capital of the province Herrera, and second largest city of the Azuero peninsula after Las Tablas. Take a short break and visit its church San Juan Bautista from the second half of the 19th century as well as the local Museo Herrera. Its exhibits range from prehispanic finds to the history of regional handicrafts and the more recent past of the province. Las Tablas, on the other hand, can be skipped outside the carnival season, as the small town offers little to see apart from the carnival days.
Playa Venao on the southern coast of the Azuero Peninsula forms a wide, 3 km long bay, whose waves have made it the most famous surfing spot in the country. Beach lovers have only discovered this half-moon bay in recent years, together with real estate agents and foreign investors, who are planning a major resort hotel and holiday home project despite the lack of environmental studies and protests from neighbouring communities. On the other hand, environmental activists and committed citizens are trying to reforest the tropical dry forest, one of the most sensitive and threatened ecosystems in the world, which has been destroyed by centuries of pasture farming.
Despite these threats, Playa Venao is still off the beaten tourist track. A larger selection of restaurants, banks, shopping facilities and even reliable telephone lines can only be found in Pedasí, just 40 km away. On holidays and the weekends of the dry season, there is usually a small tent city of the surfers at this beach section. Another protected beach is La Playita, east of Playa Venao and the research laboratory Laboratorio Achotines, which is dedicated to the reproduction cycle of the yellowfin tuna. In Cañas, a few kilometres west of Playa Venao, visitors can catch boats to the Isla de Cañas and the turtle sanctuary.
The most beautiful beach of the Azuero peninsula can be found on Isla Iguana in front of Pedasí. Thanks to the coral reef there, which also provides a good snorkeling area, it consists of coral sand and is almost white. Tours to the protected island start in Pedasí. The small town has the reputation of being one of the most charming towns in Panama. For some years now, Pedasí has been experiencing a real boom, which has only been temporarily slowed down by the global financial and economic crisis. Whether Pedasí’s relaxed, friendly atmosphere will be able to cope with this rush remains to be seen. For example, a Los Angeles-based brokerage firm has bought land in the Pedasí area and started marketing the place in Hollywood. If one believes the rumours, stars like Mick Jagger, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Eddie Murphy are among those who have already invested.
The Azuero Peninsula is the cradle of the Spanish “Mestizo” culture and its pronounced folkloric traditions. Since the majority of Panamanians consider themselves to be Mestizos, these traditions are perceived as Panamanian national culture. Among their central elements are:
The Pollera, the female national costume, is embroidered by hand which often takes months, mostly red and blue, and worn with valuable jewellery on official occasions. Every year in July the Festival de la Pollera takes place in Las Tablas.
The Sombrero Pintao is the actual Panama hat. The densely woven straw hat owes its name as a ‘painted’ hat to the woven patterns of darker material. Many men on the Azuero Peninsula wear it every day for every occasion, as it is just as practical in the tropical sun as the Pollera is extravagant.
The Música Folclórica sets the rhythm for almost all celebrations and folk dances. The small bands consist of an accordion, two different drums and a churuca – a hollow calabash, which is beaten with a metal fork. Other forms of folk music are the Mejorana, which is played on the five-string Mejoranera guitar, and the Tamborito, a drum based music with call (of the lead singer) and response (of the choir), which goes back to African traditions.
The Máscaras are an essential element of the carnival and Ascension Day celebrations. Above all, the almost Chinese looking devil masks of the Diablitos, although based on traditions of the Peruvian highlands, are famous for their rich colours and wild dances.