Live And Retire In Santa Fe, Panama

The Gringos Are Coming

I’ve watched it play out many dozens of times over more than two-and-a-half decades. Demographics on the move.

First come the backpackers, surfers, or divers.

Followed by the speculators.

Followed by the investors. And the developers.

Followed, finally, by the retirees and the second-home buyers.

At every phase of this cycle, the face of the place being “discovered” changes.

Are these changes for the better? For the good? Depends who you ask and how you see things.

Take Ambergris Caye, Belize, for example.

I first traveled to this Caribbean island, just off the mainland Belize coast, in the late 1980s. San Pedro town, the only one on the island, was a fishing village home to maybe a couple of hundred souls. It had three dirt roads. No grocery store, no bank. The best hotel in town (where I stayed) might generously have been described as two-star. The best restaurants served the fresh catch of the day and little else. Anything you forgot to bring with you from the mainland, you did without.

I found the beaches beautiful, the town and its people charming, and the island as a whole full of potential. I recommended to readers at the time that they think about investing in a little piece of Ambergris of their own. Back then, you could have bought a beachfront lot for less than US$10,000.

I returned to Ambergris two or three times a year every year for the next decade. With each visit, I noticed change. Over time, more people, more roads, more golf carts (the primary means of transportation here), more houses on the beach. Shops appeared, and restaurants. New hotels and beach resorts. Condos.

And, all the while, property prices increased. Those US$10,000 lots eventually sold for US$50,000…then for US$100,000…and more…apiece.

Too rich for my liking, given the context. San Pedro was no longer a village of fishermen, but it wasn’t a full-fledged community either. There were more roads, but they were all still no more than dirt. Generally, infrastructure and services were limited. But sellers were asking top dollar for their beachfront lots and condos.

I moved on to other destinations and didn’t have the opportunity to return to Ambergris Caye for about a decade…until last year.

My impression on this return visit? Ambergris has come into its own. It has evolved into a friendly, welcoming community that boasts all services, products, and infrastructure the would-be retiree could hope for. Some of the roads have even been paved.

And, in the wake of the global events of the past couple of years, prices have fallen and can qualify as reasonable or better, given the quality of the product you’re now buying.

Quite a transformation, from fishing village that most of the world couldn’t place on a map to established expat retiree haven.

Has the change been good? Again, depends who you ask. I have friends living full-time on Ambergris. They’re delighted with their way of life and appreciate every one of this island’s current-day amenities, from the U.S.-standard fitness center with yoga and salsa classes to the gourmet deli where you can buy Veuve Clicquot champagne and Spanish hams.

I also know a number of people who made good money buying Ambergris low and selling it high. Those US$10,000 San Pedro beachfront lots I saw (and recommended to readers) more than 20 years ago would sell today (if you could find one for sale) for US$300,000 or more.

On the other hand, I guess it’s possible that some of the divers who found their way to this outpost two-plus decades ago to enjoy its pristine beaches and near-empty dive spots might be appalled today by the “progress” of the intervening years.

I was reminded of Ambergris Caye reviewing this month’s issue of the Panama Letter (in production now), which features a full report on Santa Fe.

I visited Santa Fe for the first time about four years ago. I had the same reaction as I’d had during my first visit to Ambergris a couple of decades ago…and during my first visits to dozens of places since:


Santa Fe, four years ago, was as out-of-the-way as a mountain town can be. The roads in the region sometimes washed out and became impassable during the rainy season. It’s not an island, but (four years ago and still today), if you don’t bring it with you from Santiago (the nearest destination of note), you’re going to have to do without, at least until your next drive into the big city.

A hostel, a few tipico restaurants where you could enjoy the dinner plate (chicken, rice, and beans, typically) for US$2 or less…

In other words, nothing much to speak of…except beautiful, lush, rolling countryside, crisscrossed by rivers, punctuated by waterfalls, available four years ago at bargain prices on a world scale. As little as 50 or 60 cents a square meter.

Lief and I couldn’t resist.

I visited Santa Fe again most recently about a year ago. As during those early follow-up visits to Ambergris Caye, I noticed change, including not insignificant road construction and improvements. Plus talk of bigger road improvements, culminating, today, in a plan to build a new highway from Santa Fe through to Panama’s Caribbean coast.

How will things play out in Santa Fe from this point? We don’t know for sure, of course, but we can make some predictions based on experience. An important infrastructure development, of the kind now in the offing in little Santa Fe, means opportunity. In advance of the improvement, opportunity for speculation. After the improvement, opportunity for investment, for increased tourism, and for an expanding population, including an expanding population of foreign retirees and other expats.

I’d be very surprised if all these things weren’t on the horizon for Santa Fe. How you interpret them, as I’ve suggested, depends on your point of view.

If you’re looking for a place to speculate, to bank a little land, I’d say get ye’ to Santa Fe pronto. It’s still possible to get a very good deal (not 50 cents a meter…prices have already moved up…but a very good deal).

If you’re interested in finding a cool-weather, back-to-basics, and super affordable place to live or retire, again, I say, again, you should plan a trip to this unsung corner of Panama. Change is coming, but it will unfold slowly. And it won’t be all bad.

Meantime, in charming Santa Fe, a small budget could buy you a rewarding lifestyle.

Editor Lee Zeltzer tells you more in this month’s issue of the Panama Letter, due out later this week. If you’re a subscriber, watch your e-mailbox. If you’re not, get on board here in time to read our Santa Fe report.

Kathleen Peddicord