By Debbie Fishell
Being born into a military family may be the origin of my wanderlust, or maybe it’s just me, since my two sisters are pretty much settled in one location. Whatever the reason – I love to travel and explore new places. Is this a pre-requisite to moving overseas? Maybe not, but at least some level of a sense of adventure and willingness to try new things is. So, how did I end up in Panama?
I mostly grew up in Hawaii and spent a good portion of my adult life in Arizona. In between, there was international travel when I had the opportunity and an 8 yearlong adventure living in Micronesia, where my children were all born. So, I am not a stranger to living internationally and usually embrace the chance to try a new place. About 5 years ago, a combination of discomfort with the current and future state of politics in the USA and a desire to travel again, caused my husband and I to start looking once more at options for moving abroad.
I started researching and compiling a list of “wants”. Having spent most of our lives on islands and the water, our top priority was a tropical environment near the ocean. The idea of an emerging economy where we could come up with an entrepreneurial way to fund our life was also a plus, since we were not old enough for a pension yet. The initial candidates were Thailand, Bali (we visited once and loved it!), Brazil, Belize and Panama.
Since we had lived in Micronesia already, we decided to focus on the western hemisphere; Central and South America. Places we had never been before, but were much closer to the states so we could visit our grown children more often. Belize was crossed off the list fairly quickly because it seemed to be more expensive. It was getting to be like Costa Rica which we knew already had a large expat community and the costs of living was higher there. Plus, Belize gets hurricanes and we had our share of those in the Northern Mariana Islands. The search was narrowed down to Fortaleza on the eastern coastline of Brazil, and Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean side of Panama.
We created a three year plan to make our move and starting letting friends and family know. Aside from reading everything we could find online, phase 1 would include a trip to visit the countries. Passports were renewed and we booked a flight to Bocas del Toro four years ago. We fell in love within a few weeks and thought Bocas was exactly what we were looking for. There is a large expat community already and it is a popular tourist’s destination. People even spoke English there so the Spanish (or Portuguese) language barrier was not a big deal. Being a bit impulsive, we found a property that included a business we thought would be perfect for us, and made an offer. Negotiations continued after we flew back home, but there was not a meeting of the minds and it did not pan out. We were pretty set on Bocas still, so we planned another trip and looked at more real estate. Again, we made an offer that did not materialize. It seemed that the “gringos” in Bocas felt their property was valued much higher than we did and a bit more than most of the rest of the country, considering that most of the real estate there was not even titled and amenities are not readily available. It didn’t seem like Bocas was meant to be for us yet. Time to explore the rest of Panama.
On our next trip to Panama, we came armed with a physical map (a must have!) and a GPS, rented a car for a month, and took off with no set schedule. The loose plan was to follow the Pacific coastline and check out the communities along the way. Panama is a small country and it is easy to see all of it in a couple of weeks driving. We’d come to a town, Google some places to stay and spend a day or more, depending on how it felt to us. It was one of the most fun trips we’ve ever taken! I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life and a couple of things about Panama secured it as our new home country on these few visits. First, the US dollar is accepted currency which makes it so easy as compared to places where you have to convert to another currency. Even with my limited Spanish, the locals were very welcoming and friendly. People actually say ‘Hola’ or ‘buenas’ and smile as they pass you on the street. We decided this was the country for us, we just had to pick a town.
After a couple of weeks, we were approaching the western border of the country, Costa Rica, and there was one more beach town to check out, called Puerto Armuelles. We had never heard of, or read anything, about this little town. The GPS, which can’t be trusted in rural areas of the country, had us turn too soon and we ended up lost in banana fields for a few hours – literally! Late afternoon was approaching and we began to get a little concerned about where we’d be spending the night. Then, we spotted a big commercial truck coming out of a road and decided that had to be the direction. This road took us into the town where we started searching for a hotel. We hugged the beach until the road ended without seeing a hotel sign anywhere. At the dead-end, to our right, we spotted a few gringos sitting around a swimming pool with cervezas in their hands, waving us to come and join them. The rest is history, or maybe I should say- the beginning!
We stayed in a cabana on the beach at Tsunami Inn for about a week and explored the town of Puerto Armuelles and the surrounding areas. It is a small oceanfront community with a rich history and a bright future. Exactly what we were looking for! Over the next few trips, we purchased a home in Puerto for $50,000 that is in a nice neighborhood called las Palmas. There are about 45 homes here and half are owned by expats. We even have a community swimming pool and tennis court. We also purchased a four-plex that we plan to rehab and turn into a vacation rental. The beaches here are beautiful and undiscovered. My husband goes surfing a few times a week with another expat from Hawaii who lives here. Real estate prices are lower than most of the country. There is a decent super market, hospital, restaurants and other amenities. It is a short 30 minute drive to the border of Costa Rica, and an hour and a half to David, the second largest city in the country and home of an international airport. It has been a year living here full-time now and it was definitely a good decision.