From Beautiful Beaches to Cool Highlands, Which Community Is Right For You?
Bocas Del Toro
Panama’s Caribbean playground, known by the locals simply as “Bocas”, offers a laid-back atmosphere and burgeoning tourism industry. Originally, it was Bocas that put Panama on the map as an off-the-beaten track vacation destination and is especially popular with surfers, sailors and sun-seekers. Most travel around Bocas is by boat via the calm and clear waters that engulf the area’s many islands. Island hopping, as dreamy as it sounds, can be pleasant while the sun shines, but it is not so pleasant in the rain.
Bocas’ airport makes it easily accessible from Panama City in about one hour by plane. Drive time from Panama City is roughly 8 hours to Almirante and then another 45 minutes by water taxi. If you plan to transport a car onto Isla Colon (Bocas’ most populated island, you will need to get in touch with the ferry service which transports vehicles to the island. It is not common for tourists to transport vehicles to Bocas since there are limited road ways and transport by hiring boats to wherever you want to go is more convenient.
The advantages of Bocas are its many secluded beaches, wild jungle terrain, outstanding surfing, marinas for sailors, kayaking, fishing, snorkeling and the availability of a host of other water related activities. Seafood here can be quite tasty, and a wide range of new restaurants offering Indian, German, Italian and other cuisines are now open for business.
Bocas makes for an excellent vacation getaway. It offers far more outdoor activities than any of Panama’s other destinations and the strong influx of tourists helps provide the base for an emerging expat community. For nature lovers, wilderness seekers, and beach bummers, surfers and sailors, Bocas Del Toro is a must-see.
The disadvantages are more acute the longer one stays in Bocas. In Bocas, it rains frequently and since one can never be quite sure if or when it will rain, planning and preparing for rain becomes an ongoing task. Cleanliness and sanitation are neglected as most garbage and sewage ends up in the ocean untreated, with limited currents to carry in fresh water. High-speed Internet can be difficult to obtain, medical facilities are somewhat rudimentary, and grocery selection is poor. These disadvantages are easy to overlook in the short-term, but for many aging expats and retirees looking to enhance their comforts rather than retract them, Bocas may not suffice over the long-term.
Real Estate In Bocas – Buyer Beware
It is now easy to find a small patch of land in Bocas to call your own. Developers have relentlessly carved the coastline into bite-sized pieces for their foreign counterparts to purchase. Most property in Bocas is offered as “right of possession” whereby buyers are sold the right to possess the property, but clear title to property in Bocas (or any island in Panama) is generally not available. Currently, there is some controversy regarding land and property that was transferred to foreign buyers illegally by the previous municipal government. Purchasing real estate in Bocas is risky business and adequate legal counsel may not always be enough to fully protect your property rights. See the chapter in the Panama 101 E-Book entitled “Buying Real Estate in Panama” for more information on how to engage in right of possession land transactions and how this differs from titled property.
In Bocas Del Toro, property with running water, electricity, Internet access and other basic infrastructure sells at a premium, and rightly so. Many expats buy land here with a vision of paradise, only to discover that the costs to build a livable dwelling were way more than they had imagined. Delivering construction supplies by boat, obtaining permits from the overwhelmed government agencies, and other unforeseen obstacles can make it difficult and costly to build in Bocas. Readers should be aware of these challenges before shelling out thousands of dollars to claim their slice.
Panama 101 Insider Tip – First time visitors to Bocas Del Toro should not miss Isla Zapatilla. Most of the tour promoters don’t mention these idyllic islands because they are further from town and more costly to reach. However, the extra time is well worth the visit as the scenery is extraordinary and the snorkeling is among the best in the area. Dolphins are often spotted on the way so keep your eyes peeled!
About 75 minutes west of Panama City lies a gorgeous range of mountains with a year round spring-like climate similar to that of Boquete and Volcan on the west end of the country.
The pride of Sora are its fine ocean views from landscaped building sites, which have been popular for those looking for a country home in a peaceful setting. The Pacific Coast beaches are just a 20 minute drive down the mountain road, making it a popular setting for a second home. The town of Sora itself has little to offer save for a couple of basic restaurants and convenience stores, and some rural Panamanian charm. Along the Inter-American Highway, just 20 minutes down the hill from Sora are facilities like supermarkets, auto mechanics, banks, and the rest of the basics one needs to survive in today’s modern age. The close proximity of Panama City makes day trips to the city feasible.
El Valle (pronounced El Vaiyeh) is substantially more quaint and clean than Sora and has long served as a cool weekend getaway for Panama’s wealthy elite. El Valle is more town-like than Sora and a few of the well-groomed streets and vistas are reminiscent of alpine Switzerland or Germany.
Real estate here is priced at a premium compared with most of Panama, especially for property close to the center of town.
The drawbacks of El Valle and Sora are similar. Both are small towns – villages actually, and the permanent international community is still very small. Very few modern amenities exist here, so most people drive to Panama City for their dose of fine dining and entertainment.
Over the next several years, this area has strong potential to flourish as an expat hideaway… a trend that has already begun. For people who prefer country living in a safe and healthy, albeit quiet, environment where the climate is fresh all year round, both Sora and El Valle are solid options.
Boquete went from sleepy coffee country village to international retirement haven in about two years flat. This area now attracts the lion’s share of foreign residents who can stand to live away from the beach, and a good portion of those who can’t. Many people who are dead set on finding a beach property still end up in Boquete due to the fine mountain air, lush panoramic vistas and peaceful nature of the inhabitants. Land prices have multiplied several times over the past few years with prices so high that agriculture no longer makes financial sense and even those with an affordable retirement home in mind may be disappointed due to the high prices.
From a lifestyle perspective, Boquete has a lot to offer. The natural basics are unsurpassed… clean air, gorgeous climate, and quality local inhabitants. However, many people realize that there really isn’t much to do here over the long-term and boredom can begin to set in. For those who would like to run a bed and breakfast, a lodge, or a restaurant, opportunities abound. But on the social side, even the liveliest bar in Boquete shuts down around 10 PM or midnight on weekends. Community events for expats are few and far between. The activity list in Boquete may change in the future as more international residents move in, but don’t come to Boquete looking for a wonderland full of social diversions.
The good news is, the vacation and seasonal rental market is picking up in Boquete and it is getting easier to rent your vacation home while you are not using it. This makes it easy to justify Boquete as a place to live part-time, like a breath of fresh air between workouts. A vacation home in Boquete combines exceptionally well with a place on the beach in Panama, or in Panama City.
Panama 101 Insider Tip – By far the best breakfast in Boquete can be found at Punta Del Encuentro (translation: meeting point), just a few blocks south of the town central park (ask any local and they will point you in the right direction). Enjoy delicious fried potatoes, a basket of fresh tropical fruit, locally grown coffee, French toast, pancakes… you name it. Olga, the owner, is one of the most sincere people on Earth. She leaves bananas near the dining area to attract the many species of birds that inhabit the area.
Coronado – San Carlos
This area represents a long stretch of residential beach developments and resorts beginning about one hour west of Panama City and continuing for an additional 45 minute drive west along the Inter-American highway. As these are the closest recreational beaches to Panama City, Panama’s wealthy class have gobbled up most of the beachfront and real estate prices tend to be much higher than in the rest of the country (though still a bargain when compared with plush areas of Spain, Hawaii, or Florida, for example).
On the plus side, many of the homes along this stretch of beach offer high-levels of privacy and exclusivity. For people looking for large estate homes with swimming pools and tennis courts, Coronado and the surrounding area is the best place to look. Recently, a plethora of ocean view condo towers have come on the market, mostly still in pre-construction phase. Buyers should be cautious before committing to a purchase, since many towers are nothing more than an artist rendering and actualizing the construction is several important steps away. Ask about development approvals, building permits and other infrastructure that the current development site may or may not have in place. While your friendly sales agent might insist that construction will begin “in a few weeks” that time frame could quickly become “a few years” if the developer is not properly funded, or if key approvals have not been obtained from the government.
Since the international tourism market still barely recognizes Panama, this area does not feel like a Puerto Vallarta, Waikiki or Copacabana. There are currently only a handful of large resorts spaced several miles apart (Coronado Hotel, Decameron Resort, Buenaventura and Playa Blanca to name a few) and several new “planned” residential communities. At this stage of the growth phase, readers are encouraged to buy something already existing or do a lot of due diligence before committing to a project that is still under construction.
Along the Pacific Beaches just west of Panama City, it is not unrealistic to expect empty beaches during the weekdays and a sparse number of visitors on the weekends. Festivals and special holidays are a different story, of course, when many of the beaches fill up with vacationing Panamanian families. If you are looking for that moonlit stroll along an empty beach, five minutes from your private beachfront estate home, this is the place for you assuming your investment budget exceeds seven figures ($1,000,000+). Nice two bedroom condos can still be found for around $200,000.
Panama 101 Insider Tip – If you are just looking to spend a day at the beach, lounge in a hammock, eat fresh fish, and enjoy a calm Pacific Ocean on a stunning white sand beach, Santa Clara is your finest option. About 20 minutes past Coronado heading west on the Interamerican highway (90 minutes west of Panama City), you will see a small sign pointing to Santa Clara. Just follow the road to the end, and pay the small parking fee, which should include access to the showers for a rinse after your swim. Hammocks and shaded thatch huts are a few dollars extra but well worth the investment. The fried fish served at the restaurant in front of the beach is very tasty and beer is just 75 cents per bottle. Enjoy!
In conclusion, as a person who has moved to new cities and countries several times over the years, the author believes that a new place is generally as appealing as you make it. It can take time – many months or even years – to start to feel comfortable in your new surroundings and make new friends. People who move to a foreign country often form natural bonds with others who have done the same, which is one of the main rewards of an expat lifestyle.