Everyone has pretty much the same vision of the perfect tropical paradise: gently swaying palm trees; magnificent, fiery sunsets; your toes in powdery white sand; wading into clear, warm waters.
But what if it's just too darned hot?
Perhaps not. In the highlands of the province of Chiriquí, Panama, at an average of about 4,000 feet elevation, lies the town of Boquete. Not so long ago a little known, rural agricultural area, Boquete now has about 25,000 residents, including about 5,000 expats, mostly Americans. Here are some of the reasons why Boquete has grown to be so popular with expats, according to the Web site Best Places In The World To Retire:
Luckily, the topography of Panama provides a solution for that. Running down the middle of much of the country are some fairly impressive mountains. And, all else things being equal, with each 1,000 feet of elevation the temperature drops a anywhere from 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. All this is great news for people who want to be close to the beach with those swaying palm trees, but who may like more of a break from the heat.
Paul McBride, originally from California and living in Boquete for a decade, said that, even within Boquete, you could choose your weather based on elevation. "Boquete is a fairly large municipality with areas as low as 2,000 feet above sea level and areas over 6,000 feet," said McBride. "If you get over 3,000 feet, you're going to have a distinct cooling off at night (roughly in the 60's F). That's sweater weather."
Having cooler weather has other benefits as well, including, according to Roger Pentecost, who moved from England to Canada and then to Boquete, fewer bugs. "The bugs around here are not a biting kind," explained Pentecost. "We eat out on our patio morning and evening with no problem."
Another great geographical advantage enjoyed by the people of Boquete is that, even though it is in the mountains, you can drive south to a beautiful Pacific beach in less than an hour. If you would rather be at a Caribbean beach, you can do that as well, by driving north. In about 3 ½ hours by car, you can be on a ferry on the Caribbean side of the country, on your way to Bocas del Toro, complete with Caribbean culture and islands dotting the horizon.
No description of life in Boquete would be complete without highlighting the expat community. Of all the areas covered by Best Places In The World To Retire, Boquete has by far the most energetic, organized, caring, civic-minded and charitable group of expats. There are many, many leaders and volunteers, but space limitations allow us to highlight just three of them. Still, you'll get an idea of the people and the activities in the area.
- Phil McGuigan used to be a very successful attorney in Chicago, and now, in McGuigan's words, he's "a proud Boquetanian." McGuigan heads up Chiriquí United, an umbrella organization of nine humanitarian organizations. McGuigan works tirelessly (even though he is supposed to be retired) procuring and bringing in truckloads of supplies to local school children and others in need.
- Penny Barrett used to be a corporate executive and successful entrepreneur in Michigan. Now she helps to lead Bid4Boquete, an all-volunteer organization that, among other activities, holds a very well-attended auction that raises money for 11 groups providing help for the needy.
- When the expats in Boquete see a problem, they organize to address it. One such problem (which is extremely common in Third World locations) is the existence of uncared-for dogs and other pets. Alicia McGuigan and the organization she helps to lead, Amigos de Animales, have spayed or neutered more than 4,000 cats and dogs and have promoted general animal welfare. Their model is now being applied elsewhere.
Mike Vuytowecz, originally from San Diego, said neighbors in Boquete vary depending on where you choose to live. "You can live in a gated community that tends to cater toward a worldly mix of part-time and full- time homeowners, or in a Panamanian neighborhood, or in the middle of nowhere where you may not have any neighbors at all," said Vuytowecz.
For a different perspective, it's worthwhile to speak with Panamanians, to see how they view the expats in their town. Here's what Georgina Chanapi, a native Panamanian, told us. "Expats in Boquete are friendly all the time. They love to learn and understand our culture. If they don't know how to speak Spanish, they try to speak Spanish. They go to a local Spanish school and they try to prepare our local food."
Chanapi went on to describe how she saw the charitable organizations in Boquete. "In Boquete, there are a lot of charity organizations that were organized by expats to help the children. They buy books, they give free Wi-Fi connections to schools, and they gave tablets to the public school. Expats in Boquete have done good things for the community."
Chanapi then gave a personal example. "The lady who takes care of my son has a daughter who goes to a public school here in Boquete. I saw her recently with a small yellow bag with four books in it, pencils, and other school supplies. She received these as a gift from the expats."
Boquete doesn't have sufficient population to warrant a hospital, but it does have a public clinic and several very well regarded physicians for less serious, nonemergency care. If you have a more serious condition, they will stabilize you in Boquete and take you to David, the closest large city, about half an hour away by car.
Paul McBride explained local Boquete medical care to us when he said, "When you think about the local doctors in Boquete, think about a small town doctor's office in the U.S. back in the 1950's. The doctors work out of private clinics (usually in the same place they live), and they really are the first line of medical care for most people."
Phil McGuigan was one of more than several dozen Boquete residents who told us about one doctor in particular. "Dr. Chen practices medicine in a traditional European way, living above his office. So if someone gets hurt in the middle of the night, it is Dr. Chen who gets the call; and he's available. His fees are very reasonable, usually $10 or $15 for most things."
Alberto Socarraz, from Miami, told us, "Compared to the US, the cost of living here in Boquete is 30% less. I have various clients who are able to come down here and live off their Social Security or their retirement very comfortably."
Penny Barrett provided us with some costs. "We do not have heating or cooling expenses because of the climate. I pay $6 per month for gas and that runs my stove, hot water, and clothes dryer. My electric bill is around $35 per month. The garbage collection fee is $20 per year. I buy a year's worth of water for about $20."
Among the issues some expats complained about include limited shopping, dealing with the mañana culture, the heavy rain that can occur, the hospital being a half an hour away, and a recent uptick in crime.
Do these issues balance out? For some people they do, and for some, they do not, but that is true of every place. For Linda Jensen, formerly from Texas and living in Boquete about three years, they do.
"We love to eat the fresh meats, vegetables and fruits and try new foods available here," Jensen told us. "Living in Boquete is like finally being able to breathe deeply and get a full breath of air! We find it less stressful. My husband's health has improved so much he has cut some of his meds in half, and even stopped others completely."