A Hard-to-Beat Rural Haven in Panama

One of my favorite places in Panama is a small highland town called Volcan. You’ll find it in the agricultural province of Chiriqui, not too far from Costa Rica. Baru Volcano, which gives the town its name, looms to the east and Cerro Punta, where most of Panama’s produce is grown, rises to the north. The open sky is clear blue this time of year. Blooming bougainvillea bushes of bright magenta and deep purple add a splash of color amid the pine trees.

But it’s not just the scenery that draws me and other expats to Volcan. It’s the character of the place and its residents. This authentic farm town is a hub for the surrounding community. While there is often plenty of activity, there’s no sense of hurry. Farmers come to town in their pickup trucks, maybe hauling a load of produce, a few cattle, or hogs. They always have time to stop and chat with friends or to admire a hand-made saddle outside a tack shop.

Families walk from store to store, pausing to greet neighbors or to buy a sweet, syrupy snow cone from a vendor. Expats and retirees come into town from homes spread out among the hills to take care of business or to gather with friends. A few tourists or backpackers amble along and visit the artisan’s market, stocked with local handicrafts to carry back home.

It’s a good-size place with a population of about 12,000 and you’ll find all the amenities you need day-to-day: grocery stores, hardware and farm supply stores, bakeries, pharmacies, banks, and a new medical center.

Real estate listings throw up a lot of good-value homes and attractive buildings, lots, or acreage. Current offerings include a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house on a large corner lot for $165,000 and a three-bedroom, two-bathroom newer home with great views for $250,000.

Rentals are reasonable, and I found a cute two-bedroom cottage on offer for $350 a month, and another in a rental community for $495. It’s easier to manage here with a car, as things are spread out, but bus service and taxis are reliable and inexpensive. A couple can live comfortably here on a monthly budget of $1,200 a month, including rent.

The favored expat hangout is a B&B called Volcan Lodge and Mana Restaurant, known to locals as just “Mana’s.” Every Friday morning, the owners host a weekly market where folks come to buy and sell handmade and homemade goods, like jewelry and bread. It’s the perfect place to catch up on current events and find out what’s happening around Chiriqui.

The highland town of Volcan, Panama still has affordable real estate as well as a charming small-town feel.

And Volcan’s developing at a nice pace. Though once largely unknown by many expats, the more who discover it, the more activities and options to dine out are popping up.

A new Mexican restaurant recently opened on the main street. A bit farther up the road, there’s a tavern that stages live music on weekends. The expat musicians play to crowds of locals and foreigners alike.

Venture a little outside of town and nature prevails. A unique and ancient archaeological site, Sitio Barriles, is just a few miles west of town. It’s well worth a visit but it’s just one of the activities you can do; coffee growers in the area offer tours to see their processes and taste their finished product. You can go horseback riding or hiking along the trails that climb Volcan Baru, all the way to the summit and over to Boquete on the other side. Bird watchers come to see a wide variety of species in their natural habitat, and orchid-lovers are enthralled by the Finca Dracula botanical garden.

If the slow pace and quiet beauty of a rural lifestyle appeal to you, Volcan is worth adding to your list of possible retirement destinations.

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