We wanted a beach… what we found instead was a town steeped in a shadowy legend of an explorer gone mad.
Doing a search on Panama travel, the first recommendation that will likely pop up will be the San Blas Islands. It’s everyone’s dream setting of white sand and calm turquoise water teeming with coral reefs. Just like every other traveler seeing the ads, we were instantly sold and ready to pay top-dollar for a moment in paradise. The problem was, the islands were still closed due to Covid.
I researched some other options, but most of the Caribbean coast of Panama is untouched jungle. Oh well, I thought. We can just head to the Pacific coast instead. Thus started our adventures in Santa Catalina and area and we forgot all about the Caribbean.
Until… Our adventure guide Milton mentioned a waterfall that we should visit, located on El Caribe.
“I thought we couldn’t get to the Caribbean coast from here,” I said.
He assured me that it was quite possible, despite the incorrect information flooding the internet. “It’s called Calovebora,” he told me. The name was just complicated enough that I had to have him repeat it several times before he finally spelled it out for me.
The road connecting Santa Fe to Calovebora was a massive undertaking, known as the “Atlantic Conquest”. It was completed during 2020. Because of Covid travel restrictions, the newly completed road seems to have slid under the radar. Panamanians are slowly but surely hearing about this new destination, but the outside world is still oblivious.
We decided to check it out.
I knew basically nothing about Calovebora, so I decided to be responsible and do a little bit of research. Wowee, did I stumble upon some crazy stuff. Sit back and enjoy the story of… Columbus and the Veraguas coast.
It has somehow been hidden by history that Columbus began to go mad – and was even, some would argue, possessed. By the time of his 4th and final voyage, he was using a mysterious set of symbols as a signature and compiling a Book of Prophecies. Among other things, the book stated that the earth had a predetermined life span of 7,000 years, that the Garden of Eden was on top of a tepui in Venezuela, and that his own bloody and brutal expedition to the new world “was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied”.
The Spanish crown was trying to distance itself from Columbus and had ordered the famed explorer not to return to Hispaniola due to native hostility. But Columbus was driven by what he believed to be divine destiny and refused to take no for an answer. Just putting in my own two cents – based on that creepy signature combined with what we now know about his brutality, perhaps his driving force might be better defined as demonic.
On June 29, Columbus shockingly showed up exactly where he was forbidden to go – Hispaniola. He threw a little temper tantrum “demanding” entrance but was turned away. Since Plan A had failed, he rashly decided to sail southward through the Caribbean, along the coast of what is now Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. By the time he arrived at the place of our focus – Veraguas – he was down to only 2 ships of the original 4, and they were essentially falling apart. I can only imagine how his crew must have felt… which, by the way, was comprised of “an unusually high proportion of teenagers.”
It’s worth pointing out that the explorers were still a little confused about their geography. They believed Cuba was the edge of China, and that Central America was actually Singapore and Malaysia.
The natives of Veraguas wore golden bird pendants, which attracted the attention of the European explorers. Columbus’ gang of teenage hooligans set out on an expedition of the region. They somehow survived and returned raving about giant mines of gold – apparently just sitting out in plain sight. As strange as the tales sound, they were correct in their assessment of Veraguas’ mineral deposits.
Columbus claimed the region for himself and intentionally omitted details from the information that he sent back to Spain. He attempted to pass on the unofficial land rights to his children, hoping no one would notice. It seems to have flown under the radar for at least a few years, until the mining operations flagged some attention. Columbus’s grandson, Luis Colon y Toledo, endured a long lawsuit over the land with the Crown of Castille.
There is still mining in the region today, including gold, copper, and iron ore. Besides the mines, the Veraguas coast has mainly been inhabited by indigenous. It has remained tucked away in the jungle until now.
“Wait for the busito.”
I’d approached the third vehicle which looked like it could pass for a busito and was once again turned away. Ethan and I had been sitting in the town square all morning attempting to figure out how to get it Calovebora.
Two hours after arriving in the town square, a short white bus finally pulled up that said “Guabal” on the front. Several people in the town square waved at me and called out, “el busito!”
Ethan and I approached the driver, who told us the bus wouldn’t leave for another 30 minutes, so we could continue waiting on the bench. Unfortunately during those 30 minutes, a crowd of people gathered who also wanted to take the Guabal bus. This crowd was much too large to fit into this tiny bus… and yet, we all somehow managed to smush in. People were standing in the aisles and no one could see out the windows.
It was a shame, I thought, because I’d been looking forward to the drive. On our left was indigenous land and on our right was the Santa Fe National Park – a cloud forest teeming with magnificent rainforest creatures. If ever there was a scenic route to look forward to, it was this.
The busito crawled along at 5 miles per hour, and stopped every couple of minutes in an attempt to squeeze even more people in. It was excruciating. I cursed myself for not having splurged on a taxi.
Then finally we came to the town of Guabal, and most of the passengers departed the bus. Actually, make that all of them. The bus driver also departed, without saying a thing. It was clear that this was the end of the route. I hesitantly got off the bus and noticed that my backpack, which had been placed in the undercarriage, was now carelessly lying in the middle of the road. The rest of our fellow passengers were across the street standing in front of two white vans. We picked up our packs and headed over there.
A driver motioned everyone to get inside of the van on the right. This was absurd. As it was, we hadn’t fit in the busito – now we were supposed to manage to fit inside an even smaller vehicle?? I asked if both vans were going to Calovebora. I was ignored and pushed inside the tiny van. That’s when I got frustrated.
I yelled at the drivers that there were two vans, and not enough room in only one.
I’m sure some people there thought I was acting like an entitled princess. I usually try really hard not to be that type of annoying tourist, I promise. But this little tantrum ended up working out in everyone’s favor. The drivers agreed to take both vans, AND they let me sit in the front seat.
After that, the second half of the drive was much more comfortable. We put the windows down and I got to see the mountainous rainforest, grass roofs popping up amidst the greenery. I even spotted some toucans from the window.
Calovebora was… a little disappointing. The town was shockingly small and barren. The beach was decent, but there were some boys torturing cows on one end and people burning trash on the other. The water was unexpectedly murky.
We approached a couple men about boat rides to a place we’d heard about with cool caves. They immediately identified the cool caves as a place called “Isla Escudo”, and then the conversation took a strange turn. They asked if we wanted to boat there or horse-back ride.
“We can ride horses to an island?” I asked.
“It’s very close,” was their shifty reply.
“Close enough to walk?”
“No, no. You have to take a boat. But it’s too late today, you’d have to go tomorrow.”
I once again kicked myself for not taking a cab to get there earlier.
Isla Escudo is an enigma. Is it even an island?? If not, why is it called Isla? It’s been deleted off some other famous travel blogs, and I believe I may know the reason why. While at the Gamboa Nature Preserve outside Panama City, we were told that “Isla Escudo de Veraguas” harbors the last remaining colony of pygmy sloths. It’s possible that the locals are not really supposed to be going there, but they’ll do so anyway if enough cash is on offer.
Anyway, after finding out we couldn’t get to the caves, there wasn’t really anything to do but sit on the beach. Which is what we did for the next four hours. Once you’re in Calovebora, it’s sort of tough to leave. There are no taxis in the area, and the van only comes by a couple times a day.
The van ride back was thankfully not as crowded. We arrived in Guabal and prepared to transfer to the busito that would take us back to Santa Fe… except that the busito wasn’t there. The driver of the van apologized and said that the busito frequently left without waiting for the transfer passengers. There was no more public transportation for the rest of the day… but there was a truck driver headed for Santiago and he could probably give us a ride.
So that’s what we did. This was one of those moments where I felt like I was in the beginning of a horror movie… but the driver was luckily a very friendly guy. He even stopped at a scenic overlook so we could take a photo.
Despite Calovebora not living up to expectations, I’m glad we went anyway. I probably would have regretted not going. I can imagine that years in the future, when it’s built up with seaside resorts, I will reminisce about the days when it was just a tiny village with unreliable transportation.
Some more historic tidbits:
Columbus’s 4th voyage ended in disaster, with he and his crew becoming marooned in Jamaica. After that, Columbus lived his remaining years as a social outcast. Despite mounting evidence that he had not actually discovered a route to India, he stubbornly continued to argue that he had. He died shortly thereafter in disease-ridden squalor.
The title “Duke of Veragua” continues today to be passed down along Christopher Columbus’s descendants, despite the puzzling fact that Panama hasn’t had any loyalties to Spain or the Columbus heirs for hundreds of years. Cristóbal Colón de Carvajal currently holds not only this title but also the equally pompous titles of “Marquess of Jamaica” and “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” Needless to say, he does not control Veraguas, Jamaica, nor the entire ocean. He also had a recent legal battle over whether he and his descendants could continue to cash in on the profits of their ancestor’s conquered lands. INSANE. These people actually believe they are entitled to get PAID because their ancestor began the worst genocide in the history of the known world. Blows my mind.
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