My Dream House in Panama Has a Built-In Income

From the back terrace of Marilyn and Jerry Johnson’s home in Panama, you can hear the faint sound of the waves rolling in. “I guess I take it for granted sometimes,” says Marilyn. “You look out at the water and it’s so beautiful and relaxing. Later in the day the tide comes in, so the ocean is all the way up to the seawall and the sun slants across the yard. The greens look even greener, and the ocean is so blue.”

This time of year—Panama’s “winter” or wet season—their garden is particularly lush. The green is punctuated by brightly colored flowers known as birds of paradise. You might have seen these flowers as part of expensive flower arrangements in the States, but they thrive here in the sultry heat of the tropics. So do coconut palms, mango trees, and—Marilyn’s favorite—passionfruit vines. “It’s called maracuya here,” says Marilyn of the latter. “I just love the taste of it.”

Marilyn’s home in the quiet fishing community of Veracruz is on a narrow lane, just steps from the ocean. The neighborhood features small, local-style homes as well as larger, beachfront homes right on the Pacific shoreline.

Before moving to Veracruz, the Johnsons had lived in Bocas del Toro—a Caribbean archipelago off the northwest coast of Panama. The Sacramento natives loved the pristine beauty of the Caribbean beaches, but they wanted to be closer to cosmopolitan Panama City.

“Here, I’m close enough to pop into the city for dinner, and I’m right on the water,” says Marilyn. “I like to sit here and watch the waves splash up over the rocks,” she says. The terrace is a perfect place to do yoga, though these days Marilyn gets her workout in her pool.

Just a five-minute drive from Marilyn’s home is a beach lined with little fishing boats and shacks touting everything from fried fish to paddleboard lessons. “I can walk out my front door and get a taxi to the beach for $1,” she says.

The third story of Marilyn’s home is an independent 2,100-square-foot apartment, with a massive row of picture windows overlooking the Pacific. She lists it via short-term rental websites like VRBO and Airbnb, and it has proven popular with tourists visiting Panama City. “We get a lot of people that want to tour the capital, but don’t want to stay anywhere noisy,” says Marilyn. “Sometimes our guests just want to hang out at our pool or by the ocean.”

The Johnsons earn enough to cover some of their bigger expenses, and having renters from time to time is fun. “Sometimes when they leave, we miss them,” Marilyn says. “We’ve met really nice people. They’re like grandchildren…they come to play and then they go away…perfect.”

Marilyn has a busy social calendar and is never bored. Panama City’s malls are close by, and feature everything from fancy boutiques to bargain department stores. New restaurants are constantly popping up, and the offerings run the gamut.

“I love going into the city for lunch with friends or shopping with my sister, when she comes to visit,” says Marilyn. “It seems like we are always doing something. And some days we don’t want to do a darn thing but sit around this house.”

Marilyn says it’s a lifestyle she couldn’t see herself enjoying back in California. “Sacramento was too cold, and we couldn’t afford to live on the water,” she says. I’ve waited too long to be able to live on the water. I am not ready to give that up.”

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