You’ll Never Want to Leave Panama’s New Highland Hideaway
I’m sipping rich coffee—just poured from a French press—when it happens. A white horse ambles by, no rider or groom in sight. Behind him, there appears another… his chestnut brother. Single file they clippety-clop into focus and I make a mental note: Favorite image of the day.
Behind the horses is a sweet-peach A-frame with a tiny wooden balcony. Two village boys in stylish Bermuda shorts come into view on a small bike that’s been painted a retro sierra blue… like the ’68 Mustang.
Pines and flowering shrubs surround pretty little Hostal Tierra Libre, where I’m staying. As the cook brings out Dutch crepes and local honey, I can hear life buzzing all around me—the kind of lazy hum that makes me want to spend the morning swinging in the hammock off to my left.
But “lazy” isn’t quite the right word to describe the village of Santa Fe de Veraguas, located in Panama’s Veraguas province. Other words come to mind: “bohemian,” “quirky,” and “effortless.” Like Dutch resident Marnix Van Suylekom, who runs the hostel with his partner in life and business, Cambodian Sineth Pov. She is queen of the kitchen and Santa Fe’s only Asian cook. Locals come here to see black-and-white movies, to eat everything from spring rolls to Thai curries, or just to say hello and have a glass of wine.
Marnix and Sineth came here about two years ago looking for a welcoming environment in which they could start a business. “It all boils down to freedom,” says Marnix, adding that everything from building permits to licenses is relatively easy and unrestricted. After a while, he and Sineth realized the quality of life was higher than most places they’d lived or visited. They’re not alone in that sentiment. A small but growing group of adventurous expats calls this mountain village home. And the draw is instantly apparent.
A town of about 3,000 people, Santa Fe has no traffic. Even on the main road cars pass infrequently. And everyone—every single person—says hello or buenas as they pass.
The roads are beautifully paved and the homes neatly painted. Despite the good infrastructure, Santa Fe has an undeveloped feel—as though it’s been hidden from the modern world all these years. One general store seems to hold it all… from t-shirts to steel beams to staples like sugar and rice.
There is just a handful of shops—several new. One local makes tiny guitars known as mejoranas, hand crafting them using centuries-old techniques. A woman has started making and selling her own fresh mozzarella, a welcome addition to the vibrant organic produce. And one couple has even opened a tiny, casual vegetarian restaurant.
At 1,300 to 1,400 feet, the climate is perfect, with temperatures rarely climbing above 88 F at mid-day. Evenings linger in the 70s F. The rainy season stretches officially from May through November, but afternoon rains are often fleeting. Most mornings are sunny, the baby-blue skies dotted with lambs-wool clouds.
The Santa Fe National Park is one of the best places in Panama to hike or bird watch and the nearby Forest Reserve La Yeguada is arguably the best place in the country to camp.
An hour and fifteen minutes away, the provincial capital of Santiago is growing slowly but surely. There are hospitals and clinics, shopping plazas and department stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and even a few hip-looking discos.
Locals and expats who live in Santa Fe travel to Santiago once or twice a week. On a visit to “the city” you may visit a home improvement store, see a heart specialist, go to one of the banks on Avenida Central, or grab lunch at the popular Hotel Galeria restaurant. Nearly everything you could possibly need is available, often at less than half the price you’d pay back home.
But the beauty is the drive back to Santa Fe. As you coast over rolling hills, the views begin to open up before you. The best time of day is between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. That’s when the sun sets over the staggered blue-green hilltops, ringing them in tones of papaya and passion fruit.
The few local and international tourists who make it to Santa Fe also enjoy horseback riding, inner tubing, and visits to the many freshwater swimming holes. At an organic coffee cooperative called El Tute, you can enjoy tastings or tour the plant, where you’ll see machines run on solar energy and rainwater processing.
Expat residents Erica and Kevin Moore have the region’s only bird sanctuary, where fuzzy toucans are protected, nursed back to health, and, whenever possible, released into the wild. Come here and you may see keel-billed toucans, rare yellow-eared toucanettes, and perhaps the most dramatic, fiery-billed (and fiery-tempered) aracaries.
The Moores are building what will soon be Casa Mariposa Boutique Hotel (Casamariposasantafe.com), a cluster of small cabins built against a mountain backdrop. When they arrived in 2009, Erica and Kevin fell for the views and the climate. But it wasn’t just that. They found the quiet village life suited them perfectly—more so than their previous home near Ontario, Canada.
“The people are the most wonderful part of life here,” says Kevin.
“We hope tourism develops, but slowly, and in a way that benefits the locals,” adds Erica. “They’re so appreciative of even the smallest things.” Erica has developed close bonds with a few locals, and though she is struggling with Spanish, she feels safe and secure. “I wouldn’t hesitate to walk up to anyone here and ask for help or directions. They’re so friendly and helpful. And around here, we don’t lock our doors.”
If Santa Fe sounds like a sleepy, slow-paced kind of place, that’s because it is. No gated communities, no influx of realtors and developers, no perceptible movement or change. Just gradual, grassroots growth. “We want to live quietly… be remote,” says Erica. “We don’t want the city or the nightlife. We love our terrace and our animals and our friends.”
A serene small town it may be, but Santa Fe isn’t lacking in modern conveniences. Everyone I met had Internet for which they pay $20 to $30 a month. The most popular way to connect is via a USB wireless Internet modem… you plug it into your laptop’s USB port and away you go. There’s reliable power and water, satellite television, and even a small Internet café that charges 60 cents an hour.
A meal of chicken and rice is $1.75. (Or buy two chicken breasts from the butcher for $1.50 and make your own lunch.) Community water runs most people $2 or $3 a month. Even with a pool, two refrigerators, and a freezer, you’re unlikely to spend more than $60 a month on power. And you’ll never need heaters or air conditioning.
Originally from Texas, Edwin Ray Walston, arguably the most successful restaurateur here, says the cost of living is extremely low overall. “A couple could live here on $800 a month, easy,” he says. “Rent included.”
Ed owns the attractive shack-style Blue Iguana Restaurant with his wife Maureen, an extraordinary baker of everything from quality bread to sinful U.S.-style desserts. Like other expats here, Ed and Maureen make every effort to take the locals (and the local economy) into account… in every way possible. “We keep our prices low for village families,” says Ed. “We want everyone to be able to afford a meal here. They might not come every day, but even the local truck drivers come in to treat themselves.”
Ed says he will soon open a bakery on the property, too. “It won’t really be a money-making enterprise,” he explains. “But it will fill a need in a community where there are still a lot of niches to fill. And it’ll allow us to employ a few more people. We’ll supply the restaurant and the bakery will at least pay for itself,” he says.
The low-stress environment agrees with him today as much as it did just over a year ago, when he first set foot in Santa Fe. “A former client wanted me to build his house here. I didn’t end up doing that project but I liked Santa Fe so much I just stayed,” he says.
As for plans to move back to the States, Ed is very clear: No way, Santa Fe. “We’re here to stay.”
Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. To get full access to all past and future articles and to receive the magazine in the mail or online each month, simply click on the below button to subscribe to International Living magazine at the special introductory price of $49. You will get instant access to the current issue of the magazine as well 10 years of back issues. As an added bonus, we will also send you a FREE report – How to Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day. (You can cancel your subscription at any time.)