“I want it all,” he said. I was at International Living’s recent Ultimate Event. This attendee had come to us seeking information about Belize and Costa Rica. But my presentation—particularly the part about Panama City—got him thinking. Suddenly, Panama was at the top of his list of countries to check out.
Here’s the rub: Yes, he wanted all the city conveniences I’d mentioned—cinemas and theaters, museums and shops filled with authentic indigenous art, swank cafés and gourmet restaurants, a full-to-bursting social calendar (and the list goes on).
But, he also wanted to live somewhere quiet and green—no heavy traffic in sight…no city noises or city smog…no hustle, no bustle.
He thought he had me good and stumped.
“Let me tell you a story,” I said.
The Ancon sector of Panama City was formerly off-limits…to all but special staff and U.S. military personnel. It was part of the Panama Canal Zone—a massive swath of land controlled by the U.S. military.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Panama City was discovering the delights of the condo tower—what better way to capitalize on those gorgeous sunsets over the Bay of Panama? Ancon, however, trudged along much the way it always had. Single-family homes were the norm, and everyone had a big fat slice of green, lush land to enjoy.
Even the barracks were surrounded by palm trees and exuberant rainforest growth. It was a setting many described as idyllic.
In 1999, as per the Torrijos-Carter Treaty, the U.S. closed the last of its military bases here. The local government reserved some of the Canal Zone structures for Panama Canal use. But there was no need to keep the reams of military housing in former bases like Clayton and Albrook.
These two places became the most sought-after addresses in the greater Ancon district. They were right on the city fringes, but felt worlds away. Traffic here was more suburban in nature—no gridlock, no blaring horns. Though you could be in the Financial District in 15 to 20 minutes, there were no bank towers in sight. No towers of any kind, in fact.
I joined the rush to buy in Clayton—a pretty duplex on three levels that I thought I’d be able to “flip” in a couple years. We converted the lower level into a mini-apartment with bath. On the first level, we had a large kitchen, a living/dining room, and a guest bath. On the upper level, there was a full bath and three bedrooms, with an attic above. Total construction was about 4,000 square feet—a luxury, as most Panamanian families live in 600 to 800 square feet.
And the yard! We hired a gardener, who charged just $15 to rake the leaves (we had two mango trees—fresh mango juice all season) and to prune and plant anything that needed it. We experimented with growing finicky orchids and lined the carpark with pretty yellow flowering plants the locals call camarones—little shrimps.
Our neighbors had two kids, a dog, and a loquacious parrot. On nice days we spent a lot of time sitting out-of-doors. We enjoyed seeing them walk past, saying hello. Most of the homes on the street were occupied by families, in fact. There were perfect areas to jog just around the corner… long, green lanes lined with beautifully refurbished homes (but no through-traffic). I lost count of how many little parks there were.
We drove “into town” every day, for work and for play. In 10 to 15 minutes, we were back in the whirring Hub of the Americas. We went to movies, wine tastings, tapas bars, and plays at the Teatro La Cuadra, one of a slew of theaters. But when we got home, the only sounds we heard (aside from the parrot next door) were those of the frogs. They made a funny “boop boop” sound that belonged in some retro video game. I loved that.
Ancon is one of those areas that never seems to change. Today, the different parts of Ancon (like Clayton) continue to be the number-one choice for those seeking family-friendly neighborhoods. Prices are on the high side for Panama, but expats tend to find $150,000 to $350,000 reasonable for the nice homes and apartments available here, considering all the location has to offer.
(If you own a home here and rent it out, long-term rentals are currently listing in this area for $2,000 a month and up, with people paying as much as $5,000 to be in upscale private communities like Embassy Club.)
Take, for example, a four-bedroom, 4.5-bath home on offer now for $340,000. The home sits on a lot of over 2,200 square feet and is located in a gated community. The home has a covered terrace (total construction of the turnkey home, on two levels, is 3,173 square feet) and garden, and the community has its own social area, playground and gardens, gym, game room, soccer field, and security guard. A highly coveted address in an upscale area just a five-minute drive from the new U.S. Embassy.
Editor’s note: To listen to Jessica’s full presentation on the “other side” of Panama City…and every other top destination in our favorite countries…get a copy of the recordings we made of the Ultimate Event.