Back from Panama! Nice people. The dollar is the primary form of currency, you can drink the water, and Johns Hopkins has a hospital in the capitol city that takes Medicare from American citizens. It was off season, but I had no problem with the weather… although the reader should remember, I LOVE Miami and tropical nights.
I went to this equatorial country on an exploratory trip because I was told it was the next great spot for potential American “ex-pats.” That, being “too late” for Costa Rica, I should know that Panama is “Costa Rica five years ago.” Like Rick Blaine, on coming to the desert community of Casablanca “for the waters,”… I, too, was misinformed.
The Panama Canal… get your arms around that, those of you who have taken the knowledge of this thing…this place…as something not of the essence to the 21st century and understand: this particular water passage way is incredibly relevant to international commerce. And it is being expanded… widened… to accommodate the super freighters and tankers of the future. This latest expansion will be complete in 2014 and the anticipation of that has had the community of Panama City on the Pacific Coast of this tiny country in a boom economy for the past five years… a boom that may well continue for at least another five years and (possibly) beyond, but I would worry that it is closer to a coming bust than a continuing boom. Panama City is Miami of several years back… on steroids.
Without a calculator, the high rises are beyond the ability of anyone to count. Where else does one need window treatments for privacy on their 34th floor apartment? The proximity of these buildings to one another almost makes it possible to borrow a cup of sugar from one neighbor in an adjacent building no matter how high above street level. The density all but defies the imagination. The national “bird” is the crane… the construction crane. These machines are everywhere, allowing their handlers to just keep building and building. The cost of cement has more than tripled in the last 12 months. One might inquire what international economic crisis? The business of Panama City is business and it is truly international with Canadians and Russians buying apartments to sublease to visiting foreign executives and their families.
There are unhappy side effects. The city is dirty. Not the dirt of a third world country, but the dirt of construction, digging and the driving of pilings. It is the dirt of trucks carrying heavy loads that dig up the road ways, frustrating any attempts at moderating traffic while spewing dust and grime everywhere. And there is no end in sight.
There is an exception…sort of. There is the old section of town: Casco Viejo. It is quaint…beautiful, really, with its tiny 300+ year old plazas and night time views of the new towers of the new city. I saw a couple of small apartments that were partially refurbished, but like the rest of the neighborhood…only partially refurbished. Prices were comparable to what one might pay way uptown in Manhattan and certainly a higher cost than any loft apartment in downtown Los Angeles. And if you were to make this decision, where would you get the workers to finish the refurbishment in a community where everyone who knows how to lay brick, or wire an apartment or even paint one, is under contract for the foreseeable future to the developers who are building the new part of town and its high rises? And the coast line? The beaches? The former is brown… muddy… probably a result of all that Canal digging. The beaches are out of town… some, quite a ways out of town. 90 minutes to two hours up the Pacific Coast are some developments, villas, and townhouses on semi-finished golf courses and there are beach front lots starting at about $1,000,000 per parcel. These are a lot lower than California or Miami Beach lot costs, but still plenty pricey. There is an abundance of villas and small homes in these semi-gated communities in the $300 to $400 thousand range and I found one really elegant resort, The Intercontinental at Playa Bonita, about twenty minutes outside Panama City. No golf or tennis, but a great pool area and a lovely beach to compliment the very good looking spa. The rooms of this low rise and sprawling resort are nice and well appointed but at a minimum rack rate of $400 per night for a room and $800 for a small suite I am not sure who would make that trip when Resorts at Miami, San Diego, Boca Raton and Naples are much closer and no more expensive.
I was so smitten with the Intercontinental resort at Playa Bonita I was willing to overlook the bad mildew smell in my own Intercontinental accommodations in Panama City even though both Hotels were built and owned by the same developer. I even inquired about the planned residential section that this self-same developer is starting just down the beach and up the hill from Playa Bonita. They showed me the architects’ rendering of the soon-to-be-started structure. I could not contain myself: “Shame on you,” I said to the salesman who smiled at me as if he did not understand. “Muy feo,” (very ugly) I clarified. The pictures he was showing me were grotesque in their aesthetics. And big… 250 units in the one structure and worse yet, it was to be one of nine such building being planned for construction over the next 15 years in a sort of Stonehenge-like configuration. To me it looked like a mining town in some Arnold Schwarzenegger futuristic movie that takes place on planet M-42. I could not imagine any government allowing their beautiful countryside to be so defiled, but Mr. Berns, the developer in question has been at this Panamanian game a long time and I can only guess at his connections with people in power.
I kept looking, going to the Caribbean side of Panama and the city of Colon at the other end of the Canal. Way too industrial and the heavy (and obvious) police presence led me to suspect that crime might be an issue in this part of the country. From there I visited the countryside along the beaches just outside a charming (and somewhat primitive) community called Portobello. Much of it was beautiful and full of rustic charm, but here I confronted what I have so many times before… the reality that the life of an expatriate might just be beyond my abilities; that my idea of a third world country is Miami and the south Florida beaches.
Sometimes you just have to face who you are and what you are really capable of. It just might be that my idea of roughing it in my old age may be a small apartment a short cab ride from the beach, carrying my own aluminum folding chair, and the closest I will get to Central America would be to wear my made-in-Ecuador Panama hat.
October 24, 2008