Retirement Plan B

Your Retirement Plan B

The Center for an Urban Future has released a report bemoaning the sorry state of affairs for middle-class folk in New York City. They’re fleeing by the tens of thousands, the report explains, because they flat out can’t afford to live in the Big Apple any longer.

A new economic survey from the AARP shows that more than one in four Baby Boomers say they’ve had to postpone their retirement plans.

And nearly 25% of middle-aged Americans are taking money out of their 401(k)s and other retirement investment accounts prematurely.

Over the weekend, on the edge of nowhere, Panama, I spent time among a small but expanding bunch of expats who are living Plan B.

They’re not all Americans, and they’re not all of “retirement” age. Some are in this remote region of this country full-time…others come and go, spending part of the year here and part of the year someplace else.

Not all of them have sought out new lives on the western coast of the Azuero peninsula because they could no longer afford to live wherever it was they came from. Some of them are here with the intention of developing a piece of land (like my husband, for example).

Some are here to escape, even briefly, the real world.

And some are here looking for adventure.

“Back in Montana, it’s nose to the grindstone,” explained one American I chatted with Saturday afternoon. “Back home, I’ve got all the toys. The big house, the SUV, the gadgets. I’m connected at the hip to my Blackberry.

“I’ve been down here visiting my brother for three weeks. And I feel like I’m finally starting to get this place. The other day, I found myself driving along the dirt road, not another soul in sight, singing at the top of my lungs and smiling. All alone and grinning like a fool.

“Back home, life is so predictable. Our biggest decision each day is where to go for dinner. Down here, you never know what’s going to happen. Each day is a new opportunity for adventure.

“I’m heading back to the States this week, but I’ll be back as soon as I can work things out to return.”

This gentleman’s brother lives six months of the year in the little beach town where we spent the weekend. He’s building a boat. When it’s finished, he intends to open a charter fishing enterprise.

When he’s not here, he’s in Alaska, where he also operates a charter fishing business.

You have two choices for accommodation in little Torio: the Cabanas de Torio, owned by Robby…and Ludwig’s cabanas across the road. We stayed at Robby’s place. Two of the 8 little cabins are air-conditioned. For US$25 a night, you enjoy electricity and an en-suite bathroom but no hot water. And, well, to be honest, you enjoy electricity unless it goes out. Then you enjoy electricity if the generator is functioning.

Mostly, your 25 bucks a night buys you a lot of edge-of-nowhere ambiance. The local girl running the little on-property restaurant for Robby is standing by all day long to cook you up some fresh shrimp (or fish or chicken…) and salsa or to serve you up a rum and Coke. Maybe without ice…and sometimes without the Coke…but always with a big smile.

Full American breakfast is US$2. Your lunch or dinner of fresh shrimp, salsa, rice, and salad will set you back about US$5.

What would you do here?

If you’re interested in buying, selling, or developing property, this is one of the most interesting emerging markets in the world today.

You could start a business. Tourism to the region is growing at such a noteworthy rate that a group of students from abroad is running around researching and studying the phenomenon.

You could rent a small house for as little as US$120 a month and settle in as part of the emerging expat community.

You could build a house of your own and pass your Sunday mornings swinging in a hammock on your front porch, watching the sea and the surf and the palm trees…

You could hike in the surrounding hills…maybe go to see the nearby waterfalls and snorkeling holes…

You could watch the sun set over the ocean. This is the only western-facing stretch of coast in Panama…

Could you live here forever?

I couldn’t. But I feel fortunate that we’re in a position right now to be able to escape to this beautiful and unspoiled outpost of civilization on a regular basis.

“As soon as I get back home to Montana,” my new friend explained Saturday afternoon, “I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to begin daydreaming about this place. I’m going to be preoccupied by the thoughts of what I’d be doing if I were back here. I’ll be counting the days until I can return…

“I don’t think I’d want to live here full-time. But as a kind of escape hatch…you can’t beat this place.”

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. As I mentioned, not all the would-be expat “retirees” in this part of the world are American. We enjoyed the company this weekend of a French couple, also searching out Plan B at this stage of their lives. The French have been coming to Panama’s Azuero peninsula in growing numbers for the past decade or so. The couple from Paris we met this weekend spoke no Spanish. No problem, we assured them. Young Jackson, along for our weekend at the beach, will be happy to translate for you…

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