Wednesday, February 28, 2007

13 Not-So-Conventional Reasons to Love Panama

By Mona Sutherland

Most of us have already read the myriad of articles about Panama, not to mention the “About Panama” section on the websites of every real estate agency promoting property in the region.

There is no doubt that Panama possesses numerous advantages, including its strategic geographic location, incentive program for retirees and a relatively low-cost of living, amongst others. However, some of the reasons that I particularly enjoy living in Panama cannot be when searching for the most obvious reasons, such as the Panama Canal (After showing my 4th visitor the Miraflores Locks, the outing becomes slightly monotonous) or its proximity to Miami (I’ve never been to Miami in my life!). Certain pleasures can only be recognized after living in Panama as a foreigner for some time.

Though I appreciate the similarities that Panama and the “Western World” share, I also cherish the differences, since they are what makes my life here truly unique and exciting.

Here are 13 reasons why Panama makes life so interesting:

1. Casco Viejo
-Casco Viejo is 100% different from the towering high rises scattered along Balboa Avenue. Casco Viejo has an interesting blend of architectural styles, most notably ornate Spanish- and French-influenced buildings. However, in addition to the amazing views and unique architecture, there is always something quirky going on in “the Casco”! My roommate is the president of Panama 9º80º, a lifestyle and travel magazine about Panama. Her offices are in Casco Viejo and I get an absolute kick out of dropping her off some mornings. It isn’t often that I get to laugh so hard I almost wet myself at 7:30 a.m. Much better than coffee! (Okay, that was an exaggeration. Sorry coffee.)

One of my favorite “Casco moments” occurred one morning as I was dropping my friend off at work. As we turned the corner onto Avenida A, we saw a little boy of about 7 years old peeing in the street. What made this pee different was that he was not facing the wall or partially hidden amongst the narrow alleyways, but was rather on the edge of the sidewalk, practically in the street, facing the traffic! As we neared the situation, we saw a projectile yellow liquid spurting from his body and said, “That can’t be!” However, it was. To this day, that little boy and his “necessities” still put a smile on my face.

2. Wine
-South American wine, from Chile and Argentina, is much less expensive than in the United States. However, who said you can have your cake and eat it too.

My friend and I were succumbing to our vices one night, and went to buy wine and ice cream at El Rey supermarket. As we were checking out, the $3.50 appeared on the screen as the price for the wine. I said to my friend, “How great is it to live in a country where a good bottle of wine is $3.50!?” Then, the ice cream came, and $8.50 appeared. My friend and I were in utter shock and disbelief. Since then, we have sought out other, less expensive means to satisfy a sweet tooth.

3. Sushi Itto
-Sushi delivered to your front door…Do I need to say anything else? If you think that there isn’t sushi in Panama, then you are in for a delightful surprise. Sushi Itto, in my humble, sushi snob opinion, is the best delivery sushi in Panama. Their Philadelphia rolls and Edamame are extremely scrumptious.

What’s even more interesting is when I’m walking to work or walking my mini schnauzer and the Sushi Itto delivery guy honks and waves as he zooms past on his little red moto. It must be a small world after all. Or, I order a lot of sushi!

4. American Dollar
-This is a commonly cited “reason” for why Panama is so great, and I agree whole heartedly!

For the foreigner, especially Americans, it is great because it doesn’t become “Monopoly money.” It is easy to be aware of exactly how much you are spending. There is no labor-intensive addition, subtraction, division or multiplication involved to figure out the price of a soda. So, in Panama, it is easy to grasp the value of what we purchase, instead of throwing away our Monopoly money at any and every chance we get. This is especially useful if you are off to the casinos!

5. Patacones
-Patacones are twice-fried plantain patties and incredibly delicious. I had not discovered them until my arrival in Panama, and I am a self-proclaimed patacon addict!

6. Albrook Mall
-Albrook Mall is a large, air conditioned indoor shopping center that offers a wide variety of discount stores and boutiques, as well as a food court with carousel. Be sure to check out El Costo, Oca Loca and Conway for some great deals!

These stores are magnificent for retail therapy. You can walk away with about 15 shirts for $20. Even if you wear them just once, it’s a lot cheaper than Target.

7. Opportunities
- Panama is like the Wild West of Central America. There is a huge variety of employment, business and investment opportunities just waiting to be taken advantage of. After being in Panama for almost any extended amount of time, everyone catches the entrepreneur fever.

8. Slang
-Though I don’t make it a habit to use it in my everyday speech, I must confess that I get an absolute kick out of the Panamanians’ faces when they see a full fledged gringa talking like she’s from the barrio.

9. Cable TV with ABC and CBS
-All the great things of Panama fused with Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and Grey’s Anatomy. Does it get any better?

10. Taxis
-Finally, inexpensive taxis! Taxis in Panama are abundant and relatively inexpensive, a fare costing from $1 to $2 to most location in Panama City. However, taxi meters are not typically used, and therefore it is recommended to negotiate the price before leaving. If you understand and speak Spanish, you can overhear and engage in a number of colorful conversations with drivers.

11. Cayos Zapatillas, aka. Zapatila Cay
-Zapatilla Cay is a small island located about an hour boat ride from the main Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro province. Zapatilla Cay is astonishingly beautiful, including spectacular views, clear waters and white sand. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorite places in Panama.

12. Fireworks
-Back in the states, fireworks were reserved for the 4th of July, and some spectacles at Sea World. In Panama City, it’s not bazaar to see fire works going off every night of the week. On New Year’s, the entire city, and I mean as far as the eye can see, ignites with the colorful flashes and flickers of thousands of fireworks.

13. Piropos
-What’s a piropo? I have yet to find a direct translation that suits me. Some dictionaries translate it as “compliment,” though that is a serious understatement. Piropo is a word that stands for what men do to a pretty girl as she walks by. Flirt, not really. Torment, could be. Most Westerners would agree that this is a “Latin thing.” I generally can’t stand it and want to flip off everybody that whistles and hisses and yells “Ay mami” as I stroll along. However, on days when I roll out of bed and my hair is astray, I must say that I feel less hideous as I waltz along and still get the “Yeah baby”. I know it is done to all women. I was in a taxi once and the driver whistled and hooted at a couple of women that looked as though they were pushing 70 years old. I’m not implying that they were not attractive, but the taxi driver was about 25! Moral of the story, it’s one place to get an ego boost.

Bonus - The Finger Wag
-You all know the finger wag, a way to indicate disapproval of something. The motion is generally carried out by wagging the index finger from left to right, considered by most incredibly rude and demeaning. Well, the Finger Wag is back in Panama! The best way to say no ever!

Watch Internet TV about Panama on Latin America Real Estate TV!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Price index. Investors look for returns of at least 1% per month.

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By Marianela Palacios Ramsbott of La Prensa

The price to rent apartments and houses in Panama has only increased 2.5% in the last six years, according to the Consumer Price Index (Precios al Consumidor or IPC) of the General Controller’s Office of the Republic (Contraloría General de la República).

However, Luis, who lives in a three bedroom apartment on Vía Argentina, pays 20% more for rent than the prior tenant.

“They charge me 600 dollars and in 2005 they charged 500 dollars,” he said.

The difference in the price variation is understandable. The Index of the General Controller’s Office is based on the weighted average of the properties offered by real estate firms in Panama City, San Miguelito and the rest of the country’s urban centers.

“That percentage is an average of the variations that all segments collectively contribute, but the prices vary a lot from segment to segment,” clarifies Ivan Carlucci, the new president of the Association of Real Estate Brokers (Asociación de Corredores de Bienes Raíces or Acobir), who assumed the position Thursday night.

“For example, the rise in rent in the case of residences over 100 thousand dollars should be around 25%.”

Towards the Future

This increment is not only related to the rise in construction material and the appreciation of new dwellings, but also to the market tendencies that have produced the real estate boom. People that buy property with the intention to rent expect a return on their investment of at least 1% per month.

“If you bought an apartment in 2000 for 60 thousand dollars, you would rent it for 600. But a similar apartment now would cost 80 thousand dollars and therefore the owners are renting them at 800 dollars,” comments Carlucci.
Hopefully, as a result of the expansion of the Panama Canal, the rental market will recover again beginning in 2008.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bocas Del Toro, Panama

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In search of a more "tranquilo" place to spend my Carnavales, I chose Bocas Del Toro. Though I appreciate a good party, I am not one for getting sprayed with fire houses. I went to "La Tomatina" once in Buñol, Spain, and decided that I'd had enough of crazy, water-logged festivals!

It was my fifth time in Bocas (and I've only been in Panama 1 year and 9 months), though my first time spending Carnavales. To learn more about Bocas, check out Panama 9º80º, a superb lifestyle and travel magazine with interesting articles about Panama.

We stayed at Swan's Cay and El Limbo, both great hotels. Swan's Cay has comfortable rooms at a fair price. Also, they have a swimming pool and carpeted floors. The swimming pool comes in handy when you have had enough of the ocean water, and the carpeted floors keep you from tracking sand all over the place. El Limbo is arguably the nicest hotel on the main island Isla Colon. A fews select rooms have beautiful views of the ocean and the surrounding islands. The beds are incredibly comfortable and the rooms are well lit. However, you pay for the upgrade.

The service this trip was less-than-optimal. I understand the relaxed, Caribbean atmosphere, but it was a little much, or less, at times. I am under the impression that the large amount of visitors, combined with the locals enjoying their holidays, created a strain on personnel. Just be sure to bring something to do during breakfast!

Please feel free to post any questions or comments are e-mail me directly at

Carnavales in Panama

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As some of you may know, we just celebrated "Carnavales" in Panama. Learn more on "Why I Love Panama."

When one hears the word “Carnival”, cities like Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or New Orleans in the United States are what usually come to mind. However, the Carnival celebration in Panama City, Panama is the second largest in the world! Not too bad for a country with a population of only 3.5 million.

Celebrated since the early 1900's, the official start date of Panama's Carnival is the fourth day before Ash Wednesday, or February 17th of 2007. However, many people begin the celebrations a few days early. During the official days of Carnival, most work comes to a complete stop (aka. It is VERY difficult to do business in Panama during this time.) and the main streets of Panama City are brimming over with parades, floats, masks, costumes and confetti. The largest celebrations take place in Panama City and the town of Las Tablas in the Los Santos province.

Las Tablas, a provincial town about l30 miles west of Panama City, is considered by many (especially young people) the best place to celebrate Carnival. The atmosphere is more folkloric and enlivened by an intense, traditional rivalry between "high street" and "low street" for the fanciest costumes and most creative floats. A word to the wise - If you do NOT like huge parties with lots of people, water trucks spraying the crowds and alcohol, you may want to find someplace a bit more “tranquilo” than Las Tablas.

The following web sites will provide you with more information on Las Tablas Carnival celebration.

The Panama City Carnival begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday:
The festivities begin on Friday with the selection the Carnival Queen and her attendants. Afterwards, the queen reigns over the daily parade and official activities. Panama City’s best hotels sponsor related gastronomical and dancing events, including: Cuban Week at the El Panama, Dominican Republic week at the Caesar Park and Puerto Rican Week at the Riande Continental.

On Saturday, one of Panama City’s main streets (i.e. Vía España, Transítmica, Avenida Balboa, Calle 50) is packed with people ready for a party. The streets are filled with small parades, music stands blasting salsa and street vendors selling shish kabobs and beer. Each day of Carnival, the streets are filled with people dancing, carousing and socializing amongst each other. In the evening, the celebration generally moves indoors around the Panama City’s numerous discos, bars and hotels, the festivities generally lasting until dawn.

A tradition of the Panamanian Carnival is the "mojaderas" or "getting drenched" with water. Everyone is a target of the numerous fire hoses, water balloons and buckets. So, if you don’t like getting wet, this may not be the party for you! However, it can be a welcome relief after being under the hot, midday sun. On Sunday around noon, there is a large, beautiful "pollera" parade. Polleras are Panama's national costume and thousands of women and girls are dressed in this lovely national dress to march by groups in the parade or simply walk around.

The festivities continue on Monday with small parades and socializing. “Fat Tuesday” is the biggest Carnival celebration day. On Tuesday, a huge New Orleans-style parade, including lavishly decorated floats and people in costume from all sectors of society, marches through Panama City. The party finishes in the early hours of the morning.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Exotic Panama Considered Central America’s Hottest New Tourism Destination

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By Matt Landau
February 7, 2007

New eco-destination reveals that hunting with century-old indian tribes, spelunking through mysterious jungle caves, and exploring secluded Caribbean islands isn’t just reserved for Hollywood anymore.

With its teeming rainforests, hidden beaches, and rich history and culture, the tiny isthmus that was once only known for a Canal, is now making sound waves as perhaps the most authentic travel destination in Central America. Over the past few years, thousands and thousands of visitors have been flocking to Panama, the literal and figurative crossroads of the Americas, and the trend doesn’t appear to be letting up.

Panama’s high safety rating, tropical climate, and retirement incentives are drawing more and more visitors from the States everyday. Condos in cosmopolitan Panama City overlooking the Pacific Ocean for $200,000? Beach houses within walking distance from white sand beaches, $110,000? Giant tracts of oceanfront land selling at $0.25 per square meter? They sound too good to be true, but thanks to Panama’s low cost of living and still relatively young real estate sector, anyone can get a piece of the action. Pair that with its Costa Rica allure of secret waterfalls, uninhabited beaches, and spectacular wildlife to see why the growth in Panama in 2006 was bigger than any country in the region.

“You have to visit Panama to believe it” says Casey Halloran, owner of Panama Luxury Vacations, an American-style travel agency with offices in Panama. “By the time your vacation is up, you’ll feel like you’re on the inside of some travel secret”. With experience in Costa Rica, Halloran believes Panama is destined for greatness, if not having achieved it already. He’s quick to point out though, that things aren’t always as good as they seem. “As always for a developing or emerging country, you’re going to hit a lot of snags. Immoral practices are like snowballs in that once they start rolling, they become hard to stop, so you need to address them at inception.”

Panama has worked hard over the past decade to rid itself of the Noriega stigma that so many people still blindly refer to. The government has cleaned up its act, personal safety in the country is better than ever, and the expansion of the Panama Canal as well as a new seat on the UN Security Council will be drawing more international attention than ever—a watchdog-like effect that is sure to encourage good behavior.

See the nation’s deeply-rooted history in age-old ruins outside the City’s metropolitan skyline. Visit the Kuna Indians, a tribe who’ve fought off colonials for nearly 500 years, who now offer eco-resorts within their own private 360-island archipelago. Walk through the telling streets of Casco Viejo, the old city, where pirates like Henry Morgan stomped and trudged long long ago. And of course, how could we forget Panama’s biggest treasure and undoubtedly its greatest shortcut, the Panama Canal. For a country that’s long been a melting pot of culture, it appears that the world’s vacation and real estate trend-setters are now eyeing Panama as the hotbed for development.

Still partially considered a travel secret, the Caribbean and Pacific shores of Panama lie hushed, awaiting what will presumably be the fastest and most powerful tourism growth in Central America. The country’s capital, Panama City boasts a Miami-esque nightlife, the restaurant scene is innovative and constantly reinventing itself, the ocean-front banking skyline conjures up images of a young Argentina, and the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo evoke a breezy afternoon Cuban charm. “Panama today is hotter than it’s ever been” Halloran says, “and for a secret that’s been kept quiet for so long, it’s about time we let it out.”

Matt Landau is the Founder of The Panama Report, a website designed to reveal the truth about traveling to Panama. To join the hordes of visitors uncovering the secret that is Panama, go online to and decide whether it’s really all it’s cracked up to be today.

Hotel School - Investing to Improve

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February 7, 2007
By Julieta Ledezma

Empresas Bern’s Hotel School project, with the support of the Intercontinental Hotel Group, is another yet another Bern initiative that has captured national headlines. At the end of January 2007, the contract was signed and the first brick was laid, officially initiating the work.

The Panama International Hotel School will be located in the City of Knowledge (Ciudad del Saber) in Clayton, part of the former Panama Canal Zone. Through this ambitious project, Empresas Bern is looking to qualify professionals at all levels to efficiently manage hotel projects, a developing industry in Panama.

Empresas Bern announced that they will continue to expand their hotel group with the simultaneous construction of the Holiday Inn Panama. Both projects will incur a cost of USD$8 million and will be financed by Soctiabank. Empresas Bern hopes to commence operations at the beginning of 2008.

Construction Industry Rose to USD $2.7 million

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February 7, 2007
By Julieta Ledezma

The construction industry has contributed to the economic growth by means of both private and public investment. The construction industry is one of the country's largest employment sources and sustains related production industries, such as cement, concrete, rock, earth transportation and others. Real estate activity was one of the sectors of the Panamanian economy that experienced the largest growth during 2006.

According to statistics from the Panamanian Association of Real Estate Brokers and Developers (Asociación Panameña de Corredores y Promotores de Bienes Raíces -Acobir), real estate investment in 2006 grew 25% since 2005, reaching USD $2.775 million and comprising approximately 17% of the gross domestic product of Panama.

Investment in residential real estate experienced the greatest growth, increasing 10.64% compared with 2005. Although investment in commercial real estate decreased, there is considerable activity concentrated towards developments in the hospitality and tourism sectors, in addition to investments in the port areas.

Iván Carlucci Sucre, Acobir president, thinks that "It is about a true and solid growth, and not about a real estate bubble, as others have mentioned." Last year, the amount of acquisition for construction permits, additions, and repairs grew 7.46%, equivalent to USD $1 billion, suggesting that the growth rate and activity will maintain itself this year.

Hotel Gamboa Rainforest Resort Expands its Facilities

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February 7, 2007
By Julieta Ledezma

With an investment of USD$3.5 million dollars, Bern Hotels & Resorts, Hospitality and Tourism Division of Empresas Bern, began their expansion of Gamboa Rainforest Resort, located on the banks of the Chagres River.

The expansion will include 60 additional rooms, for a grand total of 200 rooms and 86 historic villas that date from 1930. Throughout the planning stages, it has been agreed that all new rooms will have a privileged view of the Chagres River, the principal water source for the operation of the Panama Canal and the world’s only river that flows into two oceans.

The expansion began last December in response to the increase in tourism. This investment by Empreses Bern is aimed at satisfying the future needs of future guests. Work should culminate in November 2007, just before high tourist season.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Happy Birthday Mona & TGIF

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Today is my birthday, and what better place to celebrate than Panama! Panama City has an array of great restaurants and fun hang-outs just waiting to cater to all your celebrating needs.

It was a tough decision to make, but I plan to go to the Martini Bar at the Radisson Decapolis. The bar has a great ambiance, yummy cocktails and sushi! The sushi is delicious, and they experiment with some "not-so-sushi" flavors, such as blue cheese and ceasar.

No matter what you're looking for, you're sure to find it here.

Don't wait up for me! ;-)


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Beautiful Weather in Panama

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This post is a little more personal, but a personal touch to the sometimes stringent world of the Internet, where an algorithm runs the better part of my professional life, is always a pleasant surprise.

Tonight I walked to Blockbuster with Cate, one of my best friends since childhood that is in Panama visiting. As we toted along my mini schnauzer Tico, who is physically unable to walk in a straight line, we began to talk about the weather in Panama. The rainy season, from around June to December, can get a bit humid, but the Panamanian "summer" is absolutely delightful. The sun is shining and a constant breeze is continuously cooling you off. Mid conversation, Cate asked me if there were hurricanes in Panama, and I said, "Nope! None of that!" Another plus about this country.

Cate was impressed, especially since she has spent a lot of time in Florida, the state that Panama is most commonly compared to. Not only does Panama not have hurricanes, but as the visitor commented in the last post, the drivers are CRAZY (at least most of the time!). According to Cate, there are only two kinds of drivers in Florida: The older folks that drive 40 mph, and everyone else that drives 90 mph because they're so frustrated with all the slow pokes!