Panama is an extreme example of why thin-slicing your live and retire overseas options is important.
First, there’s Panama City, which isn’t one good choice but at least a half-dozen, including El Cangrejo, Paitilla, Costa del Este, the banking center, and Casco Viejo. These are markedly different options for city living.
El Cangrejo is up-and-coming trendy…the banking center is the most convenient, center-of-everything option and home to the city’s best (and most expensive) addresses.
Casco Viejo is the most historic and interesting section of this city.
At least that’s my opinion. A friend, on the other hand, refers to Casco Viejo as “Casco Aburrido” (Boring Town), because it lacks the casinos and gentleman’s clubs of downtown.
Paitilla, with its parks and playgrounds, is a good choice with a young family, as is Costa del Este.
I think of Costa del Este, Panama City’s purpose-built suburb, as “Panama Lite.” Living here, you could easily forget you’re in Panama and imagine yourself in any upper-middle-class suburb outside any big Florida city.
This has big pluses but also minuses. Living in Costa del Este, you’d never worry about your children playing outside or riding their bicycles to and from friends’ houses. Your life would be safe, comfortable, convenient…but maybe a little bland and definitely not bargain-priced. Costa del Este is where some of Panama’s most financially comfortable residents aspire to raise their families. Houses here can change hands for millions of dollars, though it’s also possible to buy small and modest for US$200,000 or less.
Beyond Panama City, the options are beach, both Pacific and Caribbean, and mountain.
First are the “city beaches,” as they’re called, those beaches within an hour-and-a-half drive of Panama City. These have gotten expensive. Panamanians like to be able to leave work on Friday afternoons and reach their places on the water by dinnertime, and they are willing to pay a premium for that privilege. Properties at these Panama City beach areas, therefore, have appreciated in value over the past several years, but the experience doesn’t support the inflation. The beaches aren’t great (they’re typically muddy and flat), and there’s no town, no community anywhere along this coast, just collections here and there of often down-at-the-heels weekend party houses.
One of my favorite Panama Pacific beach options, on the other hand, is Las Tablas. It’ll take you four hours to reach this small beach town from downtown Panama City. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you travel well-maintained highway door-to-door. The really good news is that, having made the drive, you are greeted by a charming and lively town center, a welcoming local population, and a long-established community of Panamanians and expats who savor their seaside lifestyle.
And the best news is that you could join them on a budget of as little as US$1,200 per month.
Las Tablas is on the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula. The west coast of this fast-emerging region is less discovered and more rugged. Also more affordable and, important to note, the only western-facing stretch of coastline in the country, making it the only spot in the country from which you can watch the sun set over the sea.
As I mentioned, Panama has both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, but I’ve historically been reluctant to recommend this country to anyone with a clear Caribbean agenda. The only developed stretch of Panama’s Caribbean coast is around Bocas del Toro, and, while the beaches here can be spectacular, Bocas del Toro town is a pit. One of my most memorable experiences in Bocas was sitting on the open-air deck over the water of what had been reported to me as the best hotel in town. Suddenly, I heard gurgling and rumbling beneath the pilings. This was followed by a wretched odor.
I looked over the side of the deck to see raw sewage running from the hotel out into the Caribbean Sea.
Dirty and poor. These are the two thoughts that come to mind when someone mentions Bocas del Toro.
Another is rights of possession. That is to say, history of property ownership is an issue in this part of Panama. Much of the beachfront in this part of the country is not held with freehold title but with rights of possession. As we remind you often, these are not the same things.
Most of the rest of Panama’s long Caribbean coast is either protected land (home to the Kuna Indians) or inaccessible (that is, there are no roads).
The biggest town on the Caribbean side of the isthmus of Panama is Colon. Colon is home to the world’s second-largest duty-free trade zone and boasts at least the same level of infrastructure as Bocas, yet, for reasons no one can explain, it never developed as a tourist destination…while Bocas, against all reason as far as I can tell, did.
Last year, the highway from Panama City to Colon was expanded and repaved, meaning Colon is now the most easily accessible point on Panama’s Caribbean coast, merely a two-hour drive from the capital (while Bocas is a half-hour plane ride away).
My prediction? Colon is going to become much better known among Caribbean sun-seekers. In fact, it already is. Cruise ships began calling at the Colon port nearly three years ago, and their numbers are steadily increasing.
More interested in a life in the mountains than at the beach? Again, you’ve got to thin-slice your options.
The most discovered highlands choice in Panama is Boquete, a land of eternal spring. The year-round temperatures are rarely too hot or too cold. Living here, you wouldn’t need air conditioning, but a fireplace might be welcome on a chilly night. Nestled in the rolling green hills of Volcan Baru, views from all corners of this town are breathtaking.
Expats have been settling in Boquete for more than a decade, and, as a result, real estate prices increased markedly over that period. Even today, Boquete has some of the most expensive real estate in the country. But prices are not as high as they were 18 or 24 months ago. This market has definitely settled.
Boquete is known not only for its high-priced real estate, but also for its level of services and activities geared to the English-speaking community. It’d be hard to be bored in this charming village. And this is one place in Panama where you don’t need to speak English to live comfortably. The locals have adapted to living among thousands of expats, and most can speak at least basic English.
My other favorite mountain pick in Panama has the advantage of being very accessible from Panama City. Also unlike Boquete, El Valle has managed to maintain a low profile among mountain-loving foreigners. In El Valle, you’ll mostly be among the natives and, on weekends, locals from the city who keep second homes here.
On the other hand, this is not a reclusive mountain existence. El Valle is conveniently located 30 to 45 minutes from some of the Pacific coast’s best beaches and about two hours from Panama City, meaning you can regularly enjoy the best of the city, without its heat and humidity.
Kathleen Peddicord www.liveandinvestoverseas.com