Santa Fe: Panama’s Little-Known Highland Town

My adventures in pursuit of stories have taken me to strange and wonderful places. The spice-scented bazaars of Istanbul were memorable, as were the breweries of Dusseldorf on the banks of the German Rhine. I have haggled with gypsies, queried stamp investors, “borrowed” a speed boat to check out real estate, and handled shotguns in London worth $100,000 each.

But my fondest memory of travel in the service of International Living has to be of Santa Fe.

There aren’t many expats in this small Panamanian town—maybe 30 or 40 permanent residents. About the same again own property in the area and spend time there, hoping one day to retire to this natural paradise.

The road from the city of Santiago, an hour-and-a-half away, starts to peter out in the hills beyond town. To continue to the Caribbean involves a hefty hike and the hire of a canoe.

In many ways this “end-of-the-line” status is what makes Santa Fe and the area special. Every morning I was greeted by hummingbirds and butterflies. The mountain views are stunning, the swimming holes are secret, and there are pine forests and hot springs that few people know about.

My best day there was spent on horseback, trekking into the hills to look at property, meet some locals, swim in a waterfall, and drink cacao wine fresh from the still. Santa Fe is a place where you meet nature in all its raw beauty at every bend in the road and just don’t care what day it is.

Now, my friends there might not thank me for sharing this with you. They want to keep it to themselves. And I can totally see why. But change could be coming anyway.

There is only around 35 miles of road to the Caribbean left to build. The hardest part is done and I’m told much will depend on the outcome of this year’s elections. The consensus though is that—sooner or later—the road is coming. And that means more visitors.

The other major development is that Santiago is growing. Like David and Panama City there are new malls and new hospitals being built. This will make Santa Fe an option for folks who previously wouldn’t have considered it.

And right now, costs here are low. A couple renting a comfortable two-bedroom home near town can live well on $1,500 a month all in—including a maid and gardener. Rentals start at $250 to $300 for a Panamanian-style home up to $1,200 for a nice two-bedroom, complete with cable and air-conditioning. You can buy lots with good views, walking distance to town, for $30,000 to $40,000.

I liked Alto de Piedra, about a 15-minute drive from town. This area is popular with Panamanians, and lots sell at $12 a square meter ($1.11 per square foot). Its climate is like that of Boquete, described by one expat as “July in Pennsylvania all year round.”

Santa Fe is often compared to Boquete, but it’s a different sort of place. For one thing, if you’re just vacationing there’s no competition. You can pay up to $100 for a coffee tour in Boquete, but take the tour in Santa Fe and it is $5. That includes a cup of the freshest coffee you’ll ever have, served in a local grower’s home. Tubing, hiking, and horse riding are all much cheaper, and the experiences exceptional. You’ll pay $50 for a massage in Boquete and $15 for the same in Santa Fe.

There is a lot of potential for homesteading here, and some expats are already living off the grid. There are other opportunities, too; I know of one restaurant and a boutique hotel for sale. A Mexican restaurant just opened up. And I had my best meal in Panama in the Cambodian restaurant at Hotel Anachoreo.

As for health care, well, you can access modern facilities and U.S.-trained doctors in Santiago. In fact, for an English-speaking dentist you can just talk to Luis in town—he trained in North Carolina.

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