OK, today I am going to see some condos in downtown Panama City. There should be a lot of them, because all I can see from my hotel is a veritable forest of gleaming steel and glass spires towering over Panama Bay and points beyond. It looks like the whole city has been built in the last twenty years, and much of it actually has.
My realtor is Richard Novak (http://www.BCPAN.com/), a florid-faced Chicagoan with a perpetual grin. He’s been in country about 6 years. When I ask him if he ever misses the States, he doesn’t hesitate to tell me that it “depresses” him when he goes back. Says he’s tired of the bullshit from both the Democrats and the Republicans. I like him already.
He starts me out at the glamorous Trump Ocean Club, a glimmering and graceful curve of steel and glass rising 932 feet above Panama Bay on the man-made peninsula called Punta Pacifica. It is designed to resemble the sail of a ship, which it does quite successfully. This is an amazing property designed for people who like a lot of sizzle, flash, and bling, and you get it in spades, right from the minute you pull up to the marble-lined driveway. The doormen, dressed in “safari-chic” Nehru tunics and Panama hats (designed by Ivanka Trump) usher you into a cavernous lobby decorated with a huge Botero reclining nude. Security, however, notes that, even though I am a gringo, I am of low, possibly even sub-humanoid origins, and must be sequestered from the other guests to the maximum extent possible, even though we have an appointment, so I have to cool my heels in the lobby for a few minutes. I’m not sure if their attitude toward me has more to do with my cheap flip-flops or my tastefully wine-stained shirt, but I amuse myself by rubbing the ample breasts on the bronzed Botero beauty (not really, but I admit I wanted to).
We take the elevator to the 15th floor to meet our hostess, a statuesque Columbian beauty named Ivana Humpalot. OK, actually, Laura Luchau, who I ask if she has ever seen the Donald? She says no, because he only visited the property once, though Ivanka and her daughters had been a few times, along with a number of other luminaries like Elton John. I am astounded, because I usually test-drive a used car at least twice before I buy it, and this is a $400 million hotel, the tallest building south of the Rio Grande River, and Trump only came once? Now that’s what I call moxie… or someone else’s money.
We proceed to the 42nd floor, where I am shown a one-bedroom/one bath, 1000 square foot condo for only $330,000 with views of… the condo tower next to you, mostly, though there is a sea view as well, with a small balcony guaranteed to give you a terminal case of vertigo. It’s as slick and sophisticated as the rest of the building, but at this price I kind of expected those extra little touches like electric ranges and refrigerators. But I’m told those are “extras” in Panama not normally included in the sales price. Silly me.
So now Laura shows us the huge sundeck area overlooking the bay, which includes a brace of infinity pools, al fresco dining, and more gorgeous surgically-enhanced women than I have seen since I was last at Thee Doll House in Fort Lauderdale, and I have to admit I am impressed, especially after I visit the fitness center, which looks like something out of a luxury Bohemian spa, only nicer. She also makes sure to mention the 6 restaurants, upscale shops, planned casino, and private catamaran service to an island paradise that all comes with residency here.
The one bedroom is the only unit I see, because the original asking prices for these babies started in in the high 500 range, so the unit I looked at was actually the only one that made sense for me. Except it doesn’t.
I’m a ballpeen hammer to Trump’s velvet glove. I just wouldn’t fit in here. I’m not fancy, never have been. I’m just me, and that’s OK, but I get the feeling that “me” doesn’t fit in with Trump’s vision, even if I can afford it. I don’t want to have to worry about what I wear when I take my trash to the chute, and I don’t think my Wal-Mart T shirt would fit in at the gym. Plus, I’ll never be able to play even the table minimum at Baccarat in the Trump Casino. This is a grand palace for beautiful people. I’m not one of them.
Next up, we see a Bern development. I’m told Bern is a German, one of the few builders here (presumably besides Trump) who isn’t also a Jew. He is known for his high quality projects designed and constructed to exacting standards. Just like the cars? We’ll see.
I am shown a high-rise directly across the Pan American Highway from Panama Bay called the Villa Del Mar. In sharp contrast to the Trump Tower, the lobby here is quite modest. And, instead of Ivana Humpalot, we get Arinder Miranda, a local girl hired more for her intellect, to show us around. The security guard produces a thick loop of keys the size of a lasso and unlocks the door to the 18th floor condo for us. We see a nice 1 bedroom, 2 bath unit with marble floors and granite countertops with sweeping direct ocean and city views for $375,000. It has 1300 square feet.
Next we take a look at the top floor, which has a gym that’s about what you’d find in an upscale hotel. Nothing fancy there, but the view from the rooftop infinity pool is breathtaking.
Then we head downstairs to see a smaller 2/2 unit that has more city than ocean views but “only” costs $265,000. It is outfitted about the same as the first one we saw.
I am impressed with the quality and value of this project compared to the extravagance of the Trump building. In the Bern development, you still get a stylish, modern building, but it doesn’t go completely over the top like the Comb-over Tower. What it delivers instead for about the same price is more useable square footage inside the walls of your unit, which is more to my liking than the ability to impress with an address.
So what does a nice condo in Panama City cost? Too much, in my opinion. For $300-400 a square, you can buy an oceanfront house directly on a white sand beach in America. In Panama, you get a small condo on a bay with a great view of a fantastic city skyline, but if you’re looking for nice beaches, you’ll have to travel east of here. About 50 miles, in fact. So that’s what we do.
We head to Coronado beach, and, as the drive takes an hour, we have lunch at a roadside café’. I don’t usually do this, but Richard says it’s OK. It isn’t. I have the spicy meat empanada, just like my new friend, and it’s still with me 24 hours later. ‘Nuff said.
We have plenty of time to chat, and Richard doesn’t mind sharing his expat experience with me. Here’s my questions, and his answers:
Me: There’s a LOT of condos out there. How’s the market?
Richard: Flat to slightly down, but nothing like the USA. The developers here have deep pockets and can outwait a downturn, so they won’t lower prices too much. But there’s a lot of inventory, and it needs to be sold before prices improve.
Me: Who are the buyers?
Richard: Mostly Columbians, Brazilians, and other South Americans looking for a place to park their money before it gets confiscated by their respective governments. But there are also some Canadians and Americans as well (probably for the same reason).
Me: How’s the crime here?
Richard: There is no crime problem. My wife can walk around downtown at night.
Me: There are burglar bars on the second floor, but there’s no crime?
Richard: Well, there is theft, but not violent crime.
Me: What about the government?
Richard: More stable than the USA. They are spending money on a public transit system that will be state of the art, and there is work continuing on many highway improvements. There is no standing army, and they don’t hate Americans.
Me: Where are the good beaches?
Richard: You’re about to see one of the few. Besides the Pearl Islands and Bocas, that is. The only other good ones belong to the Kuna Indians, and cannot be sold to gringos. Coronado is a black and white sand beach. Kind of like pepper.
Me: What about medical care?
Richard: Excellent. I have my US trained doctor’s cell phone number. He speaks English. If I become ill, I pay about $5,000 a year to be flown to the best hospital in the country.
Me: $5,000 is my deductible. Too bad I’m not on the US government teat like everybody else.
Richard: Sucks to be in the private sector.
Me: How’s the cost of living?
Richard: Depends. I always tell people, if you’re in the store and see a US brand that you’re familiar with, avoid it. Buy the local brand that is the equivalent. It’s cheaper overall than in the USA. Just get on the pensionado program, which gives you huge discounts on everything from movie tickets to medication.
Me: What about becoming a citizen here?
Richard: It will never happen. You can only become a permanent resident.
By the time we finish this conversation, we’re at the Coronado Bay, a 22 story resort in the middle of nowhere, Panama, with 24 hour security, a private beach club, and a private restaurant supper club. It’s a very attractive Bern building on the Pacific coast.
We check out an oceanfront one-bedroom unit on the 18th floor and I am impressed with the wall of windows wrapping around to a small balcony yielding magnificent 270 degree views all the way down the coast until the mist swallows up the horizon somewhere beyond the curve of the earth. The price? $275,000.
Then we see a side ocean view unit for $250,000 that has two bedrooms and is a little larger. Both condos are nicely outfitted with polished marble floors and slick European kitchens. Both have access to the stunning rooftop infinity pool and hot tub, a community center that looks like it’s the bridge of a cruise ship, and a decent hotel-style gym.
Now, here’s the thing. The whole time I’m wondering around, I see just two other people in this giant building. Richard says it gets rocking on weekends with Panamanian families seeking stress relief at the beach, and during the winter, when the Canooks fly south for the winter.
I tell Richard if I want to live in utter seclusion, away from humanity, I’d rather buy a house in some obscure monastic redoubt where visitors must climb a rope ladder to get to me. No point in half measures. But if I like human beings at all, this just won’t do. I can picture myself here, getting shitfaced every evening with a handful of other English speakers at the only pub in town-and for the rest of my life. No thanks.
So I haven’t found my home away from home yet. So what? At least I’ll dine tonight at the highly recommended Marina Marina restaurant (#1 ranking by Trip Advisor).
Not so fast, gringo! Closed for renovations. Hmmm. Well, I’m here in this little plaza right next to the Punta Pacifica, and I see a whole lot of smartly dressed people eating at the Sushi Express. How can the crowd be wrong?
As it turns out, easily. This is the worst sushi I’ve had outside of what I bought late one night at the Winn Dixie when I had a serious case of the munchies. The salmon is a thin, pale, unhealthy looking strip of fish surrounding a (too fat) roll of rice. The avocado-wrapped California roll is stale. The wine is the only bright spot, and only because it served to wash this garbage down.
But the Super 99 grocery store was a nice surprise. It rivaled the best of the (very good) USA supermarkets that I’ve visited, and the prices were actually lower for some things. And this within walking distance of the most trendy part of the city!
So, I didn’t find a good home, but I DID find a good place to buy vino. Sounds like a wash to me.
Tomorrow, I visit the Panama Canal. Stay tuned!