The Perfect Panamanian Country Town (That Nobody’s Heard Of…Yet)
Penonomé’s riotous Carnaval (which I experienced firsthand earlier this month and survived to report on in this month’s issue of the Panama Letter) has put the town on the map, but the people of Penonomé also host annual orange, tomato, and sugar cane festivals.
When it’s not celebrating and putting on a show for visitors, Penonomé is, at heart, a humble country town–family-oriented, quiet, safe, peaceful, friendly, and traditional.
But don’t mistake humble for poor. The agricultural festivals bespeak the town’s long-established agriculture-based economy. As a commercial and banking hub for the big-time farmers and ranchers from the fertile hills and open pastures just outside town, significant agri-business profits pass through Penonomé.
And don’t mistake traditional for backward. The town is served by high-speed Internet, six banks, open-air produce and meat markets, fully equipped pharmacies, athletic fields, a university, a hospital, clinics, and loads of restaurants, bars, and casinos. Modern shopping centers, including chain restaurants and a 24-hour grocer, have sprung up along the Pan-American Highway, the main route into town from the east or west (or the north or south, depending on how confused you are by Panama‘s unique geography).
In addition to the many in-town conveniences, the town itself is convenient–to the rest of Panama. Panama City is two hours away. The popular expat mountain retreat El Valle is but several minutes down the highway and then 20 minutes up the meandering road into the highlands. The beach resorts of Playa Blanca (with one of the world’s largest swimming pools), Decameron Resort (home to one of three 18-hole golf courses within 45 minutes of town), Vista Mar, and Buenaventura (a true five-star resort) are all less than a 25-minute drive away, meaning you can enjoy resort amenities whenever you want…without paying the condo fees and high real estate prices.
To serve these expanding tourist destinations along the coast, a US$53 million expansion project is currently under way at the airport in nearby Rio Hato (30 minutes from Penonomé), making charter flights from the United States, Canada, and Europe possible.
With the development of the resorts, beach communities, and now the airport, job opportunities for laborers and service workers from Penonomé and the surrounding areas are plentiful…and about to become much more so. Minera Panama, a subsidiary of Canadian miner Inmet Mining, is in the development stages of a giant copper mine in nearby Colon Province that’s expected to compete with the monster copper mines of Peru and Chile. With an estimated mine life of 35 years, Minera Panama will be the biggest employer of the people of Penonomé for many years to come.
My friendly doorman back in Panama City recently told me he’s been lured to Penonomé by a well-paid mining job. In less than a month, he’ll greet me at the door for the last time. He’ll be missed, but good for him.
Curiously, with several paths to progress being cleared in and around Penonomé, foreigners have thus far overlooked this town when considering where to live in Panama.
I asked a colleague from Penonomé how many foreigners he’d estimate live in his hometown. He began to count with his fingers, “one, two…five, six…carry the two…right, Penonomé has zero foreigners….Except that guy from Canada, but he’s clinically insane, so we won’t count him.”
Spending time in Penonomé, even during the craziness of Carnaval, I couldn’t understand why more expats and retirees haven’t settled here. It’s a charming, old world town, with peaceful parks, historic monuments, tidy yards, brilliantly colored flowers, mountain views, clear rivers, and a classic colonial town square anchored by a gorgeous white cathedral.
Outside town, the rolling hills and wide open spaces offer a peaceful country lifestyle at a deep discount to more well-worn expat haunts such as Boquete, El Valle, and Altos del Maria.
Like real estate prices, labor costs in and around Penonomé are low, meaning a live-in maid, a personal driver, a gardener or a team of farmhands…even a cook…are real possibilities.
And all of this–the modern infrastructure and amenities, the low property and labor costs, the international airport, the copper mine, the luxury resorts–make Penonomé a smart base for a business…the perfect place to realize your ranch or organic farm dream, for example…or your secluded riverfront spa or bed and breakfast plan…
The areas outside Penonomé have been discovered, developed, and done. Yet Penonomé, outside of Carnaval week, has remained a traditional Panamanian town with an almost entirely Panamanian population, making it an affordable haven for international living, offering a real connection to the Panamanian way of life. It’s just that the expats haven’t figured this out…yet…
Image credit: AnelGTR