Chame To Stay, Punta Chame To Play
Live on the cheap in Chame while taking advantage of Punta Chame as a close and convenient weekend paradise escape. That is:
Chame to stay, Punta Chame to play.
Punta Chame and Chame are two Panamanian towns that, despite their proximity and similar names, sit in contrast. One is an emerging paradise and playground, where the white-sand beach stretches for 22 miles. The other is a small, quiet town, a half-hour away, spread along the Pan-American Highway.
Punta Chame and Chame are two of the first communities you come to as you travel west from Panama City. They’re the unofficial start of the “City Beaches Area,” as it’s known, an hour or two outside the capital.
Over the past decade, other spots in the City Beaches Area, especially Coronado, have seen big growth in their expat communities, while Chame has remained off the radar. This could be a positive or a negative, depending on what you’re looking for. Coronado has more amenities—a supermarket, trendy eateries, a McDonald’s, real estate agencies—but it also has more people. Chame is a better option for more privacy, more local surroundings, and more local costs.
Driving along the Pan-American, you could be excused if you didn’t notice you had entered or left Chame were it not for the signs informing you (which are also easy to miss). Chame is a roadside town, but don’t allow that to influence your opinion right off the bat. While Chame is not beachside like neighboring Gorgona, it is nearer to Punta Chame, one of Panama’s most pristine stretches of white-sand beach and the nearest stretch of white sand to Panama City.
The fact that most folks skip Chame and go straight to Coronado or Gorgona means that housing costs and the costs of everything else, too, are lower in Chame.
Chame’s small expat community is mostly Canadian. The town, stretched, as I said, along the Pan-American, consists of a municipal office, a Banco Nacional branch, a post office, a dentist, a mini-supermarket, pharmacies, furniture stores, and fonda-style restaurants. One fonda, Parrilladas el Pampero, is well known for its homemade chorizo sausages and sauces. Lunch and drinks for two here can cost less than US$10.
In other words, Chame has the basic services you need for day-to-day living, but for more shopping and higher-end dining options, you’d travel to Gorgona or Coronado.
Chame’s town square is charming. The church, built in 1895, overlooks the central square, where you can access free and reliable Wi-Fi Internet. Finding free public Wi-Fi in Panama City isn’t easy; finding it in a small town like Chame is a pleasant surprise.
Hotel Canadian (aka Canadian Casa) is where Chame expats hang out. Domestic beers are a buck and a quarter a bottle during happy hour. This is the place to come for local gossip. When I visited, I heard chatter about a new theme park to be developed nearby (some think it will be by Disney, though this is a completely unsubstantiated rumor as far as I could tell) and reports of the big haul from the previous weekend’s fishing expedition. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be Canadian to stop in. Brushing up on some hockey history first wouldn’t hurt, though.
The proprietor of Canadian Casa, Ralph Grunow, is a 70-something expat who arrived in Chame more than 21 years ago. Why’d Ralph come to Panama? The obvious reason—to escape the cold. Temperatures in northern Canada are far below freezing much of the year.
How did Ralph end up in Chame specifically?
“My wife and I traveled to Panama City,” he explained, “then headed along the coast until we came to the first really nice beach.”
What does Ralph think of his new decision to relocate from the Yukon to Chame today, more than two decades later?
“My whole life has been reinvented,” Ralph says. “Back in Canada I was a very hard worker. Part of my objective with coming to Panama was to slow down a little. I’ve gone from repairing trucks, trucking the Alaska highways, and fighting snowbanks to serving tourists in the tropical sun.”
Ralph was a pioneer in Chame, but the world is beginning to catch up with him. The new Rio Hato airport is helping to deliver more tourists to this coast than ever.
Most tourists who find their way to this part of Panama aren’t coming for Chame. They’re headed to Gorgona, Coronado, and, increasingly, Punta Chame.
To get to the 300-meter-wide peninsula known as Punta Chame, you turn off the Pan-American in Bejuco (a big sign points the direction). From the highway turnoff, Punta Chame is a half-hour drive down a road that was paved four years ago, cutting the travel time to the end of the peninsula in half.
People come to Punta Chame for the white-sand beach but also for the wind. Kite-surfing is a serious deal here. Dozens of kites dot the sky early each morning outside the Machette kite-surfing school and rental shop. Kite-surfing is not as easy as it may look, but the instructors are attentive and patient. You should be, too; this isn’t a sport that you’re going to just pick up. Mid-December to April is the season; winds this time of year are ideal.
Punta Chame is more a getaway than a place to stay. The permanent population on the peninsula is about 100 folks, mostly Panamanians living in the central town. The peninsula’s shore is dotted with luxury beach houses, holiday homes for Panama City residents who come out for weekends.
The newest and biggest attraction in Punta Chame is extreme sport-themed Nitro City, which is getting global attention, including from the likes of Justin Bieber and Johnny Knoxville. Kids whiz through the lobby on skateboards on their way to the wakeboard cable course, the motocross track, and the swimming pool. Activities on offer also include paintball, ATVs, scuba diving, jet skis, paddle boards, and kite-surfing. At night, you’ll find groups of teenagers huddled around beach bonfires, hanging out and playing guitar.
Nitro City is a cool and unique destination, but it isn’t cheap—though, perhaps as a nod to the parents who shell out big to bring their kids to this extreme-sport paradise, drinks at the bar are a bargain.
Editor’s Note: Panama is a little country with many faces, from boomtown Panama City to small beach towns, highland villages, and island escapes. It’s also one of the world’s top retirement havens and our favorite jurisdiction for diversifying offshore. What could Panama be for you? The only way to find out is to come see this beautiful and sunny isthmus for yourself.
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