Living in Ancon, Panama City

A garrison flag flutters on the peak of Ancon Hill. When you can see that flag, you know you’re in Ancon, the massive district formerly referred to as the Canal Zone.

It’s filled with greenery and quiet neighborhoods—a far cry from the nearby city center, known for the skyscrapers that twinkle and sparkle as they tower over the glassy Panama Bay.

Ancon is close to the Panama Canal, and keeping it clean and green is a priority for the Panama Canal Authority (and area residents).

Tucked into the hill, about halfway up the narrow drive that continues to the peak, you’ll find one of the city’s most beautiful landmarks, a building in the style of the Italian Renaissance. Every resident of this city has admired the sandy stone exterior, the majestic rotunda (filled with murals depicting the creation of the Canal), and the marble steps leading down the hill, to the green lawns of Balboa. (This landmark is home to the Panama Canal Administration.)

I’m meeting expat Jane Ellis at a cafe here—her home in Clayton’s Embassy Village is just a five-minute drive away.

The tables on the patio are surrounded by deep green, jungly foliage. A sign warns us to watch out for frolicking monkeys and falling mangos (but the monkeys seem content to perch above us in their trees).

This area is bordered to one side by the Camino de Cruces national park, a green swath that points the way to the massive Metropolitan Park. The residential sector is dotted with small parks and little soccer fields, and people walk everywhere rather than drive.

Jane and her husband Martin came here from Scotland in search of exciting work and warm weather…along with their three children—Gavin, 10; Katie, eight; and Donald, five. Martin landed a job working on the Panama Canal expansion mega-project. Jane took up translating—a portable career that allows her to work from home—and became an ambassador for local charity Cambio Creativo.

“That was about two and a half years ago,” says Jane, who’s thoroughly enjoying her vida Panameña. Being in Ancon has been a great experience for Jane’s entire family. “We were tempted by the city center…the skyline over the Panama Bay…but we’re very happy here,” says Jane. “We’re just five minutes away from the kids’ school, Balboa Academy, and they love it,” she says. “It has an American college preparatory program and it’s a really positive environment,” she adds.

With homes instead of high-rises, and friendly neighbors, Jane says the community is near perfect. “The biggest difficulty is that you meet people who are only here for a few years…people who work for embassies and the like. You get attached.”

Still, she says, there is a good mix of both expat and Panamanian residents, so some of the friends she has made are lifers. “We don’t feel like we’re cut off from Panama, even though we’re in a gated community. Our neighbors are from Panama, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Spain, China…all over,” she says. “It’s really easy to meet people here…they’ll ask you where you’re from and start talking to you.”

Clayton is one of Panama’s most coveted communities, and as such homes here are more costly than elsewhere in the country…or even in Panama City. Whereas small apartments, say 700 square feet, can be had for under $100,000 in many parts of Panama City, you’ll find it a challenge to find anything for under $150,000 in the Clayton sector. At time of writing, I found a few apartments of about 1,000 square feet listed for between $150,000 and $165,000 in Clayton and neighboring Albrook.

You’ll find more duplexes and single-family homes for sale in Clayton than apartments, though, and these tend to start at around $250,000 for 1,200 square feet or more.

For that price, you get to live in a safe and elegant community.

“Back home, we lived in a nice house, but I couldn’t let the kids play unsupervised,” Jane says. “I was always worried a car would speed by. Now we can open our door and see kids on bikes or playing basketball. Our little girl is fascinated by nature now, too. She is always finding tropical lizards and frogs and other creatures. We allow her and the boys to walk about within the community. We’re free here…”

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