“We don’t have a single bridge to compare with this one in all Costa Rica,” remarked our friend David, traveling with us this weekend in Panama’s Veraguas province, as we crossed another river.
Even here, in Panama’s interior, in what qualifies, no question, as the middle of nowhere, the infrastructure is better than the best you’ll find in far more developed parts of neighboring nations. Nowhere in Nicaragua, for example, or Guatemala or Honduras or Belize or, as David, longtime resident of the country pointed out, Costa Rica do the highways, roads, or bridges compare.
Saturday, our little weekend-getaway entourage toured the western coast of the Azuero Peninsula. Sunday morning, we headed north, into the hinterlands, from Santiago through San Francisco and on to the town nobody’s heard of and nobody’s yet paying any attention to.
The town I believe is going to begin making a name for itself over the coming couple of years.
The village that I predict will be heralded as one of the world’s top retirement escapes starting, say, in the year 2011.
This is Santa Fe.
“The first time Lief and I visited the town,” David reminisced as we approached the village, “about two years ago, we were told there were four expats in residence. We met three of them: a Dutch couple running the hostel and an American lady who begged us not to tell anyone about the place.
“She practically swore us to secrecy,” David chuckled. “‘Please, don’t let word get out about what we’ve found here,’ she urged us.”
On the face of it, there’s very little here here. You could easily dismiss Santa Fe as another sleepy mountain village. But take a closer look.
There’s no denying the place is beautiful. We oohed and ahhed our way around the twists and turns of the mountains that surround the town. Lush, green hills and valleys, completely untouched. Not a thing to interfere with your view in any direction.
“You could be in Switzerland…or Austria,” remarked one of our party.
“It reminds me of the mountains of Ecuador,” said another.
Beautiful…and boasting a near-perfect climate. Santa Fe sits at about 1,000 meters, meaning its temperatures are far cooler than those back in Panama City…but not as chilly as those in, say, Boquete, Panama’s best-known retirement town.
Santa Fe also sees less rain than Boquete each year…and not as much wind.
Right now, maybe the biggest advantage this place has over places like Boquete is that almost nobody, outside the 2,800 Panamanians and the handful of gringos who call it home, knows it exists.
It’s a nature-lover’s paradise and an eco-traveler’s dream.
It’s also a quaint little town with a church and a square and a market. Everything you’d need to get by…but not much more.
It’s a tight-knit community and a safe place to live.
“Last time we were here,” David continued his reminiscences, “we were told that, the day before, a small boy had been run over by a car and killed. ‘Drive slowly and carefully,’ everyone we met counseled us. The entire town was in mourning.”
Santa Fe is a place where everyone knows everyone else…but where the newcomer is not left out.
I don’t know this from personal experience, of course. I’ve visited the town but a few times and never for more than a day in passing. But the handful of gringos who do live in Santa Fe aren’t outsiders. They’re part of the general Santa Fe population.
And even passers-by like me are greeted warmly and welcomed. These people have no experience of tourism yet. They don’t know the hassles tourists can bring. And they’re happy still to make anyone’s acquaintance.
Beautiful, safe, friendly, welcoming…and really cheap. This is the kind of place where, if you were ready to go local, you could enjoy what Santa Fe has to offer for something well less than US$1,000 a month.
Again, right now, you’d be living a middle-of-nowhere mountain town life, enjoying beautiful views everywhere you looked, great weather, and friendly neighbors. There’s a lot to be said for that life, but it’s not for everyone.
I’d agree that it’s probably too soon to think about retiring to Santa Fe. But give this little town with a big heart a little more time. Take another look in a year or two. I predict Santa Fe will have a lot more to offer then.
Meantime, you’d do well today to invest in a small piece of this mountain paradise. Prices are excitingly cheap. You can buy primo mountainside parcels, crossed by rivers and blessed with an abundance of beautiful growing things (including, everywhere you look, great varieties of orchids), for as little as US$1 a square meter.
To put this into perspective, some with land to sell in Boquete today are asking as much as US$100 a meter.
The trouble investing in Santa Fe today is finding something to buy. Locals may welcome visitors and even new residents, but they aren’t as forthcoming with would-be real estate investors. There’s no formal real estate market, of course, so, as the locals are tight-lipped on the subject, it’s hard to know who owns what or what might be for sale at what price. This is still very much a word-of-mouth market.
Which is the time you want to buy. But you’ve got to be willing to make the investment of time and energy to get your head around the situation.
“We worked with a scout,” David explained. “He was good, but, through him, we discovered that there are distinct camps in this region when it comes to property ownership. And each camp must be approached and negotiated with separately.
“Loyalties and histories come into play. Our scout, for example, was in good with one camp…but not so good with any other. So all the properties he found for us were available for sale from this one extended family group.”
As the afternoon wore on, we continued farther and farther off the paved path, four-wheeling it into the hills and over the rivers.
Then we noticed a few clouds gathering.
“You know, if it starts to rain, I wouldn’t want to take bets on our chances of getting back to the highway today,” said David.
“We’ll find someplace to stay the night then,” Lief offered.
I began to hope for a downpour.