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Selecting a Region


   Sep 15

Selecting a Region

Where do I want to live? This is one of the first decisions a person faces when coming to a new country. To find the best fit, one must know what one must have, likes to have, what is indifferent, what can one tolerate, and what is intolerable. These conditions are individual. No valid general recipe exists. If one doesn’t know, then the only way to eliminate ambiguity may be to test – live 6+ months in one place, then move and try another. This, of course, is simpler said than done. Who wants to move every few months? Then again, what’s the alternative if one actually does not know? I am certain there are many ways to find the place. This post summarizes my approach.

My experience of living in many countries, many climates, and many cultures has revealed my likes, dislikes and don’t care’s. For me it was a matter of listing and prioritizing what I already new because priorities change with age.
The next step was to research what choices exist in Panama. An abundance of information is available on the Internet and in books. My strategy was to collect as much data about different locales and conditions as I could. Then I would select the potentially viable regions and validate them locally by asking specific questions derived from the research. I have learned that only specific questions result in actionable answers. Observing local conditions and behavior was the other source of specific questions. For example, I saw comprehensive ironwork covering all doors and windows in a village. Yet, locals did not bother to lock the doors when leaving their homes. I was surprised to learn that the “safety features” are for the insurance discounts. In a small village there is no-one stealing and everybody is keeping an eye on their neighbor’s property. Outsiders do not have a chance either.
I did my homework and validated it to get a complete picture for the issues that were important to me in a week rather than 6 months or longer. To be happy where I settle I must know what are my issues and what are my priorities.

General conditions in Panama
Panama has a stable government and no army. There is plenty of petty corruption in the low levels of government (police, permitting, etc.), but no-where near the scale one would see in the USA, where the government shamelessly squanders trillions from the taxpayers and retirees. Panama is recognized as lowest taxed country in the world. They do not tax any income derived outside of the country. The sales tax used to be 5% on non-essential goods. Starting July 2010 it is 7%.
Panama offers a selection of climates with stable temperatures being the major feature. Compared to the Southern regions of US, the temperatures are not high, but they change only few degrees throughout the year. The average high temperature is 85 — 93 in the low lands and 65 – 75 high in the mountains. For me temperatures between 75 – 95 are good and I must have lots of sun. This simple requirement eliminated many high mountain regions. Some, because they are too cold, others, because it rains or is cloudy for long periods of time. Climate history for Panama is available at http://www.hidromet.com.pa/ With this data it was not complicated to figure out what each region’s climate is like.

While the temperature is stable, there are two seasons in Panama: dry season – in Panama called summer and the wet season, which is called winter. Winter times the average temperatures are a bit lower because it is cloudier and raining more. Consequently, the sun warms the earth less and strong afternoon thunderstorms bring down the cool air from high altitudes. Panama summer is usually from December to mid May, some years even until June. Gradually, over the course of May/June, the rains get more frequent and stronger – the Panama winter sets in. The rainiest time is usually September and October.

Although important, climate and government are not the only issues. There is only one city in Panama. Like any other big city in the world, it is noisy, congested,

Panama City Traffic

Panama City Traffic


agitated, and angry, but it offers all of the services one would need: shopping, hospitals, banks, universities; a glimpse of past culture,
Panama Past Culture

Panama Past Culture


entertainment, bars, restaurants, misery, crime, and money.
Money talks

Money talks


There are a number of towns. They have mostly retained their small town feel with less of everything in comparison to Panama City. And then there is an extensive countryside with beaches, small, medium, large and very large farms, mountains and tropical jungle. What’s your choice? If you want to have cool mountain climate and rural setting, but very close to world best health care, shopping, international airport then Panama has that too: Cerro Azul provides rural setting in cool climate about 30 minutes from the Panama City.

The roads in Panama are superior to anywhere else in Central America. While there aren’t many 6 lane highways, the traffic does not warrant them either. Not only main drags, but also most secondary roads are paved. Some could be of better quality, but that is no different in the USA or Canada. Road maintenance is a perpetual (at times annoying) activity that keeps them in decent condition.

The telecommunication infrastructure is good with most modern telephony features available, although more expensive than in the USA . However, unlike the USA, wireline service coverage is limited to the city and towns. Yet, there are a number of cellular companies with good coverage. Prepaid service is widely used and very beneficial at least until you have selected the location for your home. British Cable & Wireless (C&W) owns and operates the wireline infrastructure and service.

C&W also offers inexpensive ADSL Internet with up to 3Mb speeds with unlimited usage. Like elsewhere, cable companies (Cable Onda) offer wireline Internet on their cable infrastructure. Wireline coverage is rarely available in villages. For these locations Panama is served by at least two dedicated wireless Internet companies. Mobilnet is the oldest and offers good service. Their prices in the interior of the country are on the expensive side, but the repair times are fast. I have no experience with the other wireless Internet company, which mostly serves the city and the beaches. All cellular companies offer reasonably priced cellular Internet with 3.5G available in some locations. Like elsewhere, close to a tower 3.5G is an attractive alternative if your application is not sensitive to occasional service glitches. It is incorrect to assume that if a company offers 3.5G then it is available everywhere they have coverage. Most of the coverage areas unfortunately support only EDGE. With speeds around 25 kb/sec (occasionally almost 50Kb/sec) this does not qualify for broadband by any stretch of the imagination. If nothing else, satellite Internet (and TV) is available almost anywhere. It is not cheap and you have to put up with its limitations (bandwidth, latency, …).

While there are pockets of expat social life (if that is what you are looking for) with varying intensity available elsewhere (Boquete, Pedasi, Coronado, El Valle, …), the city trumps them all hands down. Same is true for cultural events, services and infrastructure. Services, infrastructure, and shopping people need 99% of the time are available in all larger towns: David, Santiago, Chitre, Las Tablas, Colon, Penonome, … but there is always something you need to go to the city for. How often depends on you. Make a list of what you are picky about and ask specific questions locally. For example, I like several dishes where sour cream is a key ingredient. Penonome is a town of more than 100,000 people, but none of the super markets in Penonome sell sour cream regularly. The closest place to get sour cream while living in Penonome is in Coronado (65 km). There are few food items (e.g. sour kraut) that one can only get in the city. Of course, the alternative is to make it yourself or substitute with something else.

With the exception of Boquete, it is much more common to encounter English speaking sales and service providers in the city, followed by locations with larger expat communities, tourist areas and least likely in regular Panamanian countryside – Penonome, Veraguas, Herrera and Caribbean. If learning Spanish and experiencing the true Panamanian culture is something you wish to do, then submerging into Spanish speaking community offers several advantages. Much faster learning curve and many more opportunities to see, interact and discover the actual Panamanian life, just to name a few. If, on the other hand, you prefer to live like an “American in exile” then there are plenty of westerner gated communities with most services available in English, active social life, and even street signs in English.

Why I chose Cocle province North from Penonome over other regions?

Our limited budget raised the priority of low cost of living for myself and my wife to the forefront. That eliminated the city and most locations with large expat communities. For us it isn’t a loss because we do not like to live in a city or in a town. Our social life and entertainment are on the Internet. We do not like to live- in “exile”. Instead, we prefer to learn as much as possible from locals. Learning the language is key to understanding the culture, interacting with people, and learning from them.
We like warm and sunny climate. Beach is fine,

Santa Clara beach -- collecting shells

Santa Clara beach -- collecting shells

but optional.

Santa Clara beach

Beach is optional

We like privacy. From experience, 10 acres is about minimum not to hear when the neighbors have a party and for the neighbors not to hear when we do. We do like nature in form of green plants

Bromelias on the tree

Bromelias

and wild

Vultures on the tree

Vultures

Loros on the tree

Loros on the tree

Butterflies

Butterflies


or not so wild animals and birds.
Cows - vacas

Cows - vacas


Both of us are healthy because we have worked hard throughout of our lives to stay healthy. Therefore, for foreseeable future, immediate proximity to world class health care services is optional. We do need basic services like banking, shopping for necessities etc., but are relatively self-sufficient. What is not available, we make ourselves or substitute.
Our hobby is trading, not golf. Hence we need a reliable, low latency Internet service. This, in combination with affordable land, low cost of living and a warm, sunny climate in a rural setting eliminated most of the popular retirement regions in Panama leaving only two for us to consider: the Mountainous area of Cocle which is North from Penonome, and province of Los Santos, outside the towns of Las Tablas and Chitre. The town of Pedasi, also in Los Santos province, is a popular expat destination. It was out of our consideration because of higher cost of living.
We first visited Panama for one week of Panama summer. In Las Tablas of the Los Santos province the drought was obvious. Climate statistics confirmed that it rains there very little.

Springs dry out for Summer

Springs dry out

Although rest of our conditions were met, we prefer not to live in a desert for a half of a year. Next region: Cocle province and Penonome. Penonome is a town with history. It is the geographic center of Panama and agricultural center of Cocle province. It does provide banking, shopping for necessities, an extensive and lively farmers market, and a sizable hospital.
The flat land around the town of Penonome and South from it is burned out and dry during the summer. Not as bad as Los Santos, but similar.

Dry land around Penonome

Dry land around Penonome

Mountains some 10 km North from Penonome apparently get sufficient rain to stay green during summer.

Cocle mountains

Cocle mountains

There are numerous rivers and streams originating from this region. Although with much less water the flow continues summer time.

Rio Luisa in May

Rio Luisa in May

By the end of our week of visit it did looked like we had found a region for our future home. We were helped by two real-estate agents: Sam in Los Santos and Lucia around Penonome. We even had a finca to consider in both locations. The 5.5 Ha finca North-East from Penonome was our favorite because it did have a small river flowing through.

Swimming hole with jumping tree

Swimming hole with jumping tree


The gravel access road was 1.5 miles from asphalt, municipal water and power line right on the border of the land. According to Lucia, wherever you get cellular coverage, you’ll get Internet as well. We did check our prepaid cellphone at this finca and there was coverage. This was end of January 2010.

What went wrong?
I am writing this post mid August 2010. Almost 8 months later. Did it take only a week to find what we were looking for … or did something go wrong?

In general, we are still happy with our decision. Over the past months we have discovered many more positive sides, but also negatives. Luckily, we can avoid the negatives affecting our life in this region.

It could have been worse for sure. As always, “the devil is in the details” that one does not know or does not bother to validate. We were lucky not to purchase the 5.5 Ha finca with river. Yes, luck had something to do with it. Here’s what happened.

When I came back to Panama in March I was convinced that I had to start building in May. A minor glitch turned up in the National Registry (Registro Nacional) record of this finca. Official business does not flow fast in Panama. Correcting the record was to take a few weeks. I decided to use this time to socialize with my future neighbors and validate the Internet. Both yielded unexpected results.

A neighbor showed me the finca borders that were quite a bit different from what I was originally shown by the owner. We called in the official surveyors. The neighbor was correct in one place, but incorrect in the other. In total the finca ended up being a tiny bit larger than originally thought. How’s that possible? The communities in Panama (and probably many other countries) live in peace with “borders recognized by neighbors”. They are frequently identified by barbwire fences. Once a fence is erected and accepted by neighbors, it becomes the “de facto” border, independent whether it matches the officially recorded borders or not. When a discrepancy is discovered, it is faster and less troublesome to correct the recorded borders in Registro Nacional as opposed to achieving agreement between the neighbors and correcting the fences. It was nothing significant; not a deal breaker.

Jose the owner confused

What are we going to do about the wrong plano? Owner -- Jose at right.

I had never experienced a cellular Internet before. From web research I picked the cellular company with the best deal and newest Internet technology. With only few weeks of history in Panama I had trouble signing up for their regular yearly contract deal with free cellular modem. I had to buy the modem and pay upfront for two months of service. Another lucky situation as it turned out later. The service was fast (about 3 Mb/sec) in their office and most other spots in town of Penonome. In the house I rented on outskirts of the town situation wasn’t nearly as rosy. The signal strength was fluctuating wildly. The modem hopped between 3.5G, just 3G and EDGE technologies. I was probably located at the cross-section of several cells with competing signals. Still, the service was usable (although at times frustrating) for email and web browsing. Internet telephony and other more demanding applications occasionally worked well, other times not at all.

The real test, of course was not the rented house in town, but the finca. There appeared to be some signal, but the modem could not log in. I turned to the company for help. A technician drove out there with me, measured and told me that they don’t have coverage in this area. My cellphone had coverage, but it was from a different company. The office was reluctant to discuss any future expansion plans. They would not be guaranteed anyway.

I tried another cellular company seeking Internet, and another – still no coverage in the area.
The third company, the same I used for my cell phone, did not agree to send their technician out to measure. After half a day negotiations, with the help of Google translate, they agreed to sign me up for a yearly contract to test on my own. I had put down the $200 deposit, like they ask everyone with no history in Panama. I did not have much choice as much larger sums depended on the success or failure of this test. At the finca there was a coverage, but the best speed tests I was able to run reached 30Kb/sec. Most tests ended with timeout or lower results. With the EDGE technology, the speed is hardly more than 50 Kb/sec anyway. After 3Mb/sec a choppy 20Kb/sec with frequent timeout was clearly going back in time to early nineties with regular modems. Forget about trading with this service. Another half a day negotiating (I am glad the lady was so patient) and I got out of the yearly contract that I had signed the previous day.

Mobilnet is the only specialized fixed wireless Internet company offering service in this region. My friend, Sven has been their customer for years and is very happy with the service. I had experienced their service at Sven’s place. I knew it is stable. In the response to the inquiry of service for the finca they sent a snapshot of Google Earth map with their coverage in color for whole province of Cocle and Western part of Panama province. There were plenty of areas with good Internet coverage from this company, but nowhere near this finca.

Without Internet available I could not buy this finca. Luckily I found this out before much money was in play. It could have been much worse. So a few weeks from the time I was hoping to start building, I was back at the very beginning – searching for a finca. I was a bit smarter and more careful, but still at the very beginning.

There were many lessons learned from this test. First and foremost, if one has not experienced something and it is critical, then it is ultimate to try it before relying on it. Even if a service or a characteristic fits someone else that does not mean the same fits you as well. It was clear that cellular Internet wasn’t for me.

The fact that a cellular company boasts modern technology does not mean it is available everywhere. Again, do not believe what people say, take time to test and validate before deciding. Do not take the word of the owner or his/her agent regarding the property you are interested, validate that the neighbors agree with the borders before money changes hands.

For other misses, like sauerkraut, whole wheat, and rye flour – I need to make them myself or find a substitute.

As of now, we still have not purchased our land. Instead we found a house for rent in a quiet little village.

Panamanian house in a village

Panamanian house in a village

The living conditions are near acceptable for us. The neighbors are friendly

Friendly neighbor

Friendly neighbor

and rent very low, that plus quiet natural environment take the edge out of the need to purchase land and build fast.

From the experience of living in the rental house in town we have realized a number of local building methods that will not work for us. Having built two houses in Florida near tropical climate we know why the “North American building style” is wrong and inappropriate here. This is good knowledge. More important is to find out what will work. There are many details to validate in practice. It makes sense to take our time to evaluate the building characteristics and features carefully. We must learn from the locals and from the house we live in now what works, and how to avoid mistakes that will be costly to fix. This is a topic for a separate article.

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