Best Lifestyle Options In Panama

Bests Of Panama, End To End

Panama is an extreme example of why thin-slicing your live and retire overseas options is so important.

Panama City, for example, small as it is, isn’t one good choice but at least a half-dozen. Specifically, top lifestyle options in the capital include El Cangrejo, Paitilla, Costa del Este, Altos del Golf, the banking center, and Casco Viejo. Each is a markedly different option for city living.

El Cangrejo is up-and-coming trendy…the banking center is the most convenient, center-of-everything option and boasts quick access to the new Cinta Costera.

Casco Viejo is the most historic and interesting section of this city. Certainly, it’s unique and special architecturally, not only within Panama but globally (thus its UNESCO World Heritage Site status).

At least that’s my opinion. A friend, on the other hand, refers to Casco Viejo as “Casco Aburrido” (Boring Town), because it lacks the casinos and gentleman’s clubs of downtown.

Paitilla, with its parks and playgrounds, is a good choice with a young family, as are Altos del Golf (where our Live and Invest Overseas offices are located) and Costa del Este.

I think of Costa del Este, Panama City’s purpose-built suburb, as “Panama Lite.” Living here, you could easily forget you’re in Panama and imagine yourself in any upper-middle-class suburb outside any big Florida city. (This has big pluses but minuses, too.)

Beyond Panama City, the lifestyle options this country offers are beach, both Pacific and Caribbean, and mountain.

First are the “City Beaches,” as they’re called. These beaches, within an hour-and-a-half drive of Panama City, are among the least nice in the country and, at the same time, the most expensive. Panamanians like to be able to leave work on Friday afternoons and reach their places on the water by dinnertime, and they are willing to pay a premium for that privilege. Coastal condos and “villas” at these Panama City beach areas, therefore, have appreciated in value dramatically over the past eight or nine years, but the experience doesn’t support the inflation. The beaches aren’t great (they’re typically muddy and flat), and there’s no town, no community anywhere along this coast, just collections here and there of often down-at-the-heels weekend party houses. The important exception is Coronado, which has developed in a more appealing way and is home to a growing expat retiree community.

Perhaps my favorite Panama Pacific beach option is Pedasi (the focus of this month’s Panama Letter issue).

It’ll take you four hours to reach this small beach town from downtown Panama City. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you travel well-maintained highway door-to-door. The really good news is that, having made the drive, you are greeted by one of Panama’s most colorful, charming, and lively towns, a welcoming and fast-growing resident expat community, and long stretches of beautiful Pacific coastline, offshore from which you can enjoy some of the best surfing in the world.

And the best news is that you could adopt the Pedasi lifestyle as your own on a budget of as little as US$1,200 per month.

Pedasi is on the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula. The west coast of this fast-emerging region is less discovered and more rugged. Also more affordable and, important to note, the only western-facing stretch of coastline in the country, making it the only spot in the country from which you can watch the sun set over the sea.

As I mentioned, Panama has both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, but I’ve historically been reluctant to recommend this country to anyone with a clear Caribbean agenda. The only developed stretch of Panama’s Caribbean coast is around Bocas del Toro, and, while the beaches here can be spectacular, Bocas del Toro town itself could generously described as a pit.

Dirty and poor. These are the two thoughts that come to mind when someone mentions Bocas del Toro. Another is rights of possession. That is to say, much of the beachfront in this part of the country is not held with freehold title but with rights of possession (commonly referred to as ROP). As we remind you often, these are not the same things.

Yet, North Americans are found in bunches in this quintessential Caribbean town. Perhaps a good reason is that most of the rest of Panama’s long Caribbean coast is either protected land (home to the Kuna Indians) or inaccessible (that is, there are no roads).

The biggest town on the Caribbean side of the isthmus of Panama is Colon. Colon is home to the world’s second-largest duty-free trade zone and boasts at least the same level of infrastructure as Bocas, yet, for reasons no one can explain (other than long-held local prejudice), it has never developed as a tourist destination…while Bocas, against all reason as far as I can tell, has.

More interested in a life in the mountains than at the beach? Again, you’ve got to thin-slice your options.

The most discovered highlands choice in Panama is Boquete, a land of eternal spring. The year-round temperatures are rarely too hot or too cold. Living here, you wouldn’t need air conditioning, but a fireplace might be welcome on a chilly night. Nestled in the rolling green hills of Volcan Baru, views from all corners of this town are breathtaking. Expats have been settling in Boquete for more than a decade, and, as a result, real estate values have increased markedly over that time–though, today, thanks to the general global slowdown of the past few years, prices are down nicely from their pre-2008 heights.

Boquete is known for its level of services, amenities, and activities geared to its English-speaking expat and retiree community, which is one of the biggest in the world (meaning this is one place in Panama where you don’t need to speak English to live comfortably, even to make friends and connect very personally).

Another favorite mountain pick in Panama has the advantage of being very accessible from Panama City (unlike Boquete, which is an in-country plane ride away). Also unlike Boquete, El Valle has managed to remain off the radar of mountain-loving foreigners. In El Valle, you’d be living mostly among locals and, on weekends, Panamanians from the city who keep second homes here.

On the other hand, El Valle is not reclusive or remote but just 30 to 45 minutes from the coast and about two hours from Panama City, meaning you could regularly enjoy the amenities and services of the city, without having to suffer its heat and humidity day-to-day.

My preferred highlands getaway option in this country, though, is a tiny mountain town called Santa Fe, a place I consider one of this country’s still best-kept secrets. Santa Fe is wildflower-covered hillsides, cascading waterfalls, fast-flowing rivers, horse trails, coffee fincas, and impressive and expansive vistas.

You come to Santa Fe for the hiking, the biking, and the river-wading…the tubing, the horseback-riding, and the sunshine…the orchids, the turtles, and the fishing…

You come to Santa Fe to be in a beautiful and peaceful setting among friendly and happy people. You come to relax and become part of a welcoming and safe community.

You come to learn Spanish (for you’d need to speak it to survive here).

You come to live on very little. You could rent a house for US$200 a month or less. You could eat out every meal every day and spend less than US$200 a month. Live here for US$500 or US$600 a month for four or five months at a time, and your retirement budget could expand accordingly for the remaining seven or eight months of the year.

The doomsday predictions could play out, the world could collapse, and the folks out here in Santa Fe would be unaffected. Life here would continue on as it has for centuries…

And there’s something very reassuring about that thought right now.

Kathleen Peddicord

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