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Santa Fe Panama: Hiking in Veraguas Mountains

Santa Fe Panama is a traditional town in the Veraguas Mountains. It sits smack-dab in the middle of Panama and makes an ideal getaway from the hubbub of Panama City life.

Tree lined road from Santiago to Santa Fe with mountains in the background

Veraguas is the only Panamanian province that spreads from coast to coast. It touches both the Pacific to the south and the Caribbean to the north. (Yes, north and south. Check it out on a map yourself; I'm not joking!)

Most people who plan to visit a town do a bit of research on Google beforehand. Here's a tip: be sure to use the term “Santa Fe Veraguas” or “Santa Fe Panama,” because otherwise Google will assume you're talking about the capital of New Mexico. We're talking Panama here, people … and actually, Panama has two! (The other is in Darien, but it's so far removed from civilization that no one bothers to go there.)

Getting to Santa Fe Panama

If you are lucky enough to have access to a car, it's an easy, 3-hour drive from Panama City. Just head west on the Pan American Highway. When you get to Santiago two hours later, turn right and drive inland (north) to Santa Fe itself.

On the other hand, if you are relying on public transportation, it is just as easy to get to Santa Fe but the trip will take longer. Panama has an extensive and affordable bus system. You will take a bus to Santiago from Albrook Terminal and then transfer to a bus heading to Santa Fe. The bus ride will probably take about 5 hours.

Either way, once you leave the four-lane highway in Santiago, the road will wind north into the Veraguas Mountains. The drive is spectacular, so keep your camera ready.

Tip: If you're driving, you might want to allow extra time for photo stops.

View of a mountain during our Santa Fe Panama hike

The town of Santa Fe itself

Like most towns in Panama, Santa Fe has all the modern amenities: electricity, clean drinking water, and high speed internet. But don't let the modern conveniences fool you: Santa Fe is a traditional Panamanian town, complete with a laid back attitude, where horses are still commonly used.

As a matter of fact, we had a pleasant and unexpected surprise while we were hiking. Six cows and their escort came our way. We sure don't see that in Panama City!

Farmer driving cattle down the road in Santa Fe, Panama Cattle round-up, Panama style!

What to do in Santa Fe

The true charm about this town is that it is a place to get away from it all and enjoy unspoiled nature. While we were there we hiked to a waterfall, went swimming, tubed down one of its rivers, and visited an organic farm. Other options in the area include horseback riding, bird watching, 4×4 adventure tours, orchid gardens and even hiking to the Caribbean coast, but there's only so much one can fit into a weekend.

We also enjoyed a truly memorable dinner when we ended up at a local place that was grilling an entire side of veal. Fresh, grilled meat eaten al fresco with locals. What could be better?

Although some of the rivers look low in these photos, don't let appearances fool you. It can be deceptive. They can become quite dangerous during rainy season (April-November), when they channel rainwater from the mountains and quickly become rapidly running torrents of water. Any time there are large areas of rocks along a river, it's a pretty safe assumption that those areas often flood.

rocks along the Santa Fe River

Our Veraguas mountain hike

We had traveled to Santa Fe with our two Dutch friends, Farieda and Linda. They love to hike as much as we do. It was such beautiful weather when we awoke on Saturday that we decided that it would be nice to spend a few hours walking in the mountains. We got directions to a swimming hole with a waterfall, and off we went.

We came across this footbridge along the way.

Typical footbridge in Panama

Santa Fe has its share of paved roads and concrete bridges. This is one of the typical footbridges that locals use to cross rivers in rural areas.

View of the Santa Fe River

As we walked along we found plenty of great photo opportunities, including this view up the Santa Fe River from the foot bridge. If you take any photos from one of these bridges though, make sure no one else is walking on it or you will be making bouncing photos!

Small farm house in Santa Fe, Panama Small farm house nestled against the mountains in Santa Fe, Panama

Cattle farming is the main source of income in this area, but as you can see bananas also grow here. I wonder if they may be a remnant from the days when Chiquita bought its bananas from Central America and Panama was known as a “banana republic.” Oddly enough, Panama became a financial giant in the region only after Chiquita left the country.

That said, although most construction in the country is of concrete or wood, many local campesinos (peasant farmers) are still resourceful enough that they prefer to build their own houses out of free local materials.

Hey, whatever works.

house made of local materials: reeds for the walls and palm fronds on the roof

This was such a rural area that the only major sign of technology we found on our hike was this single, random phone booth. We guessed that it was installed so the campesinos would be able to contact the outside world in the event of an emergency.

Hellooo … anybody there?

Veraguas Mountain view from our hike in Santa Fe

At our Veraguas swimming hole

After a long, hot and dusty hike our path finally approached the swimming hole. Unfortunately it ran along the top of a high ledge of rocks. With rocks at the shallow bottom it was obvious that we couldn't lower ourselves or jump into from that side. Locals had beat us to the swimming hole and their waves indicated that we would need to enter from the far side.

So we followed the path further. It climbed for about 20 feet before leveling out at the top of the waterfall.

Swimming hole from top of the water fall Looking back at our future refreshment, before we began our climb.

The water was moving quite hard and fast at the top. It seemed more sensible to cross from rock to rock than try to walk through the water and risk falling. Unfortunately, we found out the hard way that those rocks were far more slippery than they looked. It was a good thing we were hiking with friends, because Linda slipped. It took all the strength of two of us to pull her out of the rapids before she was carried down the rocks and over the edge. The force of that rushing water was a lot stronger than it looked!

Swimming hole in Santa Fe, Panama Our reward! Swimming hole in Santa Fe, Panama

Everyone, even Linda, who had to slog all the way back in her sopping wet sneakers, agreed that our hike was worth the effort.

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Written by Dan

Professional photographer specializing in street, food and travel shots at As We Saw It travel blog. Enjoys catching children at play, showing their innocence in every situation … we all can learn that, to be content with what our Father in heaven has provided. Photography is unique in that it captures light in all forms, and since the Bible says YHVH (God) is light, photography captures Him in many forms.

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7 thoughts on “Santa Fe Panama: Hiking in Veraguas Mountains

  1. There were actually Nepali, Bangladeshi and Somalian refugees that I met last summer. They were all trekking across South and Central America with hopes of making it to the States. It is a weird status. The U.S. won’t let them across the border. BUT, after they sneak across the border they surrender themselves and the process begins for getting them green cards and papers in the States. It is quite a well traveled trail. Was reading a few days ago how they had caught some of them in Costa Rica but they were not under arrest. They were also being helped there and then moved along on their way… Interesting conversations with these guys…

  2. Met some Nepali refugees that really had a hard time. Rained for 4 days and they hiked without sleeping during that time. I didn’t know they had them in those mountains but they told me they encountered bears.. They seemed like honest guys but not sure about that.. They were very hardcore but had no other choice for getting into Panama.

    1. So were they Nepali or Bangladeshi refugees? Not sure why they would be refugees in any case, and if so, what was wrong with staying in Colombia? Kind of makes you wonder. That said, apparently one occasionally finds Andean bears in eastern Panama. 

  3. Are these mountains shared with Colombia? My geography skills are not good. Met some Bangladeshi refugees last summer who had entered Panama by trekking through some pretty serious mountain terrain from Colombia.

    1. Not sure, but I think so. Whoa, the people you met came through the Darien Gap. There’s a reason we said that the Darien Gap is only for crazy people. What a story they must have!

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