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The World’s Top Retirement Haven…Times Five

Retire To Panama

One of the many reasons we say Panama is the #1 place in the world right now to retire overseas is because of the many and diverse lifestyle options it offers.

Last year, we thin-sliced Panama and named its El Valle de Anton as the world’s top retirement haven. This mountain town about two-and-a-half hours outside Panama City boasts a pleasant climate and beautiful, lush landscapes. Plus, it’s a half-hour from the beach and, again, within easy access of the capital.

When we revisited this question this year to try to name our world’s top retirement haven for 2011, we were reminded what a challenge it is to identify a single best place to settle in retirement.

In fact, it’s not possible. What’s best to me might be intolerable for you. As we remind you regularly, it’s a question of priorities and preferences.

Therefore, this year, we name not one top retirement choice in Panama, the most retirement-friendly place on earth right now, but five, from the city to the coast, from beachfront to cooler mountain climes, with top picks for retirees on strict budgets as well as those whose retirement resources stretch a little further…

World’s Top Retirement Haven #1: Las Tablas—Beach Retirement On A Budget

This is our number-one recommendation if you want to retire to the beach on a budget. Las Tablas is a safe, friendly, charming colonial town on the Pacific coast that boasts a laid-back lifestyle at a bargain-basement cost.

Las Tablas is also the first town of note along the east coast of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, the stretch of this country’s Pacific increasingly referred to as the “Gold Coast.” Boom may be coming to Las Tablas, but it hasn’t hit yet, which is why you can still enjoy life in this coastal town of cowboys and fishermen on a budget of as little as US$1,200 per month.

You could spend more, of course, living in Las Tablas, especially if you travel often to Panama City to enjoy the distractions of the big city. But if you’d be happy with a modest life, sticking close to home, passing your days fishing and swimming, Las Tablas could have your name written all over it.

It’ll take you four hours to reach Las Tablas from downtown Panama City. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you travel well-maintained highway door-to-door.

The other important thing to note about Las Tablas is that it is very much a “local” choice. Living in Las Tablas, your neighbors would be almost exclusively Panamanians. If you’re not comfortable with this idea and have no interest in learning to speak at least a little Spanish, Las Tablas may not work for you.

World’s Top Retirement Haven #2: Boquete—Comfortable Climate And Established Expat Community

Sea-level temperatures in this country can be steamy. The climate is much more comfortable in Panama’s interior highlands. Boquete isn’t this country’s only mountain town of note, but it is the best known and most developed.

Boquete has been attracting foreign retirees for the past six-plus years. Today, there are nearly as many expats as Panamanians residing in this town of eternal spring, and this is one place in this country where you could live without learning to speak Spanish.

On the other hand, Boquete isn’t as budget-friendly a choice as Las Tablas, for example, and, to state the obvious, it isn’t at the beach. This may be a negative for you…or not.

Also, while Boquete is perhaps the best-known town in Panama outside Panama City, it is not easily accessible. You reach Boquete via a half-hour in-country flight from the capital to David. From David, Boquete town is another half-hour drive away.

The real estate market in Boquete has settled noticeably in the past two years, meaning property prices are down from their bubble levels of the last decade. Still, they’re not bargain-basement but remain among the most expensive in the country.

Generally speaking, the cost of living in Boquete is about 25% greater than it is in Las Tablas. Your costs are greater…but so are the levels of products and services you’re able to access. Boquete is a town that has seen something of a boom already. Both the infrastructure and the cost of tapping into it, therefore, are higher than anywhere else in this country outside Panama City.

World’s Top Retirement Haven #3: Coronado—Developed Beach Area Near Panama City

We gringos in town aren’t the only ones to notice that Panama City is hot and steamy. Panamanians living here feel the heat, too, of course. That’s why those who can muster the means keep weekend and holiday houses at the beach.

Among Panamanians resident in Panama City, the preferred beaches are those nearest by. They like to be able to leave work on Friday afternoon and reach their places on the water by dinnertime, and they are willing to pay a premium for that privilege. That’s why property prices at these “city beach” areas, as they’re called, have appreciated in value dramatically over the past decade.

For my money, the experience doesn’t support the inflation. These city beaches aren’t great (typically muddy and flat), and there’s no real town anywhere along this coast, just collections here and there of (often) down-at-the-heels weekend party houses.

Coronado is the exception. Development at Coronado began about 30 years ago, when this spot on the Pacific coast became a destination of focus among wealthy Panamanians from the capital. About two hours’ drive from Panama City, Coronado today is home to about 600 full-time residents, a mix of locals and expats.

This is not the place to invest, certainly not to speculate. Beachfront prices along this coast have already popped. This is, though, perhaps the most full-service, user-friendly beachfront option anywhere in Panama.

World’s Top Retirement Haven #4: Santa Fé —Remote Mountain Hideaway And Top Budget Option

Not everyone would be happy living in Santa Fé, especially full-time. This is a beautiful, safe region where the living is sweet but not well-appointed. At home in Santa Fé, you’d be living a true Panamanian lifestyle, among Panamanians. You’d need to speak Spanish. You’d need to be comfortable taking care of yourself. You’d need to be willing to put some effort into building your new life.

I first visited Santa Fé about four years ago. I had the same reaction as I’ve had many times over the past 25-plus years visiting new destinations for the first time:

Potential.

Santa Fé, four years ago, was as out-of-the-way as a mountain town can be. Today, it is slightly less so. The engine driving the change that is coming to little Santa Fé is to do, as it often is, with infrastructure. The government is currently replacing the bridges along the road close to Santiago and, as well, beginning to carve a new road from Santa Fé to the Caribbean. This is a big deal. The influx of tourists moving from coast to coast will be followed by commercial traffic. There is talk of a Caribbean coastal highway, which would turn Santa Fé into a station on a land bridge across the mountains.

How will things play out in Santa Fé from this point? We don’t know for sure, of course, but we can make some predictions based on experience. An important infrastructure development, of the kind now in the offing in Santa Fé, means opportunity. In advance of the improvement, opportunity for speculation. After the improvement, opportunity for investment, for increased tourism, and for an expanding population, including an expanding population of foreign retirees and other expats.

I’d be surprised if all these things weren’t on the horizon for Santa Fé. How you interpret them depends on your point of view.

If you’re looking for a place to speculate, to bank a little land, I’d say get ye’ to Santa Fé pronto. It’s still possible to get a very good deal (as little as US$1 to US$1.50 a meter).

If you’re interested in finding a cool-weather, back-to-basics, and super affordable place to live or retire, again, I say, again, you should plan a trip to this unsung corner of Panama. Change is coming, but it will unfold slowly. And it won’t be all bad.

Meantime, in charming Santa Fé, a small budget could buy you a rewarding lifestyle.

World’s Top Retirement Haven #5: El Cangrejo—Vibrant, Eclectic, And Bustling…The Best Of Panama City Life

A compact city of but a million people, Panama City nevertheless offers as dramatically varying lifestyle options as does the country overall, from waterfront high-rise (along avenida Balboa) to suburban neighborhood family home (in Costa del Este), from trendy and rowdy (on Calle Uruguay) to genteel and established (in Marbella)…

Our top pick for the expat interested in a cosmopolitan life in Panama’s capital is colorful El Cangrejo, where the streets are lined with palm trees and dotted with restaurants, where the expat community is diverse and expanding, where the cost of living isn’t bargain basement but does still qualify as affordable.

Rents spiked in El Cangrejo (as they did throughout the city) about 24 to 30 months ago. Right now, I’m happy to report, they’re down and highly negotiable. You should be able to rent a comfortable, well-located apartment in what is considered by many the “coolest” neighborhood in all Panama City for about US$800 a month.

A reasonable overall budget for living in El Cangrejo would be about US$2,000, including rent, a full-time maid, and a US$400-a-month entertainment allowance.

Kathleen Peddicord

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