Building An Off-The-Grid Community In Rural Panama

Building Not Just A Home But A New Lifestyle On Panama’s Beautiful Azuero Coast

What started out as a desire to live off the grid overseas has, nine years later, evolved into a hilltop paradise… U.S. expat and civil engineer Randy Lytle came to rural Panama to build not just a home, but a new lifestyle.

The setting is the tropical environment of El Ciruelo, Panama, a popular fishing and surfing tourism spot located near Playa Venao and Pedasí on the Azuero Peninsula. The natural ambiance here enhances and amplifies the experiences guests have with the naturopathic and holistic healers of the wellness center.

A holistic retreat is how Randy describes his master-planned “intentional community” surrounded by farmland and jungle and with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. “I’m about 400 meters from the ocean,” says Randy, “and from our hillside property I can see about 10 kms of coastline.”

Randy acquired land in this remote, spiritually inspiring landscape on the Azuero Peninsula in 2007, his plot overlooking the fishing village of El Ciruelo. Remote is the key descriptive word here—especially back in 07. He began building on the property in 2008 and has lived on it full time for the last four years.

“When I bought this property, there was nothing here, no amenities. We didn’t even have phone service in El Ciruelo at that time,” says Randy. In the ensuing nine years, things have changed quite a bit. “El Ciruelo went from one street light in town to eight,” he quipped, “so we’re really expanding.”

Randy’s first choice for an overseas lifestyle wasn’t Panama. “I was on my way to Costa Rica to start looking for where I wanted to live when a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, you might want to check out Panama. It’s the next Costa Rica, and it’s supposed to be about a third of the cost.’ Of course, that was in 2007,” Randy continues, “and prices have changed dramatically since then.”

“When I arrived to explore Panama, I told my traveling companion that I wanted to go to the most remote place we could find and just hang out and chill. And—like a lot of travelers—while staying at a bed and breakfast on the Azuero Peninsula, I found out there was a nearby piece of property for sale.”

“The property was pointed out to me from the water, and I knew right away I wanted to see it up close. Wow… it was just stunning. When I got there I knew I had to make it part of my life. I fell in love with the property, but also with the region… I like to think I didn’t just happen upon this place, but that I was destined to find it.”

At the time, Randy was 47 and a single father to three teenagers aged 15, 19, and 20, living in Dundee, Oregon. “I waited for my youngest daughter to graduate from high school before I moved to Panama permanently,” he explains, “but the month she graduated, I moved to Panama.”

“Sometimes when I describe why I’ve moved here I explain that I feel like I’ve been called to this place,” he said, “I feel like Noah building an ark.”

When asked how his children reacted to their father living in Panama, Randy says, “They’ve seen me do this for so long, they know I’m passionate about it.”

Many adventurous people moving overseas do so with the background thought that they are establishing a getaway for loved ones—a blueprint to getting overseas for others to follow… or, failing that, at least a beach house for family and friends to visit. The first to move are the pioneers who open up new territories… when others follow, there’s a feeling of pride and personal fulfillment.

Randy, whose son just bought property next to his and who is currently building a house on his own property for one of his two daughters, concurs. This kind of legacy building isn’t an uncommon idea for those going overseas with kids or grandkids back home. Pick a beachy, fun destination, and your loved ones are sure to be tempted to visit—and maybe even stay for good.

Acquiring Property In Rural Panama

“Buying property here probably is easier than getting a bank account sometimes. I found a titled piece of property, and I learned that the purchase transaction is just like it is in the United States—only you typically use attorneys versus real estate agents,” Randy explains. “And you usually form some type of corporation instead of putting the property in your name depending on the circumstances.”

Randy had been a civil engineer and a project manager for land developers in the States for 35 to 40 years, so that experience helped him with decision-making processes.

Randy’s property isn’t just about real estate, though… it’s also productive land, and on it he’s able to grow agricultural products for market in Panama City. “I grew up on a farm in Michigan,” he says, “and, oddly, I find myself in farm country again now doing some permaculture.”

“We produce moringa powder (a moringa tree is often called “the tree of life”), a superfood that we sell in trendy, upscale Casco Viejo in Panama City, as well as turmeric extract, garlic extract, and oregano essential oil,” says Randy.

Challenges and Changes

“You have to have a lot of fortitude to live an international lifestyle off the grid—which is basically what we are here,” Randy advises. “I’m committed to the community and the wellness center having a small environmental footprint—which is a big turn in thinking from when I first bought the property and envisioned putting up a hotel.”

Randy expects to be hooked up to the country’s electrical grid in the next year or two—not as a full-time participant in the system but to have as a backup power source. “Hooking up to the grid is the most economical way to get electricity everywhere I want it,” says Randy, “but living here for so long, I know how often the grid is down, so I have solar lighting, a propane refrigerator, and a gas generator to pump water into my water tank.”

“I can get access to electricity 400 meters in front of me, which is not that far. I can see the telephone line from here, but it’s an extra US$12,000 to US$15,000 to bring the electricity to the property.”

The slow-rolling regional infrastructure is probably the biggest hurdle to Randy and his grand plans. But it’s par for the course when you’re this far off the beaten path.

Building An Intentional Community

Randy has plotted six lots for sale around the circumference of the welcome center, upon which 600-square-foot “habitats” will be constructed. “The units are actually tucked into the hill to fit into the existing topography,” he explains. “You will barely see them.”

The idea is to provide residences for healers, body workers, artists, and permaculture specialists who will be participating in the wellness center in some way. The main wellness center facility will be at the top of the hill, and residents have access to the community amenities, including communal pool, exercise rooms, yoga studios, and more.

“The infrastructure is in. The well is dug, and the caretaker house where I live is constructed,” Randy says. “I’m building units near the top of the hill to accommodate visitors who come here to use the wellness center for a respite from life.”

“I want the entire experience here to be a physical, mental, and emotional detoxification. There are all kinds of naturopathic approaches,” Randy goes on, “and we want to be able to incorporate as many of those as possible to benefit visitors.”

The Wellness Center Resources

Randy thinks of his center as a place for people to come and recuperate from life in the spirit of “Eat, Pray, Love,” focusing on natural health, detoxification, exercise, and spiritual awareness. This ethos has attracted like-minded professionals and many of his own family members who share his vision.

“There are no people living close to our property,” said Randy, “What I do have are about 10 troupes of howler monkeys and white-faced monkeys. It’s very entertaining to sit in the hot tub and watch them.”

“I’m a fan of natural medicine and holistic approaches to health. My partner Judy is a doctor of optometry studying iridology (an alternative medicine technique based on gauging a patient’s health by the patterns, colors, and other characteristics of the iris), which I am also studying.

“One of my naturopathic mentors and a resource for our center is a 71-year-old Native American master healer, Dr. George Thomas, who tours throughout Europe teaching people healing techniques. Several people here are qualified to teach yoga and other exercise regimens.”

Each guest to the center will be evaluated in order to design a program to suit their needs. Many programs will be similar in nature, but they can be customized to meet the needs of every individual and address whatever they are suffering from.

“I’m not a fan of Western medicine,” Randy said, “but there are Western medical resources nearby. They’ve just built a new hospital in Pedasí, 30 minutes away, it’s not fully functional yet, but it is staffed. Las Tablas has a new hospital which is an hour away from us, and the hospitals in Chitré are an hour and a half from the property.

Ilene Little
Panama Insider