The New Boquete
I first recommended Boquete, Panama, as a top retirement option 20 years ago. At the time, I referred to it as an “emerging” choice.
Fast forward two decades and this pretty mountain town appears regularly on lists of the world’s top retirement havens, including from the AARP. As I identified all those years ago, Boquete has a great deal to offer the expat retiree, including, today, one of the world’s most established expat communities.
However, Boquete is not nearly as affordable a choice today as it once was. In addition, while the big foreign retiree population is a plus for many, some find it off-putting. It’s hard today to live a Panamanian lifestyle in Boquete, where you hear more English spoken on the streets than Spanish and all the restaurants and shops in town are managed with the foreign customer in mind.
Not far away, on the other side of Barú, the tallest mountain in Panama, at 11,398 feet, sits a kind of sister village to Boquete known as Volcán.
While Boquete has made a name for itself in the global press, Volcán remains off the world’s radar, quiet, tranquil, and unaffected, a traditional Panamanian mountain town. Volcán is as beautiful as Boquete, but, because it’s managed to avoid the spotlight, it’s much more affordable.
Barú is one of Panama’s most impressive natural sights, and the summit of this volcano is one of the few places in the world where you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans at the same time. The town Volcán that sits in the highlands of Chiriqui, near the Panama-Costa Rica border, just to the west of Barú, is home to 14,000 or so people. This isn’t the beach lifestyle that many associate with Panama. Volcán offers the chance to trade in white sand for leafy green wilderness, the sometimes sweltering heat of sea level for a cooler cloud forest climate, and tourist frills for small town simplicity.
The town also offers everything required for day-to-day living. Stores along the two main streets sell hardware supplies, agricultural and veterinary products, clothing (brand names are generally counterfeit), and sporting goods. In addition, in town you find Internet cafes, health clinics (Clinica Nueva Luz is open 24 hours), dentists, travel agencies, gyms, auto shops, gas stations, music lessons, primary schools (public and private; English, Spanish, and bilingual), a Claro cellphone service location, and a post office. A branch of Banistmo bank is located next to the Berard supermarket, and Banco Nacional has a location in town, as well.
The only thing missing in Volcán that is available in neighboring Boquete is a decent bar. When you’re looking for company over a glass of wine or a bottle of beer, you could make the short drive from one town to the other.
The cost of living in Volcán is lower not only than in Boquete but than in most of the rest of Panama, too. While Panama City, its nearby beach communities, and other well-publicized areas have grown in popularity, the cost of living in these places has risen. Thanks to its under-the-radar status, Volcán is one of Panama’s best bargains, a place where the cost of living can be 50% lower than elsewhere but where you don’t have to give up the services and amenities of a comfortable lifestyle.
Despite Volcán’s distance from Panama City, you have good options for getting from one to the other. The nearest transport hub to Volcán is the city of David. A bus ticket for the seven-hour trip from Panama City to David costs just US$18. The onward bus ride from Volcán to David costs US$4, and that final leg of the trip takes about an hour. Meantime, the one-hour flight from Panama City to David costs US$85 one-way and US$165 round trip.
Volcán has facilities for basic health care needs; however, for more specialized or higher-quality care, you’d travel to the hospital in David. That’s not to say that Volcán doesn’t have a hospital. As part of this country previous presidential administration’s infrastructure push, Volcán received a multimillion-dollar hospital. However, the facility has yet to open as a fully functional hospital because it lacks equipment and staff. From the street, the building looks like a new, modern hospital—and perhaps someday it will be.
Volcán’s main indoor market is located justoff the intersection of the two main streets. Inside are confectionaries, souvenir and jewelry shops, hair stylists, tailors, shoe repairmen, an Internet cafe, and even a masseur. Above the market is a small cafeteria where breakfast costs less than US$4.
One of the nicest things about living in Volcán is the access you’d enjoy to a good selection of fresh food, especially fresh produce, which is sold from roadside shacks at prices that are a global bargain. Much of the produce comes from Cerro Punta, a small agricultural village just a short drive from Volcán. At 6,600 feet about sea level, Cerro Punta’s fertile land provides Panama with some of its best quality fruits and vegetables. A visit to the farmers market in Cerro Punta can net you a huge bag of organic vegetables for less than US$4, and strawberries with fresh cream are available on every corner.
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