Text and Photos: Javier A. Pinzón
No one knows for sure where the name comes from because there is more than one story. But it seems obvious to me: “Ver aguas” means “see water” in Spanish. This province in the middle of the Panamanian republic offers lakes, rivers, and waterfalls that tumble down from the mountains in search of the sea.
Veraguas is the only Panamanian province with coastline on both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. The highest mountain peaks in the area are covered in mist and produce an enormous amount of water, which, as it rushes down, creates some heavenly places –a few of which are easily accessible. This makes it an excellent destination for those who love waterfalls, a splash in a river, a row on a lake, or watching the river meet the ocean.
The best place to begin your exploration is Santiago, the capital, located 150 miles from Panama City, with just 89,000 inhabitants and a solid hotel infrastructure for visitors.
To the north lies the road leading to one of the most inhospitable and uninhabited parts of the country: Santa Fe National Park. High in the mountains, even further to the north, in the middle of the Caribbean, is the Escudo de Veraguas, an inaccessible, unexplored, and pristine island. The southern highway leads to still more beauty and waterways that flow into the Pacific; these are more easily accessible and include unforgettable destinations for salt and freshwater enthusiasts.
Lake and Waterfall
The Yeguada Forest Reserve offers a cool, pleasant climate and a landscape unique to this area, with pine trees instead of tropical forest. Sitting 2,165 feet above sea level, this artificial lake was created in the 1960s to generate electricity, but local and international visitors flock to it now to enjoy the beautiful landscapes: a lake, creeks, and waterfalls. It’s an excellent place to camp and the 115-foot Yeguada Falls provide a wonderful natural hydro-massage in crystal-clear waters.
Further down the mountain, in a warmer climate, are the Tetilla de Calobre streams. The San Juan River, the source of which is surrounded by volcanic rock, forms narrow streams and cascades. During the dry season, water levels in the river drop and it’s possible to walk the riverbed, but when the rains come it fills with small cascades and on sunny days the river becomes a natural spa. El Balneario and Asado Los Chorros are excellent places to spend a day with family, with pleasant spots to rest and enjoy a great lunch to round out the day.
A Church with a Waterfall
San Francisco de la Montaña, just 12.5 miles north of Santiago, is a tiny town with a big history. Home to one of Panama’s few colonial churches, it is also a wonderful place to cool off in the waters of Veraguas. El Salto, or The Falls, is inside the town and easy to reach. Locals and visitors share the five or so cascades falling from several yards above. This river adventure is particularly fun because steps have been strategically placed on several parts of the rocks, making it easy to climb up and jump down into the water. As in other parts of the region, the current and, in this case, the number of falls in the river, depend on the amount of rain falling in the mountains above. During the summer months, the water is very clear, but rather shallow. In the winter, however, from April to November, the current speeds up and the water is cloudier after a rain. But there is much to enjoy in either the dry or wet months.
Salto de las Palmas
The waters of Veraguas continue to flow west, creating paradise on Earth as they move towards the ocean. Las Palmas, approximately fifty miles from the capital of the province, is one such spot, with a waterfall hidden in the mountains. As a tiny, softly flowing creek reaches a crack in the earth, it picks up speed and drops down about twenty-five feet, creating a clearing amid the lush forest that covers the mountainside. It’s the perfect place to relax and meditate.
Where the Rivers Meet
The many waters that rush down the mountains to the Pacific in rivers and creeks come together in the Gulf of Montijo. The gulf covers an area about fifteen miles long and three miles across that is home to ancient mangrove forests filled with a great variety of fishes. It’s not a good place to swim, as the waters are murky, but it’s an excellent place to watch birds and experience the mangroves, observing the clear mountain waters as they transition into the turquoise sea. Due to the area’s environmental importance, it was included in the RAMSAR Wetlands Convention and is now protected by the Panamanian Ministry of the Environment.
The Ocean at its Best
Panama’s Pacific jewel is Coiba Island. The island is the main attraction on an archipelago of nine islands and some thirty tiny islets, all surrounded by turquoise waters filled with extensive reefs and soft coral forests that attract abundant marine life. Coiba National Park, with its wonderfully preserved mature forests, unspoiled beaches, and coral reefs, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The waters in Coiba are best enjoyed using a mask and snorkel, as its greatest treasures lie below the surface of its waters. We recommend visiting Coiba on a diving or snorkel tour from one of the nearby towns such as Santa Catalina or Pixvae.