Panama’s Highland Towns – One Popular, One Unknown

In much of Panama, sultry tropical days average 88F…but there are places where you can experience more temperate weather. Think mild and breezy—up to 10 degrees cooler (or more, when the sun’s not out). Places where rain will be your biggest concern…where there’s no hail, or snow, or hurricanes either.

The most popular is the mountain town of Boquete, located in the Province of Chiriquí.

Temperatures can drop into the mid-60s at night, with strong winds making it feel even cooler. Mornings are typically sunny, with light showers in the afternoon. The months of August-October can be particularly rainy, while December through April tends to be dry.

Boquete is one of Panama’s highest settlements (in terms of altitude, that is!). It’s perfect for growing coffee and orchids, and its mountain vistas and hidden valleys are renowned for their beauty. That’s why expats started trickling in some ten years ago. And today Boquete is home to one of Panama’s most active expat communities. If you balk at boredom, this is likely the place for you. In recent years local organizations have set up a jazz festival, weekly market, a new theater, and so much more, I’d be hard pressed to list it all.

Of course, if you’re not a joiner…and you’d prefer a more local experience, Boquete isn’t your only choice. Not that Boquete has lost its Panamanian flavor—folklore and traditions are still alive and well there. But you’re more likely to make local friends and immerse yourself in Spanish away from the larger expat communities.

For a true live-like-a-local experience, you may want to explore the village of Santa Fe, in the mountains of Veraguas. Just over an hour north of the city of Santiago, Santa Fe is about 1,300 feet above sea level. Though warmer than Boquete, the climate is still very mild, with temperatures ranging from the 70s to the 80s.

The expat community here has grown slowly. The ones I met were friendly and supportive, but their homes were scattered around town. Some are snowbirds, spending only part of the year here. In Santa Fe, your neighbors will usually be locals…and they will likely to do a little farming or raise chickens (or both).

And because it’s barely on the tourist or expat radar, Santa Fe remains extremely inexpensive. A two-bedroom home of about 900 square feet can cost 50% less here than in Boquete, where you’re likely to spend $175,000 to $250,000. The major supermarket in Santiago is modern and features a variety of products, including some hard-to-find items like soya. But the prices are among the lowest in the entire nation.

And it’s every bit as pretty as Boquete, with streams and hills rolling into the Santa Fe National Park and toward the Caribbean side of the Isthmus.

(A road is under construction to allow passage from Santa Fe to the Caribbean coast, but it has been slow going and is likely to take years to complete.)

Granted…there aren’t as many temptations here when it comes to spending money on outings. There’s a cinema in Santiago (movies are $2.50 to $5) and some small shopping plazas. Santa Fe has a few restaurants…and that’s about it. Expats make their own fun…horseback riding, birding, farming, swimming, planning little get-togethers…that sort of thing.

So which mountain town is right for you? It’s hard to go wrong…both are attractive. And you’ll find wonderful people in each. My advice? Add “visit Panama” to your New Year’s resolutions and come get a feel for each place.

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