Healthy, Low-Cost Living in Boquete, Panama

Boquete, in Panama’s Chiriquí province, is known for its expat community. Rated by the AARP as one of the world’s best retirement destinations, Boquete blipped onto the expat radar around 2001 when International Living first started writing about it. Its artsy social scene has been growing ever since.

I first visited this highland town in 1998 with my family. Though you can fly an hour to the Chiriquí capital of David (then take a 45-minute bus ride to Boquete), we drove the six hours from Panama City so we could enjoy the scenery and stop to buy plants and strawberries along the way. We were there for a retreat, and the event planners couldn’t have chosen a more idyllic location.

The village was one delightful cottage after another… Swiss-style cabins with magenta and coral bougainvillea spilling over their walls. No wonder Boquete is known as Panama’s flower capital.

I was hooked, and I’ve returned over and over again through the years. Boquete today is every bit as beautiful as I found it on my first visit. It’s a land of super-fresh produce, colorful blooms, and some of the world’s best coffee.

The local Ngöbe-Buglé tribeswomen still wear traditional dresses—bright blocks of color with a geometric-patterned trim. You usually see them with several cherub-faced kiddies in tow. The family circle is of utmost importance. Here, families have dinner together… walk to church together…live a slower-paced life together.

The expats in Boquete will tell you their health has improved…not because they’ve done anything special, but because the place lends itself to healthy living. It’s easier to walk here than to drive. Everything is close and everyone is on foot.

There aren’t fast-food joints on every corner. But the market carries fresh ahi-grade tuna and sea bass and shrimp every day. And they’re a mere fraction of the price you’d pay back home. Baked with juicy tomatoes or slices of fat Boquete oranges, dinner for four will run you under $10.

You’ll meet painters and photographers and jewelry-makers here. The expat community has helped infuse Boquete with the arts. This quiet village now has a yearly jazz festival and an English-language theater troupe.

There’s much to do for lovers of the great outdoors, too. This is the kind of place where you can go white-water rafting or hiking or birding…every day. You can have your own farm and livestock…grow rare orchids and bromeliads…pick limes and bananas from your very own trees. The land is rich and fertile, the climate is perfect, and the men still wear hats and ride horses.

True, Boquete is known for its misty rain— called bajareque—as much as for its coffee and orchids. You can’t have one without the other. During the rainy season, from May through November, there will be afternoon showers… or downpours. But you see the sun most every morning.

And there are beetle-green hummingbirds and funny, stocky pink ginger flowers and tall spindly pines that shoot into the sky and make you feel small. It all seems to make it well worth living here for those who stay.

And then there’s the cost of living. If you buy a home (anywhere from $70,000 for a simple, local-style home to $175,000 for a U.S.-style one), you can live here on as little as $600 a month, including utilities, transportation, groceries, household goods, and entertainment. I’ve met people who’ve rented a home here for $300 a month.

You can eat out for $4, get a glass of wine for $3, and take a taxi for $1.50. Here, paradise comes at a price…but it’s low.

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