By Julia Henríquez Fotos
Photos: Demian Colman
Video: Producciones Puente
After a terrible year-long hiatus during which we learned to stay at home, the world finally seems to be reviving. Beach re-openings are just being announced, but our suitcases are already packed.
Our destination is Pedasí, a small town on the Azuero peninsula, bathed by the Pacific Ocean and framed by beaches and mountains. We are welcomed by Ovidio Díaz, President of the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Tourism. We will spend the next few days at his lovely Casa de Campo, a boutique hotel that operates in his parents’ former home. We sit on the terrace in the shade of a mango tree and listen to Ovidio proudly describe what his town has to offer. “Pedasí,” he says, “is more than beaches.” The beaches are certainly beautiful, but he dreams of a plaza bustling with tourists, artisans, and folklife. He outlines future projects, but he also tells us about the housing developments overlooking the sea, and gorgeous private villas that provide privacy for international celebrities like painter Jesús Soler.
Soler, a Spanish loner and lover of extremes, came here on a fishing trip some ten years ago. The ever-changing colors of the landscape and the serenity that infuses the air enchanted him. What is now known as Los Destiladeros Beach (about six miles from Pedasí) is one of the privileged corners of the world that has inspired his work. As we amble among the paintings, pieces of iron, and canvases, Soler reveals the oxidation process he is using now. His eyes glow as he shows us the projects in progress.
The enormous houses looking out to sea at Destiladeros attract people who, like Soler, are seeking a haven from global chaos, but Venao Beach (eighteen miles from Pedasí) is the region’s most popular beach. Celebrated in the surfing world for its waves, it has become a base for international competitions. It boasts the most extensive tourism infrastructure in the area, with everything from low-budget hotels and non-stop partying to family fun and total relaxation.
It was right here in Playa Venao that Selina, the fastest-expanding hostel chain in the world, was born.
At Venao we meet Esteban, from Eco Venao, a 346-acre reforestation project on what used to be grazing land. The project serves two entirely distinct yet linked goals: tourism and ecology. The ecological component looks to reforest the area with native plants and create a sustainable ecosystem, clean energy, recycling, and natural products, adding a “country” option to a beach destination. In pursuit of this goal, Eco Venao has created its own permaculture farm. The manager, Michael, explains the importance of respecting the cycles of nature as he shows us around. Here, every leaf and every animal fill specific niches that contribute to the common good, and the land is treated with respect.
After the tiring walk around the farm, it’s time to recharge our batteries. We head down the mountain, passing the river and the cabins, and we cross over to the project’s beach. We take a seat at the La Barca beach bar and admire the sunset as the Venao nightlife turns the peaceful beach into another destination entirely.
To discover Pedasí from a different perspective, we sign up for a day of tours offered by @ICT Experiencias (Isla Cañas Tours). We set out very early from Arenal beach, just two and a half miles from our hotel. We’re using the beach as a port today, but it is actually a nature reserve of endless sand, dunes, and mangroves, making Arenal a destination in its own right. But that’s for next time. Today, we climb into the boat and sail toward Isla Iguana.
Isla Iguana is a photographer’s dream, one of those places that seems like it couldn’t possibly exist outside the movies. The fine, white sand borders an intensely blue sea that cycles through lighter tones as it shades into the horizon. The colors of the water are simply breathtaking; hermit crabs gambol on the sand, and frigate birds wheel about the blue sky. The island, which served as a firing range during the U.S. occupation, is now a refuge for more than 5,000 frigate birds, innumerable crustaceans, turtles, and a stunning reef. Since the environmental protection project also aims to raise visitors’ awareness, pets, alcoholic beverages, and loudspeakers are prohibited inside the refuge. People come to Isla Iguana to revel in nature, sunbathe on the beach, walk the paths for a closer look at the seventeen species of birds that nest there, dive among the coral, and of course, to delight in the rulers of the island: the iguanas, which hide among the rocks until they feel bold enough to try to snatch a bit of food. Humans are definitely not in charge on this little patch of land.
We were well supplied with snacks and comfortable chairs by our guide, Blanca, but now it’s time to get on with the day and see what secrets it still has in store for us. We return to the mainland, savor a traditional dish at the Pedasideño restaurant, and traverse the twenty-six miles to the port of Las Cañas. We head for Isla Cañas, a small island perched between the sea and the river. The sun begins to drop below the horizon, providing us with a spectacular light show during our tour of the mangroves.
Isla Cañas, named a Wildlife Refuge in 1994, is the most important sea turtle nesting site on the Panamanian Pacific. More than twenty years ago, Isla Cañas was a fishing town that sold turtle eggs out of both tradition and necessity. Today, 95% of the inhabitants are in some way involved in the conservation of the seven species of sea turtles that return year after year to lay their eggs in the black sand. We are accompanied by Diego, who recounts the cultural changes the island has experienced since the eight miles of beach became protected.
The evening tour includes a cart ride through town and along the beach to the turtle nesting area, which is carefully guarded from July to November. Right now, in the off season, there are no mothers depositing their eggs nor newborns venturing on their first swim; Diego notes that he never promised us any turtles, given that nature has its own schedule and whims. What he can promise is a sunset among the mangroves and a walk under the starry night sky, and that is precisely what we get.
Mireya Moscoso House-Museum.
We decide to spend our last day strolling around town. We park the car at the corner of the plaza and wander around the blocks surrounding the square. The fallout from the pandemic is still visible and many establishments remain closed, but Pedasí surprises us with its colorful murals. Before leaving, we stop at a small white house with red doors that witnessed the childhood of the girl who would become the first female President of Panama: the Mireya Moscoso House-Museum.
We know that the city awaits, but for now we are in Los Santos, the land of tradition and folklore. We don’t want to leave the province without visiting the town of San José, home to the National Drum and Pollera (traditional dress) Festival. There we meet one of the last remaining drum makers. He invites us up onto his porch and describes how he works, from choosing a tree trunk to finishing the drum. He is such a spare man that it’s hard to imagine him cutting down a tree and hauling it here, but his eyes reflect his passion for his art, and I can understand the strength it gives him. We also get to know Alvin and his mother, Mirna.
Born artisans, their knowledge was handed down by the family’s female elders and talent runs in their veins. They describe the various styles of pollera, the meaning of the designs, and the importance of the headpieces and jewelry that complement the dress.
After a dip in the sea, a beer by the water, a swim along the reef with a puffer fish, a walk through the forest, a tour of the mangroves, one master class in permaculture, and another in Panamanian folklore, we bid farewell to the Azuero peninsula, hoping that this new taste of freedom lasts long enough to allow our readers to likewise enjoy this amazing experience.
Paradise in Panama: The Coastal Village of Pedasí
Pedasí, located in the Los Santos Province, enjoys some of the best weather in Panama. It is part of the area known as the “Arco Seco” (dry arc) Peninsula and it offers world class fishing, as well as many festivals related to Panama’s indigenous cultures.
PREF Real Estate Developers offers you your own slice of this paradise. Invest in your future when you fall in love with the safe and healthy lifestyle available in this oceanfront gated retirement community that is sustainable, eco-friendly, energy efficient, and full of activities. Come and see the beauty for yourself.