Our time at the coast was wonderful, but there’s no way I was going all the way to Panama without hiking in the rainforest! I came across photos of Santa Fe on the Journey Era adventure blog and was immediately enchanted. I mentioned it to some people in Santa Catalina and was met with resounding enthusiasm. Every Panamanian knows and loves Santa Fe.
To get there from Santa Catalina, we first took the van to Sona. It cost $4.50 each and took a little over an hour. This was an interesting ride because the driver stopped multiple times for random requests. Santa Catalina is pretty remote, so apparently the residents utilize the bus driver to run errands for them – sort of a pre-smart-phone-PostMates. One boy needed him to pick up medication from the hospital; a lady asked him to retrieve a couple bags of groceries from her mother’s house. The driver even went on a short detour just to wave hello to his friends, which was quite entertaining.
From Sona, we took another bus to Santiago ($3 each, 45 min), and then a third bus to Santa Fe ($4.50 each, 1 hour). It took a few different steps but really wasn’t complicated or time-consuming. We had just enough time in Santiago to visit the ATM and pick up some snacks and a spare phone charger. Halfway to Santa Fe it began to rain and continued all afternoon. We’d been hoping to get in a short hike but instead relaxed on the balcony with bottles of Balboa. This was the only time throughout the whole trip that rain interfered with ours plans – which is truly lucky considering it was the rainy season.
I’d been indecisive about leaving Santa Catalina and hadn’t booked a hostel until the day before leaving. Fortunately I was able to book a room at La Qhia hostel, which was like a place out of my dreams. The lush flower garden was teeming with butterflies and the balcony overlooked the mountains. Our first night, we were the only guests there! It was a Tuesday, and apparently most guests to this area come from Panama City for the weekend. That meant we had this whole gorgeous place to ourselves – didn’t even have to share a bathroom!
La Qhia had a covered, open air stone kitchen with everything we could ever ask for. Excited, we walked around and visited a couple different grocery stores including a farming cooperative. Despite Santa Fe’s reputation as a farming community, there was disappointingly few fresh ingredients for sale. The stores were comprised of about 95% Nestle products and 5% wilted vegetables. This was unexpected, given that Santa Fe was the site of a famous agricultural revolution. Looks like perhaps another revolution is called for – this time against Nestle.
The two restaurants we visited were equally disappointing. To other travelers I would recommend purchasing groceries in Santiago before bussing out, especially if you plan to stay more than a day or two. My only other complaint was the insanely noisy roosters all over the town that started their yodeling no later than 3 AM every morning.
Other than those little surprises, the community is quite charming. On all sides we encountered cute architecture and lovely flower gardens, not to mention gorgeous mountain views. Everything in the town is walkable. The town is built around a central park, which is the location of the bus station, pharmacy, convenience store, and a cute market that sells handmade gifts.
You can also find 4WD taxis waiting around there at all hours. Many of the hikes begin on dirt roads which are not necessarily scenic and a bit unpleasant to walk on. I would recommend utilizing the taxis to take you to where the actual hiking trails begin… especially if you have limited time or have to catch a bus to the trailhead anyway. La Qhia has an app/blog which includes detailed electronic maps of many popular trails in the area, as well as phone numbers of reputable cab drivers.
Coming up next… the hikes we went on and an unexpected trip to the Caribbean coast!