A Home in the Cool Mountains of Panama

The home of Rachelle and Ben Smith in the Altos de Cerro Azul area of Panama.

Shortly after the topple of General Manuel A. Noriega’s regime—Panama ex-strong man—the name Panama was immediately associated with Noriega and drugs. Nobody wanted to come to Panama to visit, live or invest and the tourist industry was in shambles. The Panama government knew it had to act promptly to give Panama a new face.

With the financial aid and technical support from OEA (Organization of American States), Panama designed a Tourist Master Plan for a period of ten years. This would be a scientific approach to develop a solid tourist industry in this Middle America tropical country. The plan was a total success. Panama is currently one of the hottest tourist spots in the region. There is a permanent flock of elder Americans flying South to Panama searching for a milder climate and a safe haven from tropical hurricanes. Panama has a comfortable warm climate with cool ocean breezes and no hurricanes.

Due to an aggressive marketing approach by the Panama Tourist Bureau, there are two fast-growing communities for expatriates. One is in the Province of Chiriquí—Boquete and David—and the other one is in the Province of Bocas del Toro at Isla Colón. Even as we speak, many U.S. citizens are roaming these areas in search of a piece of real estate at a reasonable price. Prices are still within reach, but the demand is so high that it will be difficult to find good land deals in the near future.

Reputable newspapers in the U.S. are running stories about the experience of Americans living in Panama. Such is the story of Rachelle and Ben Smith publishd in The New York Times. In 2003 they sold their plumbing business in Jacksonville, Fla., after spending three years living and sailing on a 38-foot sailboat called the Seawolf. But two years ago, while they were visiting relatives in the United States, their boat was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma.

They decided to call it quits and traveled to the Caribbean and Costa Rica searching for a home to live permanently, far away from tropical hurricanes. Then they received a tip about Panama from a Panama native and an agent with ReMax in the Jacksonville area. That was their lucky day. They were on their way to Paradise.

Fast-growing Panama is generally considered an easy place for foreigners to buy property, compared with other countries. English is commonly spoken, the United States dollar is the accepted legal currency, there are no restrictions on owning land in most areas and the government offers a long list of friendly discounts for “pensionados”, expatriates who have settled in Panama. For the Smiths, Panama had an extra appeal—no hurricanes. “We were sick and tired of running from hurricanes,” said Mrs. Smith, 52.

After looking around the country for a sweet spot, the finally settled in the cool mountain area of Altos de Cerro Azul. The couple paid $150,000 in March 2006 for their three-bedroom, three-bath home. The house is situated on two acres of land, and it is a little more than an hour’s drive from Panama City. The Altos de Cerro Azul area is one of the few places on earth with views of both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. On clear days, from the terrace of their home, the Smiths enjoy the rare view of watching the ships line up to enter the Panama Canal.

The area is also something of a bird paradise. Ornithologists regularly lead tours through the valleys, hoping for glimpses of the toucans, migratory birds and rare hummingbirds that regularly visit the treetops in the Smiths’ backyard. As the seasons change, there are always new varieties passing through, including migratory orioles from North America, and the hummingbird feeders are swarming with unusual breeds. “If you put a hibiscus flower in your ear,” Mr. Smith said, “they’ll come right up to you.”

Although both spoke little Spanish when they arrived, they have found it easy to live in Panama, where many of the locals speak at least a bit of English. They say they rarely go into Panama City, preferring the markets in nearby towns and the small open-air family restaurants in the area, where they can feast on plates of rice and beans for $3. And “it’s 32 cents for a beer,” Mr. Smith added.

The Smith family is just one example of a success story of living in Panama. If you’re also tired of tropical hurricanes or tons of snow, and a rat-race lifestyle, give yourself a break and fly down to Panama where the shiny sun owns a home.

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