by Debbie Fishell
Years ago, I had a mentor who was a very wealthy and wise man. When he was young, he went from the USA to Japan to teach English. This was over 50 years ago. While he was there, he noticed that they did not have certain conveniences that he was used to from back home. One of these was an automatic car wash. He started one in Japan and it was a huge success. This was the beginning of an entrepreneurial life that helped to create a multi-millionaire. All because my friend was observant and in the right place, at the right time. You see, at that time Japan was what is known as an “emerging economy”. There are still places like this around the world, and I believe I have found one in Panama. It’s a little coastal town on the Pacific, called Puerto Armuelles.
I stumbled upon the little beach town of Puerto Armuelles about 3 years ago. It has been my full-time home for over a year now and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Driving through the town today, most people would see a dilapidated and poverty stricken town in need of repair. That’s true, which is what makes it so special. It wasn’t always this way. A closer look reveals the solid bones that tell a different story. Up until about a decade ago, Puerto was a vibrant and prosperous place to be.
In the early 1900’s, United Fruit Company (later called Chiquita Banana) set up shop in Puerto Armuelles and was responsible for the tremendous prosperity that followed. They already had banana plantations on the Caribbean side of the country and Puerto provided a deep water port for loading produce onto their huge ships on the Pacific side. The now famous Chiquita Banana Pier is a local landmark today. They built schools, a golf course, community swimming pool, club house, bowling alley, as well as providing employment for most of the town’s residents. Entire neighborhoods were constructed for the workers based on their employment hierarchy, from the colorful clapboard style homes of El Carmen, which housed the dock workers, to the executive once-gated community of Las Palmas, with large homes and sprawling beautifully landscaped yards. Puerto was even a port of call for the Great White Fleet’s cruise line! Because of the access to deep water very close to shore, the Petroleum Terminal of Panama, which is still operating, was another thriving business that became established here and provided more jobs and prosperity. Life was good in Puerto Armuelles.
About a decade ago, after a bitter labor dispute, Chiquita abandoned Puerto. The former employees were given a choice of keeping their house or receiving a financial severance package. Three quarters of the population left in search of employment elsewhere in Panama and the town began to tumble downward into the current state that you see when you drive down Main Street today. Many of the residents survive today on a small pension of around $300 per month. So, why would anyone choose to move to Puerto Armuelles today? I believe there are several reasons.
First, there are the obvious natural features in the area. Beautiful, unspoiled beaches, surf, and tropical jungles that are abundant with wildlife. Chiriqui Bay’s deep water is just offshore and you’ll find some of the best deep sea fishing in the world, a short boat ride from the coastline. All of the basic amenities are available in town including a hospital, grocery and other specialty stores, bakeries, banks, restaurants and a few small hotels. It is a short 30 minute drive to the “frontera” at the border of Costa Rica for additional shopping and fast food chains, like Burger King. In an hour and a half you can be in David, the second largest city in Panama and home to an international airport.
The cost of living in Puerto Armuelles is currently very low. Most of the restaurants are small local ‘fondas’ where you can get a meal with a drink for $2-3. I have a home in Las Palmas which is built on stilts that allows tropical breezes to flow through and I rarely need to turn on the A/C. The electric bill is around $35 per month. Water is $4-5, trash pick-up is $3/month and we refill our propane stove’s gas tank every few months for a bit over $5. I have high-speed internet with a landline phone for $32 per month. These expenses would be much higher in Panama City or the beach communities of Coronado and Gorgona, making Puerto an inexpensive option for a beach loving lifestyle in Panama.
The biggest factor that makes Puerto Armuelles a place to consider is that the current Panamanian administration has its sights set on this little beach town on the western end of the country for its own reasons. The Panama Canal expansion has forced the upgrading and expansion of the capacity of the ports in the rest of the country, including the western region. Puerto is seen politically as a strategic logistical area for moving cargo in the western region of Panama. A feasibility study and business plan for the area is currently underway and results will be out at the end of this year. The plan will include a potential container port and cruise port, as well as a ‘dry canal’ to transport petroleum and containerized freight to the Caribbean side of the country. There are already international investors scouting the area and preparing to submit bids on these future projects.
Real estate is currently a fraction of what a comparable property would be in other parts of the country. For example, I know of a couple of ocean view lots for as little as $15,000 for a hectare (2 ½ acres). A nice oceanfront parcel can still be purchased for about $40,000 in most areas. A Canadian I met with a nice beach house here, told me his friend paid that price for a lot in Playa Coronado 10 years ago. Today the house and lot are worth over $1 million! I also know of a beautiful, ocean view, titled hectare that is close to town, on a good road with access to power, for $45,000. Some of these deals are already being snatched up by early speculators who are bumping the prices up tenfold! There is still no functioning central MLS service in Panama and not even a real estate office in Puerto Armuelles. Word-of-mouth is mostly how real estate is discovered here today, so for someone who is willing to get their own boots on the ground, or work with someone who is already here, great opportunities can be uncovered. Whether it’s a beachfront lot to build a retirement home on later, or a rental property that is sure to increase in value while it pays for itself, Puerto is an investor’s dream today!
It’s more than just real estate that can be a good investment in an emerging area like this. As people, and especially expats, continue to move to Puerto, there is a need for more amenities to satisfy them. More restaurants, hotels, activities, and conveniences. Someone with an entrepreneurial spirit and an observant eye can certainly find some profitable opportunity here. The time is now, before the rest of the world catches on!
Panama Relocation Tours offers an optional day trip to Puerto Armuelles after the regular tour. The price is only $30 per person and Debbie will meet with the group.
Debbie Fishell is a world traveler who has lived and invested in international real estate, since the early 1980’s. She researches and writes about how to be an expat in Panama at ExpatFreedom.com and recently started a tourist site called VisitPuertoArmuelles.com