The piece of land that Lief and I targeted for what is playing out to become for us a legacy proposition is in Quebro.
We purchased the former cattle ranch known as Los Islotes about 10 years ago. We’ve spoken of it since as being in Veraguas Province on the western coast of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula.
That’s all true.
However, Los Islotes is also in Quebro.
In all the time I’ve spent coming and going from this spot, I managed to ignore this critical fundamental.
When I first reported on options for living and retiring overseas (some 35 years ago), I recommended considering Costa Rica or Belize… Ireland or France…
Finally, I realized I was doing readers a big disservice. Suggesting someone retire to France, say, is as helpful as telling him to move to the United States.
Each region of France is an entirely different place… and capital city Paris is another story altogether.
Finally, I learned to thin slice my recommendations. Rather than sending readers off to figure out on their own where, exactly, in a country might be the best fit for them, I began focusing my research and my readers’ attention on particular towns, beaches, villages, neighborhoods…
Don’t think about retiring to Belize, I’d suggest. Rather, if you’re in the market for wide-open spaces and a back-to-basics lifestyle, look to Cayo. And, in Cayo, specifically consider San Ignacio, where you’ll find a growing community of like-minded expats ready to welcome you.
Every Sunday morning, our Los Islotes Project Manager Carlos attends mass. He drives 10 minutes down the road to the concrete-block church with handmade wooden pews.
Carlos began telling me stories about the priest (who says six masses at six different village churches every Sunday morning… because he’s the only priest for many miles around) and about the congregation.
I wanted to meet these people Carlos was bringing to life for me… so one Sunday I asked to tag along to mass with him.
As we entered the church that morning, Carlos turned to me and said, “Señora Kathleen, welcome… this is your community of Quebro.
“Everyone,” he continued in Spanish, “this is Señora Kathleen.”
Every one of the 30 or so seated on the wooden benches stood up to come greet me with a smile and a kiss on the cheek.
I return to mass with Carlos as often as possible. I don’t understand most of what goes on. The Spanish is rapid-fire. Carlos translates, both the priest’s remarks and the gossip shared before and after the service.
Have you seen the BBC series “Doc Martin”? It’s set in the Cornish fishing village of Portwenn, where gruff but lovable Doc Martin practices medicine.
For me, Quebro is a Panamanian Portwenn. Everyone knows everyone, and most claim a family connection.
“She’s my granddaughter on my cousin’s side,” one sweet white-haired lady explained as she introduced the pretty little girl at her side one recent Sunday morning.
“What did that mean?” I asked Carlos later.
“Nothing,” he said. “They’re not related at all.”
Carlos, a more serious Catholic than I, is disappointed by the brevity of the services. It’s less than a half-hour from the priest’s opening blessing to the closing hymn. I figure… give the guy a break. By the time he arrives to say mass in Quebro, he’s already said three other masses… and he’s still got two more to follow.
For me, the entire experience is a delight.
Most who attend don’t own cars and so walk to and from the church, sun baking or rain pounding, in their Sunday best, regardless of the weather. Carlos and I arrive early to watch as two or three elder ladies light the candles on the altar and in the niches on either side.
Those niches hold six santos, hand-carved wooden saints, the pride of this little church community.
“This one,” Carlos told me one Sunday, pointing to a piece of wood with a primitive relief of the Madonna on one side, “was found on a beach nearby.
“It’s known as the Virgin of Quebro.”
Carlos gives one of the readings each Sunday and chooses a child from the congregation to give the other. Two young girls walk pew to pew, person to person, carrying pink satin purses hand-sewn by the same ladies who light the candles, to collect the weekly offerings.
The highlight of the service is the sign of peace. Every man, woman, and child shakes hands or shares kisses with every other man, woman, and child in the church. We all leave our pews and circulate until we’ve all exchanged greetings.
Last Sunday as we approached the church entrance, Carlos pulled me aside.
“The man standing at the entrance with his family… he works for us,” Carlos told me.
“His name is Guillermo. He started with Los Islotes two weeks ago. He’s apprenticing with Martín, learning to be a carpenter. He’s with his wife and two children. I think it’s his son’s birthday today.”
When we stopped to say hello and I said how happy we were to have him join us at Los Islotes, Guillermo beamed.
When Lief and I set out a decade ago with our vision for development at Los Islotes, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
I remark on that truth often. Usually, I follow it with complaints about the challenges of trying to layer these green fields with five-star structures and amenities. It’s hard to imagine a more remote or formidable setting for doing what we’re doing.
Since that first Sunday morning mass with Carlos, though, I’ve realized, finally, what’s going on here.
While we’ve imagined that we’ve been hard at work figuring out how to build an international-standard community at the edge of nowhere…
Really, we’ve been making our way, slowly, into the heart of Quebro.
Without realizing it, we’ve been putting down roots, forming a connection that’s now, for me, the real point of this whole adventure.
I see now that, when Lief and I made our investment in Los Islotes, we tied our future to the 400 or so souls of little Quebro.
I’m honored they’re making us so welcome.