Boom…Bust…And Rebirth On Panama’s Forgotten Pacific Coast?
I first heard of the town last year when Editor Lee Zeltzer suggested we add it to the list of destinations to be featured in our Panama Letter in 2011.
How have I missed this place, I wondered, when it’s reputed to boast the elements that get my attention–interesting history, colonial charm, and an architectural legacy.
Then, coincidentally, a couple of months ago, an investor-friend of Lief’s offered to introduce us to the place. Finally, I had an excuse to make the trip to see Puerto Armuelles myself.
The town has appeal.
Puerto Armuelles is a low-cost beach destination with reasonable infrastructure about an hour from David, the biggest (and fast-growing) city in this part of Panama.
It’s also highly accessible from Costa Rica. This could become important, as more Costa Ricans realize that, while they can’t afford to own on their own Pacific coast, they maybe can afford a beach house in Puerto Armuelles.
This isn’t the real market for Puerto Armuelles inventory, though, at least not in theory. The real market in theory could be the executives and others imported to this spot to support whatever new mega-business venture is on the horizon.
Puerto Armuelles, blessed with two deep-water ports, was the headquarters for the United Fruit Company (Chiquita Banana) from 1927 until Chiquita sold out to a local cooperative in 2003.
In other words, until less than a decade ago, this was a Gold Coast, a thriving port city. When Chiquita pulled out, they took their jobs with them. Over the eight years since, the town has fallen fast on hard times.
Chiquita left…but the beaches and the ports remain, along with the sprawling hectares where Chiquita grew their bananas…
These, reportedly, have recently changed hands. Reliable details of the transaction are hard to pin down, and the big question on everyone’s mind in this part of the world is: What will the new owner do with all that land?
Depending on the answer to that question, Puerto Armuelles could be reborn. Lief is investigating further, as the associated real estate investment opportunities could be interesting.
Meantime, Puerto Armuelles today is a sleepy coastal town with a decaying sea walk, a rotting pier, rows and rows of wooden houses where the banana workers lived, and, a bit removed, at a slight elevation, the bigger plantation-style homes of the banana execs.
This is the part of this town that held my interest. These structures, 50, 60, 70 years old, built of local hardwoods, raised up to catch the sea views, sprinkled over a gentle slope, with lots of green space in between, are unique on this Pacific coast and charming (or could be).
Some have been purchased already by gringos who appreciate the tranquil ocean-side lifestyle on offer here…others have been bought by speculators positioning themselves for the opportunity perhaps in the offing. Some of these plantation houses have been renovated, other renovations are in process.
The lifestyle appeal is obvious. This is a very affordable place to settle in for a Pacific coastal experience. And the investment opportunity calls for further investigation (as I said, Lief is on it).
Driving around, touring a few lots and a couple of houses, enjoying the US$4 chicken lunch special at the restaurant in town, standing at the sea wall, I was reminded of the first time I saw another Panama town with potential, this one inland, in the mountains.
I was introduced to Boquete about 12 years ago…before it became the “world’s top retirement haven” it developed into over the dozen years to follow.
One of the principle investors behind the development that has taken place in this highlands town over the past 12 years or so showed me around the small town way back when, toured me through the valley, and led me on horseback to see the piece of land he was preparing to purchase…
You know the rest of the story in Boquete.
My concern at the time was that, to get to Boquete, would-be retirees and second home-owners would have to fly to Panama City…fly from there to David…and then drive from David up into the mountains to reach their ultimate destination.
Turned out, would-be retirees and second home-owners didn’t mind. They so appreciated the lifestyle on offer in Boquete and, at the time, the bargain cost of adopting it that they overlooked the three-legged trip to get there.
I’d say would-be retirees and second home-owners will be inclined to do the same in Puerto Armuelles.
Once the place is pointed out to them…