The Dry Arc of Coronado: My Place in the Sun

The first morning, I am staggered by the sun. I lay on my side, facing a wall of glass. The orb emerging from the Pacific is impossibly close. Perfectly framed by my windows, it’s big and tungsten bright and shining just for me. I have excellent blackout curtains, but I went to bed and left them open, happy to rise with good old Sol.

The wall of glass extends from the bedroom into the main living area. It’s mostly windows—18, I think—but there are also two doors. I get up and step through door number one, onto the balcony. The air is cool, and the ocean has changed. Midnight oil in the moonlight, at dawn it’s a dazzling silvery blue. In the afternoon it will deepen to sapphire, with a few surprise splashes of aquamarine.

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For my reentry, I push through glass door number two, into the main living area. I call it my great room—it’s a kitchen, office, library, and dining area, all rolled into one. The large porcelain floor tiles remind me of creamy Italian travertine, just as cool and smooth underfoot. The cabinetry is pale honey. Everything is light and bright. Fitting for a seaboard home.

Between the beach and me is an 18-hole George Fazio golf course, one of the best in Panama. My building—a single tower overlooking the ocean, golf course, and Campana Mountain National Park—is part of a vast gated community. There are houses and apartments, a fitness center with a pool, and two restaurants (one is a fancy supper club). A shuttle trundles back and forth between the onsite hotel and a private beach club, just a few minutes away.

The sands in this region are coral white with charcoal splotches that vary with the tides. Close-up, you can make out sharp geometric patterns carved by waves and wind. I’ve been to dozens of famous beaches across the globe, but our black volcanic sand glitters in the sun like nothing I’ve ever seen.

This clean, quiet stretch of coastline has captivated thousands of Panamanians and expats alike. The moment my neighbor, Jo Anne Burrill, saw the beach, she turned to her husband Al and said, “If we lived here, these are all the diamonds I would ever want.” That was in 2007. True to her word, she is still in love with Coronado. They both are.

I got an apartment on the 20th floor for $155,000.

While Jo Anne and Al were choosing Coronado, I was loving life in Panama City, just an hour’s drive east. I lived there for well over a decade, watching it come into its own as Central America’s only cosmopolitan capital.

There were almost too many things to do. Film and dance festivals, food and wine expos, marathons, and a dozen other fitness events…I was spoiled for choice. My four-bedroom rental was just $750 a month and right by a metro station. I could easily hop an air-conditioned train and—10 minutes and 35 cents later— alight in the city center.

From time to time I’d think, ‘I should buy a place of my own.’ But I had such a good thing going. It would take something truly extraordinary to get me to move…

And then, last August, I found it. Out of habit, I visited a local website, Compreoalquile.com, to scroll through the latest listings. On this particular day, I used the website’s filters to set specific parameters: at least 1,000 square feet, at least 1.5 bathrooms, under $170,000. An attractive apartment in the beach town of Coronado instantly caught my eye. List price: $165,000 for 1,184 square feet.

The ad didn’t say anything about the view, nor did it describe the building amenities. The listed size and price, as it turned out, were incorrect. None of this put me off. If you’re going to scour the local classifieds, be prepared to do a lot of your own research.

The moment I set foot in the apartment and saw the million-dollar view, I knew I had to act fast. (I love poorly written ads. The best apartments often have poorly written ads.) I enlisted Heidi Pinzon, a whipsmart attorney from local firm Mata-Kelly & Partners, and we went to work.

It took several weeks to get every pertinent detail. And it was a good thing I knew which questions to ask. The apartment qualified for a “preferential interest” loan, capping interest at 4.33% for at least five years. Property taxes in Panama are now very low, as the law changed in 2019. However, like many others, my apartment was awarded a substantial 20-year exemption in 2009. I’ll pay just $21.50 a year until 2029. After that, the exemption runs out, and my taxes will be $306 a year.

I applied for a home loan through Banistmo, one of a few local banks willing to lend to people with foreign-source incomes. The application and approval process can take several months, so it’s best to start right away. If you eventually decide not to buy, no harm done.

map showing coronado

In the end I got a one-bedroom, 1,130-square-foot apartment on the 20th floor for $155,000.

That’s not all. The agent had told me the apartment was for sale as-is…no repairs, no appliances. The floors needed replacing and the cabinets were peeling. “Still a great deal,” I thought.

When the developer’s legal department sent me the promise to buy-sell contract, however, it stipulated the following: “the seller will provide and install a refrigerator, a stove, a microwave, a dishwasher, a “laundry center” (this turned out to be a stacked washer and dryer), two split air conditioning units, and “membership to the golf, beach, and equestrian club.”

It’s in one of Panama’s sunniest regions.

The country club’s equestrian section closed years ago, but I’m terrified of horses, so I signed the contract. I did receive beautiful appliances, saving me an estimated $2,500. The developer, Empresas Bern, also redid my floors (a bunch of tiles had popped) and repaired, replaced, or resolved every issue I identified during my final inspection. It wasn’t done overnight— it took over a month—but I saved more than $1,600 on the floors alone.

The moral of the story, for me at least, was this: Things may seem disorganized or chaotic here sometimes, but it’s worth being patient and going with the flow. See where it takes you.

Coronado is incredibly modern and convenient—there are banks, clinics, home improvement stores, restaurants, fine wines, and other luxuries—but in some ways, it’s still very rural. Extra patience is required…and rewarded.

For a softer, easier landing, rent before you tackle buying. That’s what Ann and Peter Bradley did. Their move from New Hampshire was smooth as can be. They’d visited several times, meeting residents who went on to help them find an attorney and even buy a car—it was parked at the building, ready to go when they returned with four suitcases, two golf bags, Pete’s guitar, and very little else.

A former nurse and high-tech expert, the Bradleys have found that they can live on their Social Security here. “Our rent is $1,300 a month,” says Ann. “You could never find anything in the U.S., with these amenities and this setting, for that amount. We pay $300 a month for our golf and country club membership. That includes unlimited golf for both of us, as well as pickleball, tennis, workout rooms, multiple pools, yoga classes, and more. And here you can play all year round. In New Hampshire you’re lucky if you get six months…and the beginning and end of the season can be pretty chilly.”

As she speaks, Ann glances about. We’re sitting in the airy rooftop social area, windows all around. The sun is a cheerful presence in the violet-blue sky. A stout breeze romps and rollicks through the room. She turns back to me, wearing a pixie grin. “I mean,” she gestures at the view, “what’s not to like?”

Most mornings are like this, the tropical scenery coming alive in the bright daylight. Coronado is in the Dry Arc, one of Panama’s sunniest regions. We get far less rain than the Caribbean coast. Far less rain than mountain towns just a 45-minute drive from here. Even Panama City is a bit rainier and warmer than Coronado. Last night it was 79 F in the city. Here it was a perfect 74 F.

Ann’s happiness and gratitude, for the life she’s found here with Peter, are palpable. They prepare healthy meals with locally caught fish and enjoy dining on their balcony, which is strung with twinkling lights. Peter is an avid photographer and will, on occasion, play guitar for friends. Ann golfs in the ladies’ league (the players call themselves “Chicks With Sticks”) and is ever ready to help other newcomers with advice and introductions.

The same is true of the other folks I’ve met since I decided to move here. Canadian- Americans Keith and Carolynn Dick, answer every question patiently. Keith’s analytical nature led him to spreadsheet every consideration and every expense before choosing Coronado. They learned they could obtain residence quickly and easily though Panama’s Pensionado program.

Though they do play golf—the course is right there, after all—that’s not why Keith and Carolynn moved here. Having lived in Calgary, Chicago, and New York, “I never wanted to be cold again,” says Keith. “I never even wanted to wear a sweater again.”

“Look, it’s very straightforward. We were getting old,” says Carolynn. I laugh. She and Keith are fun neighbors. They’re 74 and 73, respectively, and they’re friendly with people of different ages and backgrounds—we have a diverse community. Around here, age truly is just a number.

Having lived in Brazil, Keith and Carolynn were very familiar with the challenges associated with learning a new language and immersing yourself in a new culture. They also point out how much easier it is to relocate these days. They didn’t have Google Translate, GPS, or smartphones the first time around. “When we moved to Panama, it was easier to get settled,” says Carolynn. “You can stream shows on high-speed internet and buy big-screen TVs.”

Indeed, the couple enjoys watching women’s basketball on a unit of cinematic proportions. But they are also active in the local community, and big on giving back. Keith is very involved in the Rotary organization. Carolynn’s many projects and activities include visits to a local hospital’s maternity ward. She is part of a group that knits and sews clothing, blankets, and other gifts for underprivileged mothers. “There are plenty of opportunities, and it is stunning how a little help can make a huge difference,” Keith says.

The Pensionado Visa

One of the world’s best retirement residence programs, Panama’s pensioner visa gives you the right to reside here— indefinitely. If applying on your own, you need to prove that you have a pension of $1,000 a month. If you plan on moving with a spouse, you can pool your pensions to meet the $1,250 a month requirement. Resident pensionados in Panama also get 10-50% discounts on everything from travel and entertainment to healthcare.

Philanthropy is a recurring theme here. After years of living (and giving back) in different towns along this coast, Californian Linda Bronson decided to take her charity work one step further. She and a small group of friends started El Proyecto Fenix (see Elproyectofenix.com). The group’s mission is to help empower low-income families so they aren’t dependent on handouts.

Linda keeps busy—she’s a vibrant, social lady, and though she says she wants to slow down, I have my doubts. But that’s the beauty of the Coronado region. You can spend your days lolling on the beach or get involved and be as busy as you like. “It’s amazing,” says Linda. “I have more friends here than in California, where I grew up and spent the majority of my life.”

Linda lived in the western Playa Blanca sector for years, but these days she rents in a beachfront building in Gorgona, 10 minutes east of the Coronado town center. As a single woman, she appreciates the extra layer of security provided in condo buildings here. Most have gated entrances and a doorman who act as both security guard and concierge.

I have more friends here than in California.

I ask her about her experience as not only a single expat woman but also as a Black woman abroad. Though this region isn’t perfect, she loves it. “Living here and learning Spanish is educational and enriching. And for the most part, I’m just another person. Truly. Not a Black person. Not a dark-skinned person. Just a person.”

From the moment she moved into her building, the Biltmore, she felt welcomed. “There are people from the U.S. and Canada, Europe, South Africa…we consider ourselves the Biltmore family. And the Panamanian people are very warm. Very warm,” she repeats with a smile.

Head inland from the beach and Panama’s Dry Arc is a sea of green space and high-end amenities
Head inland from the beach and Panama’s Dry Arc is a sea of green space and high-end amenities.

I concur. I have Panamanian friends who weekend here. I met them when I was living in the city, and I was instantly comfortable with them. They’re the kind of people that make you feel like you’ve been adopted into a new family.

But even daily interactions—with people I don’t know—are pleasant. I’m still setting up house, so for now that mostly consists of workers and other shoppers at home goods stores. I enjoy brief chats with the young cashier at the Arrocha— a pharmacy with beautiful household items, including everything you need to Marie Kondo your home. And I’ll never forget the lady with the giant diamond on her perfectly manicured ring finger, floating in a cloud of Chanel No. 5, who told me which pillows to buy at Novey. (They’re excellent pillows.)

Gale McFarland, 47, already feels like a Panamanian. He and wife Tiffany, 42, just moved here from Minnesota and are “still in the honeymoon phase.”

Gale isn’t retired. Like me, he’s still working. When he and Tiffany decided they wanted to test-drive expat life in Panama, they both had jobs they could do from anywhere. The blow came after they sold their home and cars, in preparation for the move. “You can’t work for us from Panama,” they were told.

“My first thought was: I’m still going,” says Tiffany.

“If we hadn’t done our research and had everything laid out, I might have lost my nerve,” says Gale. “But it all worked out.” The couple made a detour to South Dakota to establish residence and set up Gale’s new consulting company. It was quick and easy—and a smart decision from a tax standpoint, says Gale. After that, off to Panama they went.

Now Gale writes software from his beach condo. Tiffany took charge of “everything else,” as he puts it. And there was much to do, including paperwork for their new apartment, legal residence, and local driver’s licenses.

They hadn’t planned on doing quite so much. The plan was to spend a few months in an Airbnb, then move on. No paperwork required. But after just two months, they proceeded to buy. “We hadn’t even seen anything besides Coronado and Panama City,” laughs Gale. “But we were ready.”

“We thought, sure, there are other places with golf courses. But do they have these views? These people? No. When we leave Coronado, we can’t wait to get back. I’ve had friends back home comment on how much happier I seem.”

“I see him smiling a lot more,” says Tiffany.

But he’s not the only one. I’ve caught Tiffany flashing a smile that would light up the room if the sun weren’t already so bright. “I’ve always wanted to live on the beach or in the mountains,” she explains. From where we sit, we have views of both. Today she can walk down to the beach and, just yesterday, she was hiking in the mountains.

Coronado is just 45 minutes by car from the hamlets of Sorá and El Valle. Both are known for their cool cloudforest environments. Well over a dozen hiking trails and myriad other attractions make it a rewarding spot to discover. Hot springs, a conservation zoo and butterfly farm, a charming orchid center…plenty to do if you’re in the mood to explore.

Best of all, the international airport in Panama City is only an hour-and-a-half away. Though Tiffany misses family time back home, she loves to travel. She’s spent time in China, and she and Gale are going to India soon.

Coronado is a great fit for all the world-travelers that choose to live here. In a few weeks Carolynn and Keith will be jetting off to France, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Next year they’ll venture to New Zealand, Australia, and Bali. “A lot of people don’t realize that traveling from here is so easy,” says Carolynn. You can get direct flights to Europe rather than having to “catch a plane to catch a plane,” she points out.

I travel often—for work and to visit friends around the world. If I ever take an extended trip, I can easily rent out my apartment and cover a big chunk of my expenses. My mortgage payment is $750 a month, and my monthly maintenance fee is $262. That covers water, trash collection, gardeners and other staff, and amenities that are out of this world.

My building has city water plus its own well. Our electric generator clicks on the minute Coronado city power fails. Whether it’s a momentary blip or a longer outage, I have light, air conditioning, internet—it’s an incredible luxury.

My mortgage payment is $750 a month.

The ground level and top three floors house our building’s common areas. There are two large social areas with plenty of seating for our building’s weekly happy hour, monthly potluck, book club, and other events. We have a massive pool downstairs and a large party room upstairs. Small pools, and jacuzzis are sprinkled throughout. There’s a gym, a sauna, and a games room where you can play pool, darts, air hockey, and foosball.

Yesterday I took the stairs from the gym to the very top of the tower. There’s a wide open terrace with—and this may be my favorite thing about life in Coronado—outdoor showers. The 360-degree views of the ocean and all the lush greenery around it are breathtaking.

Is this really where I live now? I am still pinching myself.

Next morning, I unpack my final three boxes. Then I put on some chai and pull up the shades. There it is. The sun is a fuzzy yellow dot, high in the sky. I’ve begun to think of Coronado as his permanent home. And—yes, it’s finally sinking in—this is my home now, too. I grab my tea and step onto the balcony. The better to greet my constant companion.
One of the world’s best retirement residence programs, Panama’s pensioner visa gives you the right to reside here— indefinitely. If applying on your own, you need to prove that you have a pension of $1,000 a month. If you plan on moving with a spouse, you can pool your pensions to meet the $1,250 a month requirement. Resident pensionados in Panama also get 10-50% discounts on everything from travel and entertainment to healthcare.

Two Easy Options For Non-Pensioners

Gale and Tiffany obtained residence through a program known as Panama’s “Friendly Nations Visa.” The program changed in 2021, making it more prohibitive. It is still an excellent option for non-pensioners, however.

The main requirement is that you either:

  • Invest $200,000 in real estate (this can be done via a mortgage or outright payment) or
  • Show evidence that you require residence for work purposes. You’ll need a Panamanian company with a business license to corroborate.

If you’re simply looking to test-drive life in Panama, consider the new Temporary Telework Visa. It provides for temporary residence of nine months, extendable for another nine months, for a total of 18 months.

The main requirements include:

  • Proof of medical insurance and
  • Proof of income from a foreign source—at minimum $3,000 a month (or $4,000 a month if applying with a family member).

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