A reader wrote to me recently indicating that she and her spouse are contemplating a move to Panama. They haven’t been here before and were planning on doing a three-week trip to take a look around. Three weeks is plenty of time to travel around Panama for the first time. It’s important to have some idea of an itinerary but it doesn’t have to necessarily be set in stone. Traveling around is fairly easy, there is just one main highway, the Pan American that goes right through the country. Most of the other secondary highways branch off of it and signage has gotten better since the first time we were here. There are still some areas off the beaten path where the signage isn’t that great and maps aren’t too detailed but there is usually someone willing to help out if you really get lost. I don’t think that unless you’re travelling into the deepest jungle on your own (not recommended) that most people would have too much trouble navigating around. If you decide to rent a vehicle as we did then it can get a bit pricey. One of the reasons is the insurance. And you really do need to get insurance because people drive like crazy around here. The other option for travel is to use the bus. The buses are cheap and they go pretty much everywhere. It’s a good way to see the country instead of the driver just seeing the road.
If you’re seriously thinking about making a move to Panama, you make want to take a bit more time or try to narrow down what areas of the country you would like to concentrate on. I’ve mentioned several times that we wanted to live near the beach. We looked around the areas close to the city. We didn’t find the Coronado area appealing; it just seemed that there were too many gates and big resorts along that strip of highway between Gorgona and Santa Clara. It’s easy to get into the city there and all the amenities are available, but it didn’t feel right for us. There is a large expat community there and integration likely would have been easy for us but we weren’t sure if that was what we were looking for either.
Climate was one of the important things for us. Not having lived in a rainy environment we also weren’t sure that we wanted to be water-logged during rainy season that lasts half the year here. The David/Bouquete/Volcan area is pretty I’m sure but it is also cooler than where we are and much wetter during rainy season. We decided when we were here the first time not to go any further than the Azuero Peninsula. We chose the Azuero because it is the driest part of the country. The peninsula is shaped in such a way that the winds push the rain away from us during wet season and in dry season the winds shift and come in from the North and really cool things down.
An easy way to get a feel for Panama the first time if you’re coming here thinking of moving and not just as a tourist is to take a real estate tour. I did some research on these tours and it seems there are several different companies offering different types of tours at various prices. I don’t think that we ever contemplated taking one of these tours so I was curious about them.
First, I noticed that some of them offered services that were already free. For instance, one site said that you’d get a briefing on how to get 30 Day Free Health Insurance. The insurance the site is talking about is available to all tourists to Panama who are staying 30 days or less. When you go through customs you’re handed the pamphlet and with the information on how it works and how to use it if you need it. And it’s free to everyone. End of story. If you can read, you’ve got the information.
The next thing I noticed about a few of the sites was that they seemed to guide the tour towards their “preferred” real estate developments. Yowza! That’s a big red flag on that one! Now I understand how some poor sucker ended up with the lot in the cow pasture that’s not really a lot. It’s a pond with fill in it. When looking at “preferred” real estate developments keep in mind that it takes a loooongggg time to get anything built in this country. If you’re not planning on moving here or needing that house for five years you will be o.k. Also keep in mind that when you’re building it’s best that you are here to oversee it. In the short nine months that I’ve been here I’ve heard about houses sliding down mountains due to developers not following engineering reports, heard people complaining about how nothing is getting built in the development, and have seen someone actually believe the builder when they said that they could build a house in six months without being here to oversee the build. Eighteen months later and I think they’ve finally moved into their house. Even when you’re here to oversee it you’re not going to get anything other than a little casita built in six months or less, especially when you’re not supervising. I have seen some beautiful houses go up in a short time but that is by a small developer who has a reliable work crew and is there every day to oversee the work. And it is work. Work to get materials, work to make sure that the crew shows up every day and work to make sure the subcontractors who are putting in the plumbing, electricity, flooring etc. are showing up when they say they will. My observation is that there is a shortage of workers and in the larger developments the crews rotate, doing a bit on each house and doing just enough so that it looks like things are getting done. A little here, a little there, that’s progress.
The third thing I noticed is that some sites stress “investment” opportunities. The economy in Panama is good, but if you’re coming here to buy something for the short-term to “flip” think again. We met an older gentleman when we first moved here that was here to look for investment opportunities. He had done his research but he was here to see for himself. He stayed in our area for a few weeks, had a real estate agent show him around and then returned to Norte America still not sure about investing. He came back a few months later with his wife to take another look around and once again used the services of a local real estate agent, free. He came over to visit us near the end of his trip to let us know what he had decided. What he said was basically what we already knew. This isn’t the time to be trying to make a quick buck in Panama unless you have time and money to spare. Yes, property is affordable in some areas but to realize any type of profit you have to hold on to it for five, ten, maybe even 15 years depending on whether it is raw land or a house. Unless you’re extremely lucky.
I have other observations and I’ll share those with you tomorrow. Stay tuned for Part Two!