Those who want to truly immerse themselves in the culture and rhythms of the Azuero Peninsula  should consider exploring the loop road that circles through the heart of the peninsula.
Even though the wilderness long ago surrendered to cattle pasture, farms, and teak plantations, the drive is still scenic and the rolling countryside quite pretty. The road is in good shape most of the way, and new stretches continue to be paved.
One festival or another always seems to be happening in one of these towns. A few are discussed, but, since many of them change yearly, check with ATP (the main office is near the start of the road, on the outskirts of Chitré) for a current calendar of the major events. Without some sort of festival taking place, the towns themselves don’t hold much interest.
The loop starts at Pesé, about 25 kilometers southwest of Chitré . To get to Pesé, turn west off the main road just north of La Arena  (north of where the main road forks at Cerámica Marcelino). The turn is marked.
From Pesé traveling clockwise, the road leads through the towns of Los Pozos, Las Minas, and Ocú. Note that these are also names of districts, of which the towns are the cabecera, sort of the Panama  equivalent of a county seat. The loop can also be driven counterclockwise.
Those without wheels can explore this area by bus. They run frequently between each of the towns and Chitré.
The clock itself seems to turn back with every kilometer along the road. Towns here—really rural villages—probably don’t look much different than they did 100 years ago. This is the real heartland of the heartland. Be prepared for curious stares. Not many foreigners make it this far into the interior.
Distances given assume driving the loop counterclockwise. Even though the distances aren’t great, allow a half day just to drive the loop, or a full day to stop and explore what the towns have to offer. Each has some claim to fame.
The cutest of the towns is Pesé (pop. 2,547), 19 kilometers from the turnoff. It has a quaint little church surrounded by red-roofed buildings half-hidden behind flowering trees. Horse carts are still used to haul goods around here.
In the odd juxtaposition one sometimes sees in small Panamanian towns, across the street from the church is a Seco Herrerano factory. Seco is sugarcane liquor, and Panama’s national drink. There are no official tours of the factory, but curious visitors who show up on a normal workday, which also includes Saturday before noon, can probably convince someone to let them poke around.
Given this cozy combination of the sacred and profane, it’s only fitting that Pesé is noted for a live reenactment of the suffering and final days of Jesus Christ during Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week leading up to Easter. This may sound pretty somber, but in recent years the Catholic Church has chided the town for, essentially, having too much fun during what is supposed to be a religious observance.
There’s really not much to see in Los Pozos (pop. 2,268), the next significant town. It’s 19 kilometers south of Pesé. Las Minas (pop. 2,209), 13 kilometers west of Los Pozos or 51 kilometers from the start of the loop, is kind of cute, though not as cute as Pesé.
At this point, the road has turned hillier and the surrounding countryside greener and more lush. The big party in Las Minas is on December 4, in honor of the village’s patron saint, Santa Barbara.
Ocú (pop. 8,150), 21 kilometers farther north on a potholed road, is not quaint. The houses and church are made from cinderblocks, for instance. But the town works hard to preserve the old ways, and it’s often considered the folkloric center of Herrera province.
The town and its namesake district are known for producing lovely polleras (hand-embroidered dresses) that are quite unlike those made in Los Santos province. The area is also known for producing distinctive white hats with a black band that more closely resemble the famous “Panamas” made in Ecuador than do other traditional Panamanian hats.
A national folkloric festival, the Festival del Manito, is held here annually on the second weekend in August. A highlight of the festival is the chance to see a traditional country wedding, with the bride on horseback in a beautiful white pollera, her proud groom mounted behind her, protecting her from the sun with an umbrella.
The town’s other big multiday celebration is the Feria de San Sebastián, a country fair that takes place in the week leading up to and including January 20, the town’s patron saint day.
The fastest way back to Chitré  is to finish the loop to Pesé, 30 kilometers away. From there it’s a 19-kilometer drive to the main road leading intoChitré. Getting back to Pesé from Ocú can be a bit tricky. Don’t be shy about asking for directions if you get lost; the people are friendly, and they know roads get confusing out here.
The road to Pesé starts past a supermarket to the east of downtown. The road was recently paved and should be in good shape. After 13 kilometers, make a right. This will lead south into Pesé. From there just continue east to Chitré.
Note: This also means that those wanting to go straight from Chitré to Ocú can take this more direct route rather than drive the whole loop. Those not already on the Azuero Peninsula  can also drive directly to Ocú from the Interamericana. The turnoff is west of Divisa.