Bests Of Panama, Coast To Coast, End To End
Panama is an extreme example of why thin-slicing your live and retire overseas options is so important.
Panama City, for example, small as it is, isn’t one good choice but at least a half-dozen. Specifically, top lifestyle options in the capital include El Cangrejo, Paitilla, Costa del Este, Altos del Golf, the banking center, and Casco Viejo. Each is a markedly different option for city living.
El Cangrejo is up-and-coming trendy…the banking center is the most convenient, center-of-everything option and boasts quick access to the new Cinta Costera.
Casco Viejo is the most historic and interesting section of this city. Certainly, this enclave is unique and special architecturally, not only within Panama but globally (thus its UNESCO World Heritage Site status).
At least that’s my opinion. A friend, on the other hand, refers to Casco Viejo as “Casco Aburrido” (Boring Town), because it lacks the casinos and other nightlife options of downtown. I’d say that this complaint is less valid all the time, as new restaurants, nightclubs, and bars are opening monthly in this part of this city. Still, though, no casino.
Paitilla, with its parks and playgrounds, is a good choice with a young family, as are Altos del Golf (where Panama’s elite, including current President Ricardo Martinelli, raise their families) and Costa del Este.
I think of Costa del Este, Panama City’s purpose-built suburb, as “Panama Lite.” Living here, you could easily forget you’re in Panama and imagine yourself in any upper-middle-class suburb outside any big Florida city. (This has big pluses but minuses, too.)
Beyond Panama City, the lifestyle options this country offers are beach, both Pacific and Caribbean, and mountain.
First are the “City Beaches,” as they’re called. These stretches of Pacific coast, within an hour-and-a-half drive of Panama City, have two big advantages. First, they’re easily accessible, perfect for weekend getaways from the capital. Second, they’re home to what has become probably the second most established expat community in Panama (after Boquete), in and around Coronado. You might see the resident gringo population as an attractionâ€¦or a reason to avoid the area.
Perhaps my favorite “developed” (remember, this is a relative idea; this region is more developed than others in this country, but this is no Cancun) Panama Pacific beach option is Pedasi, on the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula.
It’ll take you four hours to reach this small beach town from downtown Panama City. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you travel well-maintained highway door-to-door. The really good news is that, having made the drive, you are greeted by one of Panama’s most colorful, charming, and lively towns, a welcoming and growing resident expat community, and long stretches of beautiful Pacific coastline, offshore from which you can enjoy some of the best surfing in the world.
And the best news is that you could adopt the Pedasi lifestyle as your own on a budget of as little as US$1,200 per month.
Pedasi is on the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula. The west coast of this peninsula is less discovered, more rugged, and, in my opinion, more naturally beautiful. Also more affordable and, important to note, western-facing, making it one of only a handful of spots in the country from which you can watch the sun set over the sea.
Note that it is here, in this up-and-coming beach region, where Lief and I are developing our own Los Islotes community.
As I mentioned, Panama has both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, but I’ve historically been reluctant to recommend this country to anyone with a clear Caribbean agenda. The only developed stretch of Panama’s Caribbean coast is around Bocas del Toro, and, while the beaches here can be spectacular, Bocas del Toro town itself could generously described as a pit.
Dirty and poor. These are the two thoughts that come to mind when someone mentions Bocas del Toro. Another is rights of possession. That is to say, much of the beachfront in this part of the country is not held with freehold title but with rights of possession (commonly referred to as ROP). As we remind you often, these are not the same things.
Yet, North Americans are found in bunches in this quintessential Caribbean town. Perhaps a good reason is that most of the rest of Panama’s long Caribbean coast is either protected land (home to the Kuna Indians) or inaccessible (that is, there are no roads).
The biggest town on the Caribbean side of the isthmus of Panama is Colon. Colon is home to the world’s second-largest duty-free trade zone and boasts at least the same level of infrastructure as Bocas, yet, for reasons no one can explain (other than long-held local prejudice), it has never developed as a tourist destination…while Bocas, against all reason as far as I can tell, has.
More interested in a life in the mountains than at the beach? Again, you’ve got to thin-slice your options.
The most discovered highlands choice in Panama is Boquete (the focus of this month’s issue of our Panama Letter). Expats have been settling in Boquete for more than a decade, and, as a result, real estate values increased markedly over that time. However, today, thanks to the general global slowdown late last decade, prices are down nicely from their pre-2008 heights.
Boquete is known for its level of services, amenities, and activities geared to its English-speaking expat and retiree community, which is one of the biggest in the world (again, this may be a plus for you, or a minus). Retiring to Boquete would be about as turn-key experience as you might hope for retiring overseas. One specific practical advantage of retiring here as opposed to most anywhere else in this country is that you would not have to learn to speak Spanish if you didn’t want to. Most all your neighbors in Boquete would speak English.
Another favorite mountain pick in Panama has the advantage of being very accessible from Panama City (unlike Boquete, which is an in-country plane ride away). Also unlike Boquete, El Valle has managed to remain off the radar of mountain-loving foreigners. In El Valle, you’d be living mostly among locals and, on weekends, Panamanians from the city who keep second homes here.
At the same time, El Valle is not reclusive or remote but just 30 to 45 minutes from the coast and about two hours from Panama City, meaning you could regularly enjoy the amenities and services of the city, without having to suffer its heat and humidity day-to-day.
My preferred highlands getaway option in this country, though, is a tiny mountain town called Santa Fe, a place I consider one of this country’s still best-kept secrets. Santa Fe is wildflower-covered hillsides, cascading waterfalls, fast-flowing rivers, horse trails, coffee fincas, and impressive and expansive vistas.
You come to Santa Fe for the hiking, the biking, and the river-wading…the tubing, the horseback-riding, and the sunshine…the orchids, the turtles, and the fishing…
You come to Santa Fe to be in a beautiful and peaceful setting among friendly and happy people. You come to relax and become part of a welcoming and safe community.
You come to learn Spanish (for you’d need to speak it to survive here).
You come to live on very little. You could rent a house for US$200 a month or less. You could eat out every meal every day and spend less than US$200 a month. Live here for US$500 or US$600 a month for four or five months at a time, and your retirement budget could expand accordingly for the remaining seven or eight months of the year.
Market cycles, currency devaluations, Obamacare…the folks out here in Santa Fe are blissfully ignorant of the lot of it. Chaos could reign elsewhere, and life in this sleepy interior region of Panama would continue on as it has for centuries.
And that thought can have a great deal to recommend it these days.