Safe And Separate—The Sweet And Simple Life In Panama’s Best-Kept Secret

March 4, 2012, Santa Fe, Panama: Santa Fe, Panama, is a beautiful mountain town where life is sweet, simple, safe, and cheap.

Also This Week: Panama 101 (Free With Purchase)...Carnaval In Chitre--Carousing, Cavorting, And Culecos...Wine Country With A Long History And A Lot Of Heart--The Best Of French Country Retirement...Hua Hin Versus Nha Trang--Two Top Asian Retirement Choices Compared...

Dear Overseas Opportunity Letter Reader,

We four adults sat on the big rock dangling our naked feet over the edge so that the cold water of the river flowed over them, mitigating the effects of the bright midday sun overhead. Out in the middle of the river, Jackson and his friend Valerian jumped and paddled, laughed and called to each other.

One secret to appreciating life in Panama City is escaping Panama City as often as possible. Panamanians figured this out long ago. That's why all those Panamanian residents of this country's capital who can afford it have houses at the beach or in the mountains where they spend weekends and holidays.

Thus our excursion this weekend. I write this morning from the little mountain town of Santa Fe, one of Panama's best-kept secrets.

Lief discovered this highlands outpost about six years ago when he was scouting for "the next big thing" in this country. He and a friend spent about a year back then traveling Panama from end to end, coast to coast. Those travels yielded two big discoveries: The western coast of the Azuero Peninsula, where Lief and his partner eventually bought the land that they are today developing into the private Pacific Ocean-front community of Los Islotes.

And Santa Fe. The best of sweet, simple mountain country living. As a friend traveling with us this weekend put it over breakfast this morning, "The doomsday predictions could play out, the world could collapse, and the folks out here in this part of this country would be unaffected. Life here would continue on as it has for centuries..."

Much of life here centers around the river, which is wide and flows quickly at some points. Tourists navigate it in inner tubes. The locals bathe and wash their clothes in it. Children, like Jack and Valerian, delight in it on hot Saturday afternoons.

We're well into the dry season, and the hillsides aren't as lush and green as they were last time we visited. Still, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and jasmine are in bloom all around.

When the sun begins to set, temperatures fall, and, thanks to the elevation and the mountain breeze, evenings are pleasant and best spent out-of-doors.

Every time we visit, we're tempted. We can imagine settling in here easily, removed from the worries and the troubles of the real world, savoring some of the best that Mother Nature has to offer anywhere.

Certainly wouldn't cost much. You could live a simple but comfortable life in Santa Fe on well less than US$1,000 a month.

When Lief and his partner scouted Santa Fe years ago, they found a couple of pieces of property in and near town, both with long stretches of riverfront, that got their attention in particular and bought them. They had no clear exit strategy in mind at the time but recognized an appeal of the landscape and of the lifestyle in this part of Panama that, given the way world events have evolved since, resonates even more today than it did back then. Today, these little pieces of Santa Fe represent escape, from the heat, the traffic, and the chaos of Panama City, yes, but also, thinking more metaphorically, from whatever might lie ahead.

The simple life. Safe and separate. Lief, Jack, Valerian, a couple of friends, and I drove out from Panama City this weekend to soak it up.

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. What else this week?

  • Panama Letter Editor Chris Powers has just completed an updated and expanded new edition of the special report we publish called "Panama 101--101 Things You'll Wish Someone Had Told You About Panama." We make this report available free to all new subscribers of the Panama Letter (along with six other Panama-specific special reports).

It's the most practical, real-deal, nuts-and-bolts guide to real life in Panama that I know, detailing 101 things that we expats living in this country really do wish someone had told us before we arrived on the scene.

I thought I'd share a few of the tips from the new edition, out this week...

  • "Chitre, Panama, founded in 1848, is known for four things," writes Panama Editor Chris Powers. "It's the commercial center for the country's central provinces. It boasts the Rico Cedeno Stadium, where many of the country's baseball games are played. It's near to some of the country's most beautiful beaches and rivers.

"And it's home to one of the best Carnavales in Panama.

"When I visited earlier this month, the traditional start of Carnaval was two days away, but apparently everyone in Chitre had misplaced his calendar.

"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..."

  • I'd argue that nowhere serves up better living than France, and Euro-Editor Lucy Culpepper agrees.

After spending a year on the road, trying a series of places on for size, Lucy and her family decided to settle in the "other" South of France. Not Provence (which, yes, is pricey), but west of there, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, between Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur to the east, the Midi-Pyrenees to the west, and the Auvergne to the north. Spain is a few hours' drive to the south.

Not everyone is cut out for life in the Tropics or the developing world, as Lucy and her family discovered. They tried the Yucatan coast of Mexico...cooler climes in the hills outside San Jose, Costa Rica...and another highlands choice in the Americas, El Valle, just outside Panama City. None of these places felt right, and, finally, Lucy and her crew realized that that fact was less to do with Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama and more to do with a fundamental personal preference...

  • "Hua Hin, Thailand, and Nha Trang, Vietnam, are two pretty, coastal towns in Southeast Asia," writes Asian Correspondent Wendy Justice.

"Both boast lovely beaches perfect for lazy afternoons. Both are friendly and welcoming to foreigners, both are home to sizable populations of retirees and expats, and both offer the kinds of amenities that Westerners typically look for--including good restaurants and nightlife, recreational opportunities, and an all-around comfortable standard of living.

"Both towns are set in very scenic areas, with plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure, and, in both places, the climate is comfortable tropical year-round.
"Nevertheless, Hua Hin and Nha Trang are very different overseas retirement choices..."

Also This Week...from Resident Global Real Estate Investing Expert Lief Simon:

Kathie and I are off to Chile in a few weeks. This is a new country for both of us.

Having never been to a place before, how do you find good local contacts?

First, you ask around. Start with friends. Anyone you know who has traveled to the place. If you can score a single recommendation, you're on your way. With even one contact, even unrelated to your specific agenda, you can build a chain of contacts to get you to the kinds of resources you're looking for.

This worked well for me years ago for my first trip to Vietnam. I showed up with only a single contact and four days to see and find what I could see and find. My one contact put me on to three real estate contacts. Those three put me on to another few resources each. By the end of the trip, brief as it was, I had met with a good number of people, seen a fair amount of real estate, and had all my questions answered.

Unfortunately, so far none of my friends has any current contacts in Chile.

The next option is to contact one of the big international accounting firms and arrange to meet with someone. These guys are connected. Every businessman needs an accountant. And accountants like to network. Getting a meeting with one can garner a few other contacts to, again, start a network chain. You can generally trust recommendations from someone at an international accounting firm. A high-profile accountant can't afford to make a bad one.

What contacts are you trying to put in place? A real estate attorney, a real estate agent, and a banker. Start there.

When you meet with the real estate attorney, ask for a real estate agent and a banker. Likewise when meeting with the agent and the banker. Each may refer you back to the others if it's a small market or a tight network, but that's ok. The point is to ask every contact for more contacts, to be continually working to expand your network.

Next step could be an Internet search in the local language. I wouldn't look for an attorney this way, but this is a strategy for identifying local real estate agents that will yield you a random, completely unqualified, and 100% unreliable list. Of agents who likely won't speak English. Still, it's the local agents who will find you the local deals. The real deals. The non-gringo deals.

As a last resort, you can do an Internet search in English.

An Internet search (in English or the local language) will often lead you to a lot of outdated information and listings. My search for hotel information online for Santiago, where Kathie and I will be based during our quick visit this month, came up with recommendations from 2007 to 2009 but nothing more recent that was useful.

Information on the Internet in English related to the expat community or the real estate market in a place where the people don't speak English is often either outdated...or complaint-riddled. So much of this kind of information is posted by people who have moved to a place and aren't happy. These folks have all the time in the world and nothing to fill it up with. So they post personal rants on Internet sites and blogs. Sometimes the complaints must be founded, but that's not the point, because you'll never know. The point is that this kind of endlessly circulated content isn't much help to anyone.

English-speaking real estate agents you find in non-English-speaking countries are hit or miss, as well. They can be fine. Or they can be gringos who have hung out shingles without any experience or any understanding of the local real estate market. Their only qualification is that they speak English, meaning they can communicate easily with expat buyers.

How can you weed out the waste-of-time contacts from the reliable ones?

Here are a few standard due diligence questions to help you make that determination:

Due Diligence Question #1: What has the real estate market done over the last year? An experienced resource should be able to give you a percentage increase (or decrease) and/or the amount prices have changed per square meter...

Due Diligence Question #2: What is the average cost per square meter for an apartment? A house? A hectare of land? A beachfront lot? Per-square-meter prices can vary significantly depending on neighborhoods and type of property. Every such number is a data point you want to collect as you carry out your research...

Due Diligence Question #3: How long are properties staying on the market?...

Due Diligence Question #4: What is the best neighborhood for expats? For investing in a short-term rental? For investing in a long-term rental?...

These questions will get you started. Ask them of everyone you meet.

Also, see as many different properties in as many different areas or neighborhoods as possible. Take a reading on the connection (or lack of connection) between how a property for sale is represented on paper versus what it's like in reality. That will help you to filter out properties based on their listing sheets on your next trip.

Which leads to the most important point to be made related to moving into a new market: Don't expect to figure it out on a single trip.

This is why I strongly recommend against buying anything on a first visit anywhere. You need more than one chance to vet your contacts and to get to know both the lay of the land and the direction the market is moving.

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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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