Getting to Panama is a story in itself. We started the journey from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where we spent a week at our Grand Bliss time share before flying from there to Panama City. The departure from Mexico was touch and go as we committed two violations and were twice fined by the local cops. The first offense was an unintentional parking violation that resulted in the removal of our rental car's front license plate by the Nayarit county police. After finding the cop who stole our plate with the help of a local business man and the village mayor (really funny story.... too long to detail here), we paid the $2 fine and subsequently got worked by a motorcycle cop who was running a speed trap a mile from the airport entrance. We bribed him with $50. Worked just like in the movies so we made our flight to Mexico City where we spent an evening waiting for the flight to Panama City. For you folks who have yet to visit our dear southern neighbor, a word for the wise..... always keep the get out of jail money in your wallet just in case.
Arriving in Panama City's Tocumen International Airport mid day, we rented our car, a clapped out Buick SUV, and started towards town. Didn't make it more than a few miles when the Buick started vibrating and making ominous sounds. The brakes were obviously in need of maintenance plus a few other minor items like a cracked windshield and a cargo compartment that looked like it had been used to transport fill dirt helped us make the decision to return the shit box to the rental company. We managed to get it back to the airport and confront the rental car folks who amazingly didn't say, well it's the only one we have. In fact they gave us a nearly new Toyota economy model that smelled new and drove fine. Maybe they get bored and play games with the customers to see who will drive the Buick or maybe the Buick doesn't even belong to the rental company. The locals could be renting it out and pocketing the fees without running the charges through the company accounting system. We'll never know.
The trip into town was uneventful. We tried a couple times to find road maps but none of the gas stations we asked sold them. Later we found out that maps are sold at kiosks selling magazines, newspapers etc. and at travel agencies. So we navigated with the crappy little map we had been given by the airport car rental office. We had a verbal description of the route from a couple landmarks that we managed to find so were able to eventually get to the apartment more or less by the time previously arranged to meet the lady with the keys. This place was discovered by Lana on the VBRO (Vacation Rental by Owners) website. The owner, an American, handled the negotiations by phone but the lady with the keys was a local who apparently worked for him as sort of a property manager. She met us in front of the steel security gate and showed us the room. Another lady, a permanent tenant, helped us carry our bags up the three flights of stairs. I think there was an elevator but it was non functioning as usual. The room was eclectic to say the least. Looked like the owner was storing old furniture he scavenged from Saint Vincent de Paul. There were three large tables but only a couple chairs. Nothing matched. The queen bed was ok and the a/c worked. The toilet was clean and functional as was the shower. The kitchen facilities were meager. A two burner hot plate and a microwave plus the basic eating utensils and a few larger spoons, knives and forks were it. There was a mini refrigerator that barely worked and of course did not make ice. But it was cheap and we didn't do much more than fix breakfast there and sleep. The neighborhood was quiet. Our rental car was not vandalized. We had a balcony with a view to the west of the downtown skyline. Panama City has quite a few tall buildings clustered in the city center. Withing walking distance were a couple of mini-markets selling groceries plus four or five restaurants of various quality ranging from burgers and pizza to one of the city's more renowned and pricey establishments. Over the week we tried most of them.
The primary purpose in visiting Panama was to check out the retirement scene. Prior to the trip Lana had done some online research and located a couple properties for us to preview. The one most distant from Panama City was our first destination about a half a day drive north along the Pan American Highway to the town of Las Tablas. On the way we looked for a better road map. Finally found one at a little variety store in one of the villages along the highway. The Pan American Highway was conceived in 1923 at the International Conference of American States. In 1937 the states of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and the United States signed the Convention on the Pan-American Highway. The first portion of the highway was completed in 1950 between the US border at Neuvo Laredo and Mexico City. Today the highway stretches from Alaska to Chile along the entire length of the American Continent with numerous branches extending away from the main route. One uncompleted section of highway remains between Panama and Columbia known as the Darien Gap. The gap exists because of an area of about 100 miles length and 50 miles width of swap and rain forest designated as a nature reserve, that presents a large expense to road building and the lack of a political consensus that the road should be completed in this pristine tropical wilderness. Crossing the Panama Canal we drove north towards Santiago passing through Penonome and Agua Dulce before we turned off Highway 1 at Santa Maria heading south to Las Tablas. Along the way we noticed police who appeared to be surveiling the highway at numerous locations. Never did find out why there was so much police presence that particular day. Perhaps it was related to a visit by American Vice President, Joe Biden, who flew into Panama City for some kind of conference. Having no GPS we navigated with the maps successfully arriving in Las Tablas with a couple hours of daylight to spare. Once in town we had only verbal description of the remaining route that would take us to the beach community where we were to meet the real estate agent the next day. We found the signs as described and proceeded. In about 15 miles we arrived at the end of the road which terminated at a ferry landing in a small fishing village. We had not seen the sign for the hotel we were staying in so we back tracked to Las Tablas and looked for a taxi. Our plan was to pay the taxi to let us follow him to our hotel. Eventually we found one who was agreeable.
The hotel was located across the beach road from the ocean. By this time it was nearly 9 pm and we were very hungry. Fortunately there was a restaurant still open just across the road from the hotel. It had outside dinning on a veranda overlooking the ocean. Some locals who were chatting and finishing dinner were the only other patrons. The menu had several tasty seafood entires and a good selection of drinks. I don't remember what we ordered, but I do remember we enjoyed the experience. Returning to the hotel we unpacked and checked out the room's amenities. The room was clean and functional as was the bathroom. Some other guests were enjoying a bottle of or two of wine on the patio below our room. They were well past the half way point of finishing their bottles. Their laughter and chat were a bit annoying but suddenly they decided to call it a night. The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel's restaurant, a funky little addition with homemade furniture and colorful table cloths. The meal included fried eggs. bacon and a tasty bean dish. Just as we were finishing the real estate agent arrived.
He introduced himself and a friend he brought along. His English was excellent which was explained by the fact that he had grown up in the US. We followed his pickup truck down the beach road to the home of interest. The beach community consisted of about 50 homes of varying quality and age that had been built on the ocean side of the access road. The one we were previewing was probably the newest having been constructed d only 3 years earlier. One of our first questions was why the owners were interested in selling so soon. The answer was that they had moved their business from Panama to Costa Rica. The tour started with a walk through the main floor on which the living room, kitchen, office and master bedroom were located. Upstairs there were two bedrooms and a full bathroom. Downstairs we found the daylight cellar, utility room, a workshop and a storage room. The cellar provided direct beach access. The high tide line was about 40 yards from the house which was somewhat protected by several large rock outcroppings just beyond the beach. Looked like a good place to go swimming or snorkeling. While this house would have been a great place to rent for a month or two we didn't see ourselves buying it to live in year round. A trip to the airport in Panama City would have been an all day affair. Even going into Las Tablas for supplies required a 30 minute drive. While the house had electricity there was no evidence that it had an Internet connection but the nearby hotel was connected so it likely was possible to get the service. Another issue with beach houses can be fresh water. This place was connected to a community water supply. There are lots of things to consider when buying a place in a remote location. Things that most of us take for granted in the US but are not always avaliable in lesser developed countries.
After the house tour we headed back towards Panama City to visit an estate Lana had found online in the exclusive community of Altos del Maria. First we must say this is not a typical expat community in Panama. High end would be an understatement to say the least. What you are going to find in the spectacular mountain side community is lots of ambiance, beautiful nature, the feeling that you are not in a third world country. Here are some photos that clarify my words:
Altos del Maria Photos
Altos del Maria is an exclusive gated community located about an hour and twenty minutes drive north along the Pan American highway from Panama City. Normally we don't reference commercial websites in our stories but we made an exception for Altos del Maria because theirs is relatively discreet and it provides useful information and photos.
Altos del Maria
The home we visited had been for sale for a couple years. Priced around a half a million dollars it certainly was not the most expensive property listed in the community, but it was a unique place, not for everyone as you will see. Certainly it was built as a show house. The infinity pool with accompanying cabana, the separate bedroom complex with his and hers bathrooms in the mater suite, the rambling hillside layout with stepping stone pathways through gardens using native plants are some of the reasons why a buyer might be overwhelmed by the thought of living in such a luxurious estate. It seemed more of a showcase than a real house, but for those who demand the best and plan to do a lot of entertaining this house fits. Here are just a few of the photos that help describe Villa las Rocas:
With two days left to see what we could see our first objective was the canal. The Panama Canal put the country on the "map" so to speak and for good reason. The engineering marvel started in the late 19th Century and completed in the early 20th Century has so many stories associated with its construction that we will not even try to recount them here. If you want to review in detail here are a couple links that will take you there:
History of the Panama Canal
Building of the Panama Canal
Our photos were taken at the Miraflores Locks which is the visitor center with a well done museum of the canal, and the nearest access to the canal from Panama City. Our visit required only a couple hours so there was still time to visit Casco Veijo, the oldest district of the city. From Casco Veijo which is a point of land jutting into the Pacific Ocean north of the new city center one can get a really good view of the new city. Our photos show the new and the old in stark contrast. Here is a link that provides photos and comments from other travelers on this interesting district of Panama City.
The next morning we headed for the city of Colon on the Mediterranean entrance to the canal. The highway from Panama City to Colon is of the best quality, an example of how well the infrastructure of Panama can be albeit it is a toll road but so are many of the worlds best highways. Traffic was light and we arrive near the exit to Colon in just over an hour. The highway more or less parallels the canal but view of the canal occur at only a few locations. We decided not to visit Colon but instead veer south along the coast towards Portobelo. On the way we stopped for lunch just before entering the old coastal village. We had seafood as would be appropriate for such a location near the coast and were not disappointed. Finishing our meal we drove into Portobelo and found the ruins of an ancient Spanish fortress and a lovely little beach side village. Portobelo has a long history filled with tales of pirate raids and Spanish gold ships. Here is a link that provides some details:
On our way we saw some of the colorful grafitti covered local buses that are typical in Panama. Our photos have a few of them.
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