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I arrived in Coronado on a quiet Friday afternoon. Residents of the area were out at lunch, busy shopping in the new El Machetazo (the closest thing to a Walmart here in Panama), or lounging by the beach. The sun was shining, not yet allowing the dark, rainy season clouds to push their way into town. Four vendors had set up shop at the entrance to the community, selling everything from bunches of assorted flowers to plantains, tomatoes, pineapples, and garlic. Trucks were loaded with fruits and vegetables.

I'd hoped for a weekend like this, calm and quiet. Holiday weekends can see loads of families from Panama City flocking to their vacation homes on the beach, crowding the grocery store parking lots and filling up the restaurants. For many years, that was Coronado's main purpose, to serve as the vacation getaway and weekend home for those who could afford a retreat outside the capital. Over the past few years, though, as Panama City has grown busier, dirtier, noisier, and generally harder for many retirees to take day-to-day, Coronado has transformed into a full-time retirement community.

I've driven past Coronado many times this past year on research trips for past Panama Letter destinations, so I knew that the town had grown by leaps and bounds, but I had no idea by how much. On the Pan-American Highway at the turnoff to Coronado, three new shopping centers have sprung up, along with a number of restaurants. This area today has everything the retiree could want or need, from a medical clinic to a brand-new gym, from three major supermarkets to a dry cleaner, from a Mailboxes Etc. to a golf course, even an equestrian school and three international schools. And, remember, you're only an hour from Panama City, with its Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital, 18-screen movie theaters, nightlife, shopping, and casinos.

The entrance to the central neighborhood that is Coronado is guarded, which provides security to all those living on the other side of the gate. Plus, right next to the guard shack is the Coronado police station.

Residences in Coronado range from small, cozy single-family homes to million-dollar mansions and high-rise condos. While I was in the area, I heard a couple of people say that Coronado is like the Miami of Panama. I'd argue that the Cinta Costera and Avenida Balboa areas along the water in Panama City are more like Miami. I grew up in South Florida, and I'd say that Coronado is more like the Las Olas, Fort Lauderdale, of Panama.

Some of the homes on the beach are magnificent. Some are old-fashioned and have probably been around for many years, while some others are modern, fancy, even slightly futuristic-looking. Something for everyone, including smaller homes in the US$250,000 range. If you're willing to look on the outskirts of town, even right across the street in the hillside town of Las Lajas, homes can be found for less. I met a couple living in the beautiful hillside community of Altos del Maria, which is probably about a 20-minute drive from Coronado. They were in Coronado, spending their day enjoying all that the beach town has to offer. Karys, our bed-and-breakfast owner, is selling a three-bedroom house she owns in Chame, probably 15 minutes from Coronado, for US$165,000.

You could rent here for maybe US$750 per month. In Las Lajas, that hillside community right across the street from Coronado I mentioned already, I found a two-bedroom house for US$900 per month. In nearby Chame there's a four-bedroom home that will set you back only US$650 per month.

Something that I've always appreciated about Panama and that I noticed is common in Coronado is growing many of your own fruits and vegetables. Mango and papaya trees are everywhere, as are plantain and banana trees. Many people grow their own spices, fruits, and vegetables, in their back yard gardens. The owner of our bed and breakfast, Morgan's Paradise, grows many of the spices and vegetables she cooks with. At the home she's selling in Chame, she has yucca, ginger, papaya, mangoes, aloe, and many other valuable plants and vegetables growing on the property. It's a way of life here.

Chris Powers

Editor's Note: Chris' complete guide to expat life and retirement in Coronado is featured in this month's issue of the Panama Letter, in subscribers' mailboxes now. If you're not yet a Panama Letter subscriber, get on board here now.Continue Reading:

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"I asked myself the same question when searching for a house to rent in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where I lived before moving to Panama three years ago. Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, isn't cheap either. It wasn't until I had moved into the area, into an overpriced rental that I'd found online, that I discovered places like North Palm Beach, just around the corner, and Port St. Lucie, a little over a half-hour away. Until I got my feet on the ground and searched the area in person, I wasn't able to find a comfortable, affordable place to move my family.

"That's why, for this month's issue of the Panama Letter, I set out with the specific objective of identifying the most affordable places to live 'in' Panama City. I identified four neighborhoods close to the city, considered by many to be part of Panama City, but far more affordable than neighborhoods downtown. With no traffic (fair warning: there's almost never no traffic anymore, except maybe Sunday mornings), it takes but 20 minutes to get from these four neighborhoods to the world-class hospitals in Paitilla, the fine-dining options in Casco Viejo, the hodge-podge assortment of shops at Albrook Mall, and the hip-and-trendy nightlife along the Amador Causeway.

"I found this jumble of neighborhoods, all located side-by-side along one street, Via Tocumen, when I was searching for an affordable rental for myself. I consider affordable to be US$800 per month or less. It's not easy to find a nice place in a decent neighborhood for that amount, not in Panama City, and especially not when you need three bedrooms (as I do). But in these four pleasant, safe, friendly neighborhoods, it is.

"Some of these neighborhoods are nicer than the others, and some may not appeal to you, even though they're cheaper, because they're closer to less appealing neighborhoods. However, here's the bottom line: For the money, you won't find better options this close to Panama City.

"In many ways, these four areas are alike. Infrastructure is top-notch, the roads are smooth, aside from a few potholes, and water is drinkable from the tap. Cable Onda, Cable & Wireless, and Sky provide cable TV, Internet, and phone services.

"I think the best way to approach this is to start with the neighborhood closest to the airport, which happens to be the cheapest of the four I'm highlighting, and then to travel along Via Tocumen, introducing each of these interesting and very affordable places in turn..."

Chris' complete (and fully illustrated) report on the four neighborhoods he has identified as the best buys for the money in and around Panama City is featured in the April issue of the Panama Letter, in final stages of production now. If you're a subscriber, look for your copy in your e-mailbox April 1. If you're not yet a subscriber but Panama is on your radar, get on board here now, in time for this month's special issue.

Kathleen PeddicordContinuing Reading:

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"Carnaval celebrations take place at key points across the Panamanian isthmus, most starting late Friday night or early Saturday morning the weekend before Ash Wednesday. In Chitre, the festivities kick off a day early.

"By Thursday evening, marching bands, dancers clad in traditional Panamanian garb, and excited townsfolk were parading down the city's main street, tooting horns and cheering on the official start of Chitre's Carnaval. I shot a video. You can take a look at the festive crowd here.

"In fact, Chitre was in full Carnaval mode by the time I arrived late Wednesday. Stages had been built, walkways had been erected all around the central park, and open store stock room doors showed cases of beer stacked from floor to ceiling. Shop-owners in Chitre wait all year for this event, and they're not the only ones who see and seize the business opportunity. Walking through town, you'll see 'Room For Rent' signs (in Spanish) tacked up in peoples' windows. These rooms are available during Carnaval only. Party-goers will sleep wherever they can find a sofa or a bit of floor space.

"With everyone in town focused on preparing for the imminent arrival of crowds in search of the party, my concern was whether I'd be able to get a feel for what this town is like the rest of the year. I finally gave up worrying about it. There's no way to visit Chitre during Carnaval and get anything but a Chitre-during-Carnaval impression. This town remakes itself this time of year.

"Supermarkets were mob scenes. I'm talking lines at the cash registers that snaked back into the aisles, easily over 20 customers deep at each checkout. Most shoppers were pushing carts stuffed with six packs of beer. At only US$.45 per can, local beers are cheap. Balboa is the brand of choice.

"Outside the storefronts along the main shopping strip, shelves displayed flip-flops (as cheap as US$1 per pair), sunglasses, and swimsuits. These things will be in big demand over the coming several days. One important part of Carnaval is dancing in the culecos. People stand on the tops of gas trucks filled with water and douse the crowd-filled streets with water from fire hoses while mariachi-style bands play all around them. Most Panamanians drag beer-filled coolers out into the culecos with them and drink the day away while dancing, yelling, and having an all-around wild time.

"Peddlers carried satchels of bootlegged mixed Latin party CDs up and down the streets, and club promoters dressed in skin-tight clothing, both men and women, handed out flyers offering free bottles of Ron Abuelo (Panamanian rum) to their first hundred customers.

"One Panamanian tradition is the consumption of sancocho during drinking binges and wild parties. Sancocho is a chicken soup made with yucca or ñame. I like beer, and when I'm drinking beer I like to munch on chicken wings or maybe nachos. Guzzling chicken soup is not something I associate with drinking beer. But everywhere during Carnaval, I saw partygoers walking around with Styrofoam cups filled with the steaming hot soup and rice.

"I asked my brother-in-law about the beer and soup combination. He told me it cuts the drunkenness in half and helps prevent hangovers. Maybe Panamanians are on to something there. Sancocho is a staple in nearly all Panamanian restaurants, any time of the year, but, during Carnaval, you see signs announcing the chicken soup for sale all over the place, even in ice cream shops.

"At 11 p.m. Wednesday night, I could still hear the sound of hammers cracking away on the street below as maintenance crews were working through the night prepping the town for the wild party to come. Bass boomed from car speakers as those lucky enough to get an early start on their weekends drove into town in search of hotels with rooms still available.

"By the time we stepped out for breakfast Thursday morning, the town had been transformed..."

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. Friends, readers, and staff have filed festive photos of their Carnaval adventures across Panama. Take a look.

Editor's Note: Chris's live-from-the-scene coverage of Carnaval in Chitre is featured in this month's issue of my Panama Letter. His report also includes more mundane Chitre intelligence, including a complete budget for living in this charming Panamanian country town full-time (where the cost of living can be half that in Panama City) and introductions to expats already calling it home.

This special "Carnaval In Chitre" issue of the Panama Letter is in the final stages of production now and will be in subscribers' e-mailboxes later this week.

Not a Panama Letter subscriber yet? Get on board here now.Continue Reading:

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Kathleen Peddicord

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.

Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

Read more here.

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