Sunshine, Seasides, and Stopping to Smell the Bougainvillea in Panama

I’m writing to you from a beach where the sand sparkles like stars. Locals tell me it’s the volcanic matter in the sand that makes it dance in the sunlight. And this region, known as Panama’s Dry Arc, is a mecca for sun seekers…it gets more than 300 sunny mornings a year, according to residents.

Today is no exception. The sky is its usual shade of cornflower blue, spotted with a fluffy white cloud or two. There are just a few pretty homes in sight, half hidden by swaying green palms and the fuchsia bougainvillea I’ve come to associate with Panama. It comes in many bright, happy shades and is everywhere you look, spilling over walls or lining small, gravelly roads.

I can remember a time when I was too busy to stop and smell the flowers. Up to 2005, I was working a minimum of 70 hours a week for a big corporation in Miami. I was surrounded by natural beauty, but I didn’t have the spare time to enjoy it. The day I decided to quit and go back to writing was a good day. As a freelancer I made less money for a time, but it didn’t matter. In Panama City—just an hour’s drive from the Dry Arc—I was able to live better than I ever had before, on a budget of about $2,000 a month.

Over the past ten years, my budget has stayed under $2,500, including rent for a four-bedroom apartment in the capital’s metropolitan area, along with utilities, insurance, and maintenance on a Hyundai Accent hatchback, and an active social calendar.

Elsewhere in the country, outings to the beach or hiking cost nothing at all. In the cosmopolitan capital, temptation is everywhere. There’s so much to do, I can’t keep track of it all. Concerts, ballet and other dance performances, film festivals, fitness and sporting events, art exhibits, food and wine expos—I’m going to a big one next week. You name it, we have it.

And while some call this city expensive, I see it for what it is…a place where how much you spend is completely up to you. At some of my favorite restaurants—La Casa Vegetariana and vegan eatery Sattva come to mind—I can eat a hearty meal for $3 to $10. And then there are fancy, gourmet restaurants like Madrigal, where a blowout meal with a couple bottles of wine has cost us $60 a head. I go where my mood takes me.

I could live more simply—and someday I might—but for now, I am enjoying an expanding cultural landscape. It’s exciting to see how Panama is growing and coming into its own, to see the middle class growing and Panamanians taking advantage of new and exciting opportunities.

These days I’ve even taken to vacationing in-country. (Though Panama City being the Hub of the Americas, I have access to the region’s best selection of flights.)

The mountain towns of Cerro Azul, Sora, and El Valle are among my favorite weekend destinations and just one- to two-hours away. The nearest Dry Arc beach, Coronado, is just an hour’s drive from my apartment. But Panama’s many islands may be the best part of my new life here.

I tell my Panamanian friends they are the most spoiled people on the planet. They’ve grown up accustomed to affordable 15- and 20-minute flights to the Pacific Pearl Archipelago and the pristine Caribbean islands of Guna Yala. A 45-minute, $14 ferry ride gets me from the Panama Bay to Taboga, known as the Island of Flowers. Yes…I am spoiled now, too.

I know that no place on earth is perfect. I have had to adjust to different notions about everything from punctuality to just how loud is too loud (though I admit, salsa music has really grown on me). There was a learning curve, to be sure. I spent an entire year bewildered by local driving and traffic patterns governed by quincenas (paydays).

But before I moved to Panama I don’t think I could have imagined such a fulfilling lifestyle. I am fascinated by the rainforests and wildlife, the beaches and islands, and the local culture. I get to live in a convenient First World city with excellent internet and infrastructure. And yet I have easy access to ancient indigenous cultures, colonial towns with rich traditions, and so much more.

So maybe I gush sometimes. Trust me…you would, too.

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