If you’ve been in Panama a while or you’re considering investing in Panama, you’ve probably heard about the road to Calovébora—a two-lane asphalt highway currently under construction. For years, we’ve been hearing about this yellow brick road that will connect Santa Fe in Veraguas, Panama with the Caribbean coast and, in the distant future—rumor has it—with another highway leading from Colón all the way to Costa Rica.
After hearing that the road is nearly finished and passable with a 4×4 vehicle, we decided to go over and see what all the buzz about Calovébora is for ourselves.
While planning the trip, we discovered that there is one place to stay in the town itself. It was described to us as a hotel, a hostel, and a house by various sources. But the one thing everybody was certain about was that we should ask for Mariela who should be found at the public phone booth.
Once in Santa Fe, we began trying to piece together all the mixed information we’d been given… from “Yes, you can make it, even without a four-wheel drive” to “You may need to leave the car and take a boat down river to arrive at Calovébora” to “Some people walk the rest of the way.”
This only heightened our curiosity, and, if nothing else, we had to understand where this potentially mythical destination existed geographically. It became more about the journey and less about land prices.
Having lived in Veraguas (in the same province as Calovébora) for 14 years, we’ve seen the progress of this road, which started in 2008 with its first phase to Alto de Piedra. Now, over 11 years from when the project started, we were finally witnessing huge advancements through the most pristine landscape I’ve ever seen in Panama…
This new road winds through the Santa Fe National Park, as well as the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor—one of the largest bioregional conservation programs in the world. The corridor facilitates animal migration through eight countries from Southern Mexico to Panama and is said to host 7% to 10% of the world’s animal population. The steep mountain slopes are covered with what looks like primary forest, dotted with ranchos and small clusters of roadside houses along the way. Many of these homes are inhabited by the indigenous Ngäbe people.
Just past the town of Río Luis, we arrived at the Calovéborita River, which was too wide and too deep to cross in our standard Hilux pickup truck. The area was busy with heavy equipment crossing the river, trucks moving materials, and men working to complete the bridge. Our best option was to ditch the car and pay the fare of 50 cents to taxi across the river in a cayuco—a local dugout canoe. From there, we’d ride the rest of the way in a chiva, a 4×4 pickup truck with benches in the back that serves as public transportation. We parked the truck next to a line of what we assumed were road worker vehicles and continued, determined to complete our personal Calovébora research project.
The chiva navigated the remainder of the journey, speeding along the well-graveled sections of the road and slowing through the wetter, muddy areas. Nearly three and a half hours after leaving Santa Fe, the Caribbean coast came into view along with the Calovébora River. The blues and greens were stunning as we wound down to the coastal town of… yes, it does exist… Calovébora.
Mariela’s place was easy to find—it turned out to be right in the center of town where the road ends and the solar panel phone booth sits. This local home serves as both a restaurant and a family-style hostel. The señor informed us there was Wi-Fi and encouraged us to sit down, relax, and “connect ourselves.”
The main buildings of the school and health clinic have ocean views and are running off of large solar panel systems. Private homes have one small panel, and I spotted a few television antennas erected on tall bamboo posts. There’s at least one “window store” that carries a wide array of basic food and hygiene products. We had a lunch of fried fish, rice, beans, and tomato slices. We noticed multiple gallon jugs of hot-pressed coconut oil sitting outside the restaurant, most likely a local product. The señor, presumably Mariela’s husband, was busy peeling sugar cane for the kids to snack on.
After lunch, we walked the beach toward the Calovébora River. On the other side of the river is the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca—an indigenous region equivalent to a province. If you continue along the beach, we trust there is a beautiful waterfall overflowing right to the base of the sand. In the heat of the day, we didn’t make it that far.
We opted out of staying the night in a private room for just US$10 for the two of us. Of course, we knew it would be basic. But this generous family home seems to be the nexus of the community, making the level of noise something we hadn’t planned on. That and the bathroom/water situation were the two greatest determining factors for turning around and heading back to Santa Fe the same day.
The road to Calovébora is paved with good intentions. It aims to improve transit for both the local people and commerce, plus open this sector to opportunities in tourism. But this area is so raw that it will take a few more years for the road to be finished and possibly decades for this sleepy town and its people to evolve into a tourist destination.
Once the road is finished, plan on at least a one-and-a-half-hour drive to Santa Fe for basic supplies and a five-hour round trip to Santiago for more popular brands, appliances, and building materials. If you’re a brave-hearted visionary, Calovébora could be the destination for you. You’d be a pioneer, getting in early while prices are reasonable. We’ve seen large ocean- and creek-front parcels asking US$4,000 a hectare.
Go there and check it out for yourself. When you arrive at the public phone booth, just ask for Mariela’s house…
Michelle Miller Shogren