While much of the world seems stuck in a delay mode waiting out the global economic crisis, Panama on March 3 will announce the winning bid for a new $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal.
Building the third lane of the canal, with two new locks at both ends, will nearly double the canal’s capacity and allow it to handle the larger super-tanker vessels from all nations. Completion is set for 2015.
The waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which employs some 9,000 workers, is considered one of the greatest engineering feats in history, with builders digging through nine miles of mountains at the Continental Divide. Naturally, the popular Miraflores Locks and visitor center was my first stop as I visited the country for 12 days this month.
Arriving in Panama City, one gasps at the number of high-rise projects. I counted at least a dozen cranes topping both office and condo projects. Already mired in snarled traffic and density problems, you have to ask if this is Panama in a recession, how much more will it explode when the economy improves?
Two years ago, Panama passed its Law 41, offering incentives to multinational companies to develop regional headquarters there. As a result, commercial real estate climbed 25 percent last year, and right behind it has come residential sales.
This was my first trip to Central America, and I’d heard the days of real estate deals in places like Costa Rica were already over. Get to Panama, friends said, before the next “gringo” invasion storms in.
Talking to travelers from Nova Scotia, Iceland and, of course, California, as well as the energetic British couple who camped in their Ford van along the entire Interamerican Highway from Alaska to Panama, it became clear that “Se Vende,” for sale, is now a national theme. Huge billboards tout “Lo Ultimo en Lotes!” and block the views of Panama’s lush green mountainsides. Even larger signs and flags for this year’s presidential election interrupt beachside condo ads.
With a rental car, we traveled west from Panama City toward David, a winter escape to the white sand Pacific beaches of Santa Clara and black sand at Santa Catalina, a tiny town adored by surfers and backpackers arriving on the daily buses. Just outside of town, however, a new small airport is being built.
Mike and Michele Shogren, an enterprising American couple from Alaska with comfortable cabanas at La Buena Vida, just shake their heads and wonder how Santa Catalina will handle more tourists. That day high winds had blown off part of their kitchen’s roof and knocked out power … again, closing the only three or so restaurants in town. We grabbed a streetside dinner of fried chicken and plantains from some of the locals who we had hired to take us out fishing earlier that morning.
Although we skipped the Caribbean side and the popular Bocas del Tora area on this trip, no place probably epitomizes the land rush more than the mountain town of Boquete, famous for its delicious coffee and oranges but now home to a real-estate rush of American and European retirees attracted by its cooler mountain weather.
Wander into the Amigos bar off the town’s plaza, and conversations of constructions fees, land prices and broker commissions fill the air. Colorado in the ‘70s?
One project, Valle Escondido, helped kick off the boom after snapping up 125 acres of coffee-growing land. Now, with coffee prices in a slump, the Panama Post reports the country’s coffee acreage has dropped nearly 60 percent, with producers selling out for millions.
Some resorts around the country, primarily operations offering birding, rafting or hikes in the tropical forests, do seem to be getting the word out on the value of eco-tourism, and Panama itself has watched how nature friendly tourism boosted Costa Rica.
Jim Omer, a Coloradan with a home in Ridgway, runs Boquete Outdoor Adventures, specializing in rafting and whitewater trips but also building more saltwater fishing trips into the Golfo de Chiriqui below David.
With this unusual “dry season” storm stuck on nearby Volcán Barú, Panama’s highest peak at 3,475 meters, Jim was trying to keep up with bookings without cell phone or Internet access for days. Just part of business in Panama, he said, as he set us up on a day trip to a tiny Gilligan’s Island for snorkeling, beach lunch and hammock napping.
Crazy taxi driving in the bigger cities aside, I loved Panama and recommend seeing it now. I’d like to get over to the Caribbean, maybe even to the remote San Blas islands dotting the Kuna Yuna region.
Get yourself a Moon or Lonely Planet handbook, and map out your own Panama adventure. It’s not much more to fly there than Mexico, and once you’re out of Panama City, prices for smaller hotels and delicious seafood dinners are still a bargain.