Building A House At Los Islotes, Panama

Construction Diary, Entry 1: “No Road, No House”

Do you know how to build a house in Panama?

Neither do I. But I’m going to find out.

Four years ago, Lief and I, with a couple of partners, purchased a piece of land on the western coast of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, a family finca that we now call “Los Islotes.” In the four years since, we have drawn up a master plan for the community we’ve envisioned for this beautiful Pacific coastal spot. We’ve applied for and received all required permits and permissions. We’ve put a development team in place, and, with their help, we’ve agreed strategies for water supply, waste-water treatment, underground utilities, road construction, a town center, and cell and Internet support.

Most recently, we’ve designed model houses in the Spanish-colonial style that the whole of Los Islotes will adopt.

Now, finally, at long last, it’s time for the fun part. It’s time to start moving dirt around.

Project Manager Gary Moseley will be leading the way in these efforts, putting in roads, bridges, culverts, and drainage as called for by the master plan. Meantime, I’ve signed on for a parallel effort:

To build the first house.

My plan is to start modest. I’m going to build a two-bedroom house in the phase of the property known as “Mango Village.” This section has easiest access from the main road in, meaning it’ll be easiest, at this point, to supply with the services I’ll need for construction. Plus, this section is contained and has a charm and a feel of its own, with a small creek running along one edge and access to the estuary that leads out to the ocean, from which, eventually, owners will be able to launch kayaks and other small boats.

Mango Village owners will also have access to their own clubhouse and pool and will enjoy a special sense of privacy, thanks to the mammoth mango trees in this area, which create huge natural buffers.

I knew that Mango Village was where I wanted to build Los Islotes’ first house, but I wasn’t sure which Mango Village lot might make most sense. I wanted a corner lot, with direct access to the creek if possible. I had a lot in mind but wanted to walk it, with our architect, Ricardo Arosemena, before committing.

So, last Friday morning, at 8 a.m., Ricardo, Lief, and I flew from Panama City to the small landing strip that sits about 15 minutes from Los Islotes. Flying low over the Azuero Peninsula, I remembered, again, one of the biggest appeals of this project: It’s completely removed from the big city.

Day-to-day life in Panama City is harder and harder to take. The construction mess, the traffic chaos, the constant noise, dirt, dust, and commotion as this city continues its ambitious, aggressive efforts to pull itself up by its bootstraps and into First World status. The next generation will enjoy a completely reshaped Panamanian capital. Current-day residents struggle through the transition.

Meantime, out on the Azuero Peninsula lies another Panama altogether. Looking out the windows of the small plane as we crossed from Azuero’s more developed eastern coast to its just-emerging western coast, where Los Islotes sits, I couldn’t help but smile. Everything below was green, lush, tranquil, peaceful. As we got nearer our destination and began our descent, we saw cows, calves, and geese positioned like still-lifes in the fields.

We came down in a field of clover…what serves as a landing strip in this part of the country.

Then we set out in Gary’s Hilux for the short trip to Los Islotes entrance.

“This sure is a scenic drive,” Ricardo commented.

“Have you been out here before?” Gary asked.

“Yes, I was here a couple of times, about three years ago,” Ricardo explained, “with Lief, to walk the land where the town center will be built. I designed the town and the model houses.

“This is what I remember most about those trips,” Ricardo continued. “How beautiful and peaceful it is out here…”

The entrance to Los Islotes is a cow gate. Ricardo hopped out to open it and then to close it after Gary had driven through. Wouldn’t want to let the cows out.

“The road’s in better shape than I remember,” Ricardo commented.

“Ah, this road is no good,” Gary replied. “I’m not happy with the materials that have been used. This needs to be redone first thing.”

We wound our way through the hills, enjoying the views of the ocean in many directions, then pulled over when we’d arrived at Mango Village. There’s no sign. You identify it by the big mango trees all around.

And, to get in to where the lots have been surveyed, you need a machete. Lief and Gary hacked their way through. Ricardo and I followed behind along the path they cut.

“When will you have a road through here?” Ricardo asked.

“This will be one of the first we’ll put in,” Gary replied.

“That’s good. No road, no house,” Ricardo pointed out.

We four scampered down the hill toward to the creek. That’s the best landmark for navigating your way through this part of the property. Standing creekside, lot maps in hand, Lief and Gary pointed out the lot I’d identified back in Panama City, the one I was thinking might be the place to build this first house.

“What do you think, Ricardo?” I asked.

“I’m not sure…”

Ricardo walked from end to end, considered the views, the surroundings, and didn’t seem convinced.

“I chose this lot from the plan,” I explained. “A number of other lots are still available here. We could choose one of those as easily.”

“I was thinking that one would be better,” Lief offered, pointing across what will be the road through Mango Village.

We followed Lief through the field, across the imaginary throughway, and looked around. Mass of mango trees to the right…creek to the left…and a big expanse of flat land in between where the house could sit.

“Yes,” Ricardo and I said at once. “This is better.”

“Look at the size of those trees,” Ricardo said, shaking his head. “Have you ever seen mango trees that big before?

“Who’s your neighbor on the other side of them?” he wondered.

“Panama,” Lief replied. “The state. It’s protected parkland.”

“Ah, that’s good,” Ricardo replied. “Another developer might be silly enough to chop down these trees. I’m glad you don’t have to worry about that. They’re really something.

“Can we go have a look at the beach?” Ricardo added.

We hiked back to the Hilux and drove the 3 minutes to the ocean.

“Which beach is better?” Ricardo asked as we approached the water’s edge.

“To the right is what we call the ‘Swimming Beach,'” Lief explained. “It’s protected and perfect for swimming, even for kids.

“The beach to the left is more dramatic and a great place for long walks, but we don’t swim there. Certainly we don’t let the kids in the water there on their own. The waves can be strong. Locals surf them.”

We walked to the Swimming Beach, looked around, and agreed it was time to get back to the real world.

We drove out of the property, Lief opening and closing the cow gate this time.

“I’ll get you the survey details for the lot,” Gary told Ricardo, “and I’ll indicate where all the trees stand. What else do you need?”

“That’s it at this point. Now that I’ve been here, I can start planning. Kathleen, you said you want to work from the model houses I’ve designed, is that right?”

“Yes, exactly. We’ll adapt those to a smaller, two-bedroom house. I’m thinking the master suite will go on a second story. Other bedroom and bath on the ground level, along with the living area. And I want to incorporate a small courtyard.

“Gary’s about to launch the road work,” I added. “Our goal is to break ground on the house the first week of January, so we can complete construction during next year’s dry season.”

“We have our Emergency Offshore Summit next week,” Lief explained. “Then we’re in Paris for the rest of August. How about if we plan to meet again the first of September, more or less?”

“Perfect,” Ricardo said. “We’ll meet in my office and start to get our ideas down on paper.”

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. I took some photos during our site visit on Friday, which have been posted to Facebook. You can take a look here.