Why In The World Would You Seek Out Little Santa Fe?
We arrived early Saturday evening to find Santa Fe’s entire population of 2,800 people seemingly out and about. Children on bicycles and kicking soccer balls back and forth in the fields and in the roads, young men sitting on fence posts and front porch steps checking out the pretty girls as they passed by, joking and teasing, laughing and chatting, older couples gathered in small groups to catch up on the week’s gossip…we had to weave among them all as we tried to make our way around downtown.
We were the only non-pedestrians and the only non-locals. After we’d made three or four passes up and down the main few streets of the village, we’d attracted attention. Who are those crazy gringos in their SUV, the good people of Santa Fe must have been asking themselves…and what in the world are they doing in our town this Saturday night?
Indeed, why would anyone seek out little Santa Fe, Panama?
That’s what we’d come to find out. This is the heart of Panama, a hinterland region that the investors, retirees, and adventurers who’ve been making their way to this country’s shores over the past dozen years have yet to discover. Here, sleepy Panama country life continues undisturbed and unaffected.
We stopped to ask for a restaurant recommendation, somewhere to go for dinner, and were presented with four options. Inside the one we chose, we stood before a counter and made our selections by pointing to what we liked in each of the big pots the lady cook uncovered for us. Each plate of steak, pork, or chicken with rice and beans cost US$2.50.
When we asked about drinks, the lady cook explained that she was out. She suggested I walk across the parking lot to the little supermarket. I did and bought Cokes and bottles of water (five bottles in all for a total cost of US$2.20) to carry back to our table.
As we began to eat, three young men, maybe 19 or 20 years old, walked in and sat down at the table beside us.
“Hello,” they said cheerfully. “How are you? What is your name?”
We introduced ourselves, and then so did they. “Mucho gusto, Gabrielle, Junior, and Christian,” we offered.
“Pleased to meet you,” they replied.
“Where do you come from?” they directed their question to Lief.
“Phoenix, Arizona,” Lief explained.
“Is he your son?” they asked, pointing to Jack.
“What is your profession?” they continued their efforts to practice their English.
“I develop real estate,” Lief explained.
“Are you happy?” they wanted to know.
Lief looked at me. Before he could reply, the boys continued. They sure seemed happy. They’d come into town, I guessed, after a day’s work in the fields, their jeans and boots muddy and wet, the pick-up truck they’d driven up in just outside the door in the same condition.
“My girlfriend is in the States,” Gabrielle offered, this time in Spanish. “She is in Texas,” he continued with a big smile. “Do you know Texas?”
“How long are you staying in Panama?” still in Spanish.
“Do you like our country?” now in English.
And on and on. They seemed content to continue the conversation with or without our participation.
“Have a good day,” they offered when we’d finished eating and stood up to leave.
Outside, the streets were still crowded with Santa Fe’s general population. The Saturday evening merry-making seemed to be picking up steam.
We decided to call it a night and retreated to our US$25-a-night hotel. We’ll know next time to splurge to stay at Santa Fe’s other option, the Hostel La Qhia, which offers both dorm and private accommodation. The private suite, with its own bathroom (with hot water), is US$33 a night, the grounds and gardens are lovely, and the proprietress, Stefanie, is a wealth of information about the region. Altogether, far more charming and comfortable than where we spent the night.
Sunday morning, we set out to find one of the nearby waterfalls. There are six. Then we drove to the Rio Santa Maria so the kids could splash around in the rubber boots we’d bought for them in town.
This is what you come for. The hiking, the biking, the river-wading. The tubing, the horseback-riding, the sunshine. The orchids, the turtles, 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 certainly 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 on food.
Yes, you could stay in touch with the rest of the world. For such a middle-of-nowhere locale, Santa Fe’s infrastructure is impressive. Remember, this is Panama. In no other country in this region could you hope to find paved roads, streetlights, fire hydrants, and cell coverage this far from a major city.
Both hotels in town, Hostel La Qhia and the not-so-nice place where we stayed, offer Internet connectivity options. Or you could have a satellite connection of your own. We spoke with someone who explained that the hardware required can cost as little as US$400 or US$500. Your monthly bill would be about US$180.
Your biggest expense living here would be a vehicle. Most people in town get by without one. They walk from house to house in the hills, into town and back home. Regular bus service to Santiago and from there to Panama City or anywhere else you’d want to go in the country is super-cheap. And not as uncomfortable as you might imagine, I’m assured by our Editorial Assistant Rebecca Tyre who takes the bus regularly from the interior into the capital.
Would we be happy living here? Lief and I have considered Gabrielle’s question in the context of Gabrielle’s world since our return last night to Panama City.
In fact, we’ve agreed, at this point in our lives, we would be. We couldn’t move now to Santa Fe, for where would young Jack go to school? However, were it not for that priority, we could opt now for little Santa Fe and live happily, at least part of the year, among its hills and rivers, waterfalls and wildflowers. We could garden and read and practice our Spanish. We’d need projects. I could write a book. Lief could build a house.
Not 12 months at a time and not forever. But as part of a bigger retirement plan, I’d say Santa Fe living could be hard to beat.
Live for US$500 or US$600 a month here for four or five months at a time, and your retirement budget, assuming it’s more than that, would expand accordingly for the remaining seven or eight months of the year.