The Azuero Peninsula extends far out from southern Panama into the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Panama. We were looking for an off the beaten track spot to chill out and get some beach time and heard this would be the perfect spot. As an added bonus we have family friends who live in the area and invited us to stay with them.
We took a bus to the town of Las Tablas. It is the main town on the peninsula and the heart of the region. Las Tablas is known for it’s colonial architecture, food and most of all it’s huge Carnival celebrations which take place in early February. There are several hotels, supermarkets and bars here making it a good base to explore the region, however it’s a few kilometers to the nearest beach so we decided to head straight to the coast. We called up our friends Michelle and John who offered to come pick us up; they’re some chilled out older expats who have been living in the little fishing village of Mensabe for the last 10 years.
Mensabe is tiny, really just one road, two restaurants and a slowly growing expat community. However, it is a busy little place. The center of town is a little port on the mouth of the Salado river. There is a constant stream of fishing boats pulling up, arriving from there two weeks out at sea. Right on the shore they unload their catch of tuna, dorado or red snapper. It’s an amazing sight to see the huge fish being thrown through the air into the crates that will take them to the markets of Las Tablas or Panama City. There are also a few guys bartering for single fish that, if you’re lucky enough, you can get your hands on; perfect for a barbecue or fish fry.
Another really cool aspect of Mensabe is the dramatic tide change, it rises and falls more than 5 meters. At low tide wavey sand bars and beaches are exposed making it possible to explore long stretches of the remote coast. The swimming is great and the scenery spectacular. When the tide is high, most of the beach disappears and some of the larger boats will come into the mouth of the river to unload their catch. On the far shore of the river is a big wooden sail boat. At low tide the boat is beached and leans awkwardly to one side, but when the tide comes in the water floats the boat and its gigantic 30 meter mast sticks straight up. We were astonished to hear three people live on the boat that is slanted half of each day.
After a few days in Mensabe we left to explore a different part of the Azuero Peninsula. Much of the area is mountainous and the climate is slightly cooler than the swealtering heat of the coast. In the mountains, near the town of Paraiso, Michelle and John have a second property – “the farm”. It’s a small house with lots of land on the side of a hill. They seem to grow everything here from papayas and pineapples to coffee, vegetables and cacao. There is a 30 meter waterfall just off the back deck that makes this place a special little part of paradise. We spent a few days walking around the mountains, meeting new friends or just relaxing in a hammock. When we finally had enough of the easy going expat life we decided to head further south to the tip of the peninsula and check out the little village of Cambutal.
Cambutal is about as far south as you can go on the Azuero Peninsula and is only recently starting to be developed for tourism. Locals know it for the mountains that come right up to it’s beautiful wide beach and a few surfers make it there for some breaks in the area. With infrequent bus service we decided it would be easiest to hitchike there. In a short time a family picked us up and drove us the hour and a half through the mountains to town. They dropped us at Hostel Kambutalecko which is one of the only backpacker budget places to stay in this part of the peninsula (Cambutal has a few small but high end resorts scattered along the beach). It was tough to stay in Cambutal for more than a few days as the little town is very spread out with few options for food (Kambutalecko’s restaurant was under construction and should open soon). Luckily the natural scenery made up for any infrastructure the town lacked. The black sand beach is wide and stretches for a few kilometers. The mountains are a beautiful green backdrop and a favourite hangout for white faced capuchins and big black iguanas. The water is great for swimming and you can snorkle right off shore. We enjoyed a few quite days of quality beach time before trading it all for the skyscrapers of Panama City.
Other Places of Interest on the Azuero Peninsula
Chitre: Chitre is the largest city on the peninsula and probably the first one you will come to. It is a main transportation and shopping hub. There are many hotels and restaurants as well as malls and banks. It’s a popular place for retirees and also has large Carnival celebrations (although not as big as Las Tablas).
Pedasi: Pedasi is a little town south of Las Tablas and is known as one of Panama’s most beautiful small towns. It has two banks and several restaurants and hotels. It is known for it’s prestine beaches (about 3km away), sport fishing and diving.
Playa Venao: Playa Venao is a little village on the coast just south of Pedasi. It has a beautiful beach and a few hostels and hotels. It is one of the most popular spots for surfers and hosted the 2007 Central America Surf Championship.
Isla Iguana: Isla Iguana is a small island 5km off shore north of Pedasi. It has a wildlife refuge with Panama’s largest colony of frigate birds (and many others) as well as black iguanas which gives the island its name. It also has 2 powdery white sand beaches and is surrounded by coral reef.
Isla Canas: Isla Canas isn’t actually an island but a long 13km stretch of beach mostly disconnected from land by a river and mangroves. It is Panama’s most important turtle nesting grounds with Olive Ridley, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, Leatherback and Loggerhead Turtle’s all coming here to nest (all of which are endagered of highly endangered except for the Olive Ridley).
Getting to the Azuero Peninsula: The Azuero Peninsula is in the centre of Panama and has a good highway along it’s eastern side, making the cities of Chitre and Las Tablas easily accessible from most places in Panama. There are small buses connecting most of the communities with less service the farther south you go. There is no road connecting to the western coast of the peninsula so to get there you have to go through the city of Santiago on the mainland.