Posted by: luisabaldwin | September 14, 2009

ALTOS DE MARIA, PANAMA

THE FROG’S PACHANGA BAND AND NOODLING

We arrived in Altos de Maria and the lady who owned the house and pets we were going to care for picked us up. Further up the hill we drove, way into a gorgeous, and I mean really gorgeous valley with beautiful homes occasionally perched up on the hills.

Altos de Maria

We spent an enjoyable day learning the ropes and getting to know her better. Her home sits on a hillside overlooking a valley and can only be described as a colorful masterpiece of art. Everywhere I look, I see a new nook with a new color. The house is a rambling sort of place and comes equipped with two lovely dogs, three cats, a swimming pool and hot tub. Colorful, comfortable, and relaxed living is ahead of us for the next two and a half weeks.

Altos de Maria

Altos de Maria

Altos de Maria is a gated community comprised of 138 Gringo homes and 132 Panamanian weekend homes. There are many more lots for sale. Building in Panama is less expensive than buying a built-out home. Permits do have to be taken out but aren’t near the agony Americans have to go through to get one. Usually the contractor takes care of that end of things. This development does have models available and we are going to go and see some one of these days. But you can also buy a lot and build to your own design. Guards, who take their job seriously, insure that the security is very good. The valley and surrounding hills are truly breathtaking and once you are inside the gate, it doesn’t feel like a gated community at all.

A beautiful home in Altos de Maria

A beautiful home in Altos de Maria

There is no evidence of a stylized tract and much of it is undeveloped. However, the weather is a good bit hotter than Boquete although I’m told we’re having unusually hot weather. Like Boquete, the real estate prices in Altos de Maria have run up but, because many Panamanians have weekend homes here, prices are a bit more stable than Boquete. And speaking of Boquete, we were informed that in one of the gated communities there, a staggering 40% of the properties are on the market. Amazing! This is a true testament to the gravity of the American economy. So Altos de Maria is correcting but not quite as much as Boquete.

Some of the residents of Altos de Maria buy up all the lots on their block. For example, this block actually only contains two homes.

The place looks like a well groomed and landscaped park

The place looks like a well groomed and landscaped park

The rest is landscaped into a little slice from nirvana and for those lucky residents it’s like living in your own private park. Just beautiful. All of this is carved out of the jungle.

A charming outdoor lounging area in Altos de Maria

A charming outdoor lounging area in Altos de Maria

And speaking of the jungle, it’s wonderful being up on a hill and looking down at all of those huge canopy trees. In other areas of the country they conduct canopy tours. For a few dollars you can get an adrenaline rush by hooking up to a contraption which is attached to wires going from treetop to treetop. And voila, you’re gliding through the trees just like Tarzan! Needless to say, we haven’t tried that and will leave it to younger people but many of the tourists report the experience was the highlight of their vacation.

Once we got through settling in – well, what can I say? Heaven, I’m in heaven!

The Pachanga Frog Band

The Pachanga Frog Band

And this picture just about sums up this leg of the journey. This leg of our journey is about the happy frog band poolside and noodling. Noodling? What’s that you ask.

"Noodling"

"Noodling"

Well these long tubes are called noodles and you just float around in the pool. Just our speed! We haven’t lost the river, we just can’t see it from the house. But oh, can we hear it – especially when it rains, or should I say pours, which we love because it cools things down. However, it is only a short walk to the River Maria.

The River Maria

The River Maria

We start the day out with a dip in the pool and continue the day with dips in the pool because it’s hot when the sky is clear! But not so hot when you just keep dunking.

Jim will definitely not look this white when this leg of our journey is done!

Jim will definitely not look this white when this leg of our journey is done!

The views are staggering and inspiring. This happy colorful and flowing house is a feast for the eyes. Days are spent walking, reading, lounging, talking, a little cooking, watching the dragonflies swirl above the pool, the hawks circle in the clouds, butterflies frittering around the flowers, dramatic weather coming and going, walking and caring for the dogs, cats, and chickens. Basically we have temporarily just become lazy, lazy, lazy. It’s hard to get anything done.

The weather is quite dramatic and clouds fall into the valley

The weather is quite dramatic and clouds fall into the valley

We had a 18 hour electrical power outage and hence no Internet. No Internet for six days and Jim started climbing the walls! We conduct all of our business on the Internet while we are traveling so this extensive of an interruption was hard medicine but what could we do? Our newfound friends from South Africa told us that power outages around Altos de Maria only last at a few hours and never has this happened. The ISP provider is set up for a six-hour power failure but not 18 hours. Something must have blown in the towers. I guess we brought the heat wave, power outage, and Internet outage with us. Just kidding! Oh well, more noodling!

One interesting outing into Panama City produced this picture.

Panama's version of Costco

Panama's version of Costco

Some smart business man started his version of Costco.  There’s one in Panama City and one in David to the north west.  The whole thing even looks like Costco inside.  The prices are close to American but you can get everything you get at an American Costco.  It’s called PriceSmart.

Our new friends from South Africa invited us on a Sunday outing to Valle de Anton and we gladly accepted. Valle is yet another beautiful town nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano. Surrounded by the volcano peaks, this town was inviting and impeccably clean. Valle de Anton and Altos de Maria are the two areas that wealthy Panamanians use to build their weekend homes. Valley de Anton, however, is where the really lavish spreads are.

A wealthy home in Valle de Anton

A wealthy home in Valle de Anton

Gorgeous homes on large well-groomed estates dot the countryside and this is one of them.

A guest house on a private estate in Valle de Anton

A guest house on a private estate in Valle de Anton

Every Sunday the indigenous Indians come out of the mountains to offer their goods for sale. The Kuna-Yala, who are very entrepreneurial, come from the San Blas Islands to this market so it’s a very colorful place. We shopped around and enjoyed interacting with the lovely people.

Sunday outdoor market in Valley de Anton

Sunday outdoor market in Valley de Anton

A Kuna-Yala Indian vendor

A Kuna-Yala Indian vendor

Lunch with our new-found friends from South Africa

Lunch with our new-found friends from South Africa

Then we went to a very special restaurant. A local Panama City woman who was in the restaurant business owns this restaurant.

Entry-way to restaurant in Valley de Anton

Entry-way to restaurant in Valley de Anton

She had meant to retire to this home, which, by the way, goes on forever. But her reputation preceded her and she turned her home into a restaurant. We enjoyed an afternoon of good and informative conversation and great food with this wonderful couple who have taken us to Panama City and Coronado for shopping since our location is quite remote and we are without a car.

Later on we went to the nursery and boy, if you’re a gardener, the nursery is a blessing from heaven.

The plants in this nursery in Valley de Anton ranged from $1 - $5

The plants in this nursery in Valley de Anton ranged from $1 - $5

The price of plants in Panama is a fraction of what you pay in California. It made me want to find “home” and get to creating a beautiful garden.  Anybody would be very happy in Valle de Anton.  What’s not to like?

In seeking a place to settle in Panama the questions for us seem to boil down to climate, medical services, which city do we want to use to access good and services, and affordability. The coastline is out for us because the climate is brutally hot. So that leaves the highlands.

We’re returning to Boquete when our house-sitting concludes. We’re rented a little house on a coffee plantation for a month.  We can definitely achieve the financial goals we set for ourselves here in Panama.

The flowers of Panama

The flowers of Panama

Some of you have been inquiring as to the cost of living and I’ve put a few numbers together for you. Nothing complete as we truly don’t have a feel for the cost of buying a home yet. We’re only checking out locations at this stage. But we’ll get there. In any case, here are a few numbers for you:

Photography by:
Luisa Baldwin
© All rights reserved

FOOD: Top price for vegetables: $1.39 Top price for fruit: $0.50 Rice: $2.20 for 5 lbs. Milk: $1.00 for 1 quart Butter: $3.59 for 1 pound Most cuts of beef: $2.29 Beef filet minion: $4.29 Chicken: $1.19 Bread: $0.30 – $1.50 NOTE: The real place to save on food is in the open-air markets. These prices reflect regular grocery store prices, as we didn’t have access to open-air markets. You have to know when they are held and you need a car to get to them. The grocery stores carry just about everything American that we’re all used to but to buy American is expensive. If you find the same product produced by a Panamanian company it’s a fraction of the price.

The flowers of Panama

The flowers of Panama

RENT: We have rented our small house in Boquete for $600.00 but as soon as the landlord saw an established couple walk through his doors, he upped the price by $100.00. Oh well, what are you to do? It’s the price of traveling. I will, however, say this, four years ago, I’ll bet the price was $350.00.

REAL ESTATE: We haven’t really begun this phase yet. This market is correcting and correcting significantly in certain areas, especially Boquete and the bottom hasn’t come in and probably won’t for some time to come. If I wanted a lower elevation from Boquete, I could pick up 10 acres and a Panamanian home for $70K. If I wanted to buy in a Boquete gated community I would expect to pay several hundred thousand depending on what kind, size, and lot size of an American construction home I wanted.  If I wanted to buy a custom built 2,000 sq. ft. home in Altos de Maria (on a very large lot) I have been quoted a price of $260,000.   Altos de Maria lots sell from $40,000.00 to $90,000.00. Building costs run from $45.00 – $75.00 square foot.   Jim and I don’t really like gated communities but if one were traveling part of the year, it would be great.  In other words, the range of pricing is across the spectrum.

The flowers of Panama

The flowers of Panama

BANKING: Straight savings account: 3.75% (This is with Global Bank) CD equivalent: 5.0% FDIC equivalent Yes but if anything happened, they would pay out to Panamanians first Banking reserves: $0.68 cents on the dollar (Compared with $0.03 cents on the dollar for U.S. banks. Central Bank (equivalent of the Federal Reserve) NO! The Panamanian Constitution prohibits the establishment of a central bank. NOTE: This is one of Panama’s greatest benefits. Panama is the banking center for all of South America and is the second largest offshore banking center in the world. It is extremely stable, very private, never got involved with the sub-prime mess, and pays better in a risk-free CD than U.S. Tax-free municipal bonds (which used to be considered very safe but now? Well it’s anyone’s guess.) For those of you that don’t follow banking reserves (that’s just about everyone!) let me just say that if our U.S. banks had of had the same safe banking reserve practices as the Panamanian banking system they wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble with the sub-prime meltdown occurred. Why is the absence of a central bank important? Because the simple truth of the matter is that in the United States, it’s the Federal Reserve that is responsible for unnatural inflation – the cruelest tax of all. Since it’s gradual we never notice it unless unnatural inflation occurs, as it has in health-care and oil when it shot up. Inflation is one of the largest wealth-busters around and if you can get away from it, it’s a good thing.

RESIDENCE VISA: The Pensionado Visa is very attractive. Once you qualify, steep discounts from restaurants to utilities come along with the visa. For this visa, one needs to be on a pension, such as Social Security. There a quite a few other Visa options available.

The flowers of Panama

The flowers of Panama

HEALTH-CARE: We know a couple in their late-fifties to early sixties who have major medical insurance for $125.00 a month. Most people just pay out of pocket for every day issues and insure for major medical. A one-hour visit with a doctor and yes, he’ll spend that much time with you if you need it, is $35.00. Doctor’s also make house calls if need be. We have had comments by ex-pats that they would never go back to the U.S. for any health care services. In fact, a new friend in Panama had a quadruple by-pass abroad.  He is completely comfortable with any future health care he may need here in Panama.  Panama has every diagnostic tool that the U.S. has and caring doctors and nurses who aren’t in a rush. Panama is much better and dirt cheap. In fact, everybody we have talked to about this subject has said the same. Panama has better health care. Go figure. Panamanian doctors are educated in U.S. medical colleges but come back home to do their internships.

MAID/GARDENER: $2.00/hr. The gardener makes a little bit more.

BUSES: The buses are really cheap. If my memory serves me correctly, it cost us $12.00 to get from Panama City all the way to David in the north west. The buses run frequently and are efficient.

The flowers of Panama

The flowers of Panama

TAXI: The taxis are cheap in Panama. It will only cost you $3.00 to get all the way across Panama City, which is 20 kilometers wide. That’s the good news. The bad news is you have to know the prices or they’ll get you.

HOTELS: That lovely casita at Isla Verde in Boquete that we rented for a week was $60.00 a night. Our hotel in Bocas, Bocas Paradise Hotel was $50.00 but we rented it for a week. The Chinese Mausoleum close to Altos de Maria was $38.00 And the Marriott Courtyard in Panama City – well don’t ask. American prices but a gentle segue into Panama.

RESTAURANTS: This varies a lot. If you eat with the local Panamanian, the cost is about $2.50 If you eat in a middle of the line restaurant it can run you $7.00-$13.00 (but that’s for a fillet) Expensive restaurants? Well you’ll have to ask someone else!

CAR RENTALS: $45.00 a day! Actually the car is $25.00 a day but they get you with mandatory insurance which makes up the difference.

THE POSITIVE ASPECTS OF PANAMA:  It’s absolutely gorgeous!  The currency is the US dollar – so no conversions  The infa-structure is in tact. The Americans built it. So electricity is pretty dependable and the same as the U.S.  The water is pretty good with the exception of Bocas del Toro. We brush our teeth in it and wash our dishes, etc. but drink bottled/filtered water, which is what we did in Los Gatos. By way of comparison, if you do get a little bug, it is nothing compared to Mexico and Montezuma’s revenge. All who have traveled to Mexico are familiar with that issue.  The banking system is so much better, more conservative, and stable than the US banking system.  The people are really friendly and have a positive attitude towards Americans.  Once you get a feel for the real-estate picture – there are great deals and, in some places, much better prices than in the U.S.  It’s a much freer country. In other words, there isn’t a regulation for everything you do.  Panamanians have very respectable family values. They honor and respect their elders and love their children.  There is a rising middle class in Panama. In Boquete, for example, I know there is poverty but it’s not easy to find. Panamanians can thank the Americans and Europeans for that. When Americans showed up the local people sold their land for development, jobs were created. Panamanians were then able to finance new businesses.  Panama is pretty safe. If we were to compare US figures (which I don’t have) vs. Panama figures for violent crime we would probably see Panama come in way behind the US.

THE NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF PANAMA:  Until you know the prices, buying things is a big hassle. They see a Gringo coming and like to up the ante by quite a bit. Once you know the prices, that problem goes away. Jim doesn’t like this part at all!  The tropical humidity and heat along the coast line is too hot for us.  Husbands love to go out and play, if you know what I mean. It’s the Latin way and it’s hard on the women.  There has been an unnatural but localized inflation in the cost of housing (but it’s correcting). Inflation can be defined as too many dollars chasing after too few goods. This inflation is totally influenced on a local level in the areas where ex-pats have settled. When you get out of the tourist areas, inflation is normal.  Latin cities are not that great looking. But the country is where it’s at anyway, so it doesn’t make that much difference. Most people are just using the city to gain access to goods and services.  The way petty theft was described to me by a resident is, if you leave a nice pair of tennis shoes out, someone may come onto your porch and lift them. While most wouldn’t come into your home, they are capable of checking your windows to see if they can reach something inside. So you have to have an awareness of this and keep the outside clear of your stuff.

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Responses

  1. Jim & Luisa,
    superb blog about Panama. You are a very smart lady which I notice as you describe banking and inflation. I have the same parameters as you two and I’m finally on my way ther on the 20th of October.
    At present I’m trying to find a safe, clean and well located hotel in PC that I can afford. Unfortunatelly you did not state the price of the Marriott. Any suggestion? All I can find are above the $150 range.
    Will you guys will still be in Altos de Maria around that time? because that is one of my planned visits and we would love to meet you guys and take you out to lunch. We plan to see the whole country in 12 days so we need to move fast. Any suggestions? Of course we plan to see the highlights (expats communities as well as smaller cities and some towns)

    I agree withe you that Real Estate varies all over the place and I don’t think I will get a handle on it on such short notice even though you have verified what I suspected.

    Keep up the good work! I tried to read the Bocas del Toro blog and it was empty? What can you recommend I look at there as a place to live? Where do the expats live? mainland or in the islands?
    What can you tell me about the pearl islands? Does anyone live there?
    I can see PC real Estate for a 2 BR condo is very expensive.
    I can be reached via E-Mail @ KLIXTOKW@YAHOO.COM even though you also have it on the required windows.
    Best Regards
    James.
    PS I have learned more about Panama from you in a few minutes than from the Panama forum where most expats don’t bother to answer the questions and the one’s that post is to offend or criticize the future expats asking for help.
    I asked many times the approx. cost of a car rental and no one answered. The other question which should be easy to answer is: what is the present cost of a gallon of premium gasoline?

    • Hello James. Thank you for your kind words. Jim is going to address your questions in an e-mail response within the next few days. And yes, we do have a hotel for you in PC. We are currently living in Boquete. That great house we featured in the Altos de Maria article is for sale. You can contact my friend in Altos (contact information posted in the article) If you plan to visit Boquete, we’d be happy to spend some time with you. Safe travels. Check back from time to time as I’m doing an article on Ecuador as well.

    • If you’re in Coronado in late October, go to the Picasso Restaurante and Bar on Wednesday night at 5:30 PM. Claire, the owner, runs a Happy Hour and newer ex-pats meet and greet there for those of us who are checking out Panama as a potential retirement place. We were just in the Coronado and Altos de Maria area from 9/20-9/27/13. Beautiful place

  2. have been to Boquete twice and would like to experience los altos del maria. how can I find out about rentals – we live in florida, so would like to go in August to escape the heat. thanks in advance

    • Hello Alicia,

      There are some rentals in Altos. Try a key word search “rentals in Altos de Maria, Panama”. I don’t know if the house we stayed in there is still available, but you can call Rina (507)6722-8187 to find out. Tell her hello from Luisa. The house is featured in my article on Altos de Maria and was fabulous. If it isn’t available, ask Rina for the phone number of the Altos property manager. He might have some suggestions. However, I’m not too sure you will be able to escape the heat of Florida. Altos is not as cool as Boquete.

  3. I believe this internet site has got very good written written content articles.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. This site was compiled as a community service and a site to inspire people to consider new ideas for their lives – to think out of the box. Your words give me inspiration to continue!

  4. Hi Luisa,
    My husband and I currently live in La Mesa, Ca and are interested in retiring in Panama in the next three or four years. I have found your blog more than helpful. We are planning our second visit for next December. We plan on visiting Altos the Maria, El Valle, Boquete and Volcan. Los Molinos sounds like a wonderful gated community, we will check it out on our way to Boquete. Like you and your husband we prefer the cooler climates of the highlands to the coast. Also I’m so glad to hear that there is a good bakery in Boquete, that is one thing I found lacking in Panama on our first visit, good bread. Could you describe what the rainy season is like. Does it rain for days?
    Thank you for your informative posts. Hasta luego.
    Michele

    • Hello Michele,
      Thank you for your kind words. We have just entered the rainy season. Usually, early on, the rains don’t begin until about two in the afternoon when you get a good downpour and then it stops around five in the afternoon. Then it rains for more hours as the season progresses. January, February, and some of March are the windy season where the winds from the Caribbean and Pacific ocean collide right in these narrow mountains. So when the rainy season begins, we’re all happy about it! Actually, I love the tropical rains. There is absolutely no pollution here and that’s thanks to wind and rain. Everything smells good. But when it comes down, boy does it! By the time the windy season comes, we’re all ready for it as the rain becomes more and more progressive later on in the year. Today it’s seven in the morning and as I look out my office window, it’s cool and the sky is blue. Lovely sunny mornings. I think April and May are the best months of the year.

      • Luisa,
        Thank you so much for replying. I’ll keep in touch through your blog and try not to bother you with my myriad of questions. Have a wonderful day.
        Michele

      • Hello Michele,

        It’s no bother at all. We appreciate your interest. Look us up when you get to Boquete.

  5. Hello, my name is Ellen and I am planing to move to Panama.
    I am German and retired.
    I just moved from Florida to Spain and I dont like it at all.
    I miss the Americans. So I thought Panama would be a good option.
    Also I think in Panama the houses and apartments are almost like in the US,with big kitchens etc. And of course its cheaper than in the US.
    Who can give me an advice to what area I should move in Panama.
    Like I said I am single and would like to have many american friends.
    Thank you very much

    • Hello Ellen,

      I would recommend a move to Boquete. This community is very well established, has a substantial ex-pat group, quite a few single women, a single women’s support group called “Amigas”, and a lot of social events and charities. It is very easy to get established here and I think you would enjoy it. Also, since Boquete is up in the mountains, it’s the coolest part of Panama.

      As to those kitchens. Well, it depends on your budget. If you get into an American construction, you’ll have your kitchen. The Panamanian construction homes have very small kitchens.

      Best of luck with your upcoming relocation.

  6. Hi,
    I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could get
    a captcha plugin for my comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having trouble finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

    • Hello,
      I’m so sorry but I don’t even know what that is! Let me know when you find one. Happy Hunting. Now quite as user friendly as we would have hoped for, is it?

  7. Hello Luisa,
    Thank you so much for posting very useful information about Panama the details are great, currently planning a trip to Panama to explore the highlands such as Volcan, Boquete and other similar towns, the question that remains in my mind is what is the expat population in Volcan, Boquete and David.

    As for curiosity, how stable are the banks in Panama I did a brief search on banks they do not offer detail information savings rates or CD rates unless the person is in Panama.

    Perhaps, if your time permits you may be able to provide some information on the above request.

    Thank you in advance for your assistance.

    Best regards,

    Luis

    • Hello Luis,

      Thank you for your kind words. As to the expat populations in Volcan, Boquete, and David. They’re varied but I would have to categorize the one in Boquete as the strongest, most influential, and well organized of the three. I don’t know about the one in David because it’s too hot for my blood in David. I only go there to access goods and services. The Volcan expat community is smaller. But here in Boquete, the expats have gotten very busy. There seems to be a charity for everything and it’s had a profound and positive impact on the community from feeding the needy to a spay and neuter to retired American police and detectives working with the local police to practically bringing crime to a screeching halt. Boquete has 3 theater groups and sponsors a jazz festival every year. Every Tuesday there is an expat community meeting with an invited speaker and an organic farmer’s market. We chose Boquete and haven’t regretted it.

      The banking system of Panama is very conservative and quite regulated resulting in an extremely stable banking system. Panama is the largest off-shore banking for all of Central and South America. Banking in Panama consists of $0.68 cent reserves on the dollar. It’s a good banking system. Because Panama is on the dollar, CD rates are somewhat similar to US rates – low. Scotiabank (a good strong bank), for example, offers 3 yr. CDs for 100k for 3%.

      Hope this helps you Luis. Safe travels.

      • Luisa,
        Thank you for the prompt reply and detailed information, sometime in the next seven months I may be traveling to Panama, Boquete and Volcan are in my list of towns to visit, will try to make it to Boquete on a Tuesday and attend to the expat meeting if I am allowed to listen the venue of the day, amd perhaps talk to some of the folks attending the meeting.
        Please indicate what time and location for the Tesday AM expat meeting.

        Also, I checked Puerto Lopez and it looks very attractive as well.

        Once again, thank you for posting information on Boquete.

        Best regards,

        Luis

  8. I’ve been reading thousands of articles on different locations and this one is pretty darn good… the best I’ve viewed! Thank you for the work to put this together.

    • Hello Jim,

      Thank you for your kind words. The thing to remember about Altos De Maria is that it’s about 30 minutes from Coronado, the nearest town. The area is absolutely beautiful and it’s a very nice community as well. Best of luck in your search for Shangrila!


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