This small island group is to real estate what the Wild West was to early Americana. Property law is defined (in part) by right of possession or squatter’s rights rather than by such unnecessary formalities as clear title. “Agents” introduce themselves, unsolicited, on the street, phone numbers hastily scribbled on cocktail napkins pass for business cards, there’s no MLS (as is true all over Panama), and everyone has a “cousin” with land for sale. You can tell who the rube is here. He’s the one asking to buy property in this circus atmosphere. He’s me.
The only competent real estate agent in town is on vacation, so I’m out on a boat with two strangers who say they know what’s for sale, and I’m convinced of their veracity because one of them owns a cell phone and the other one a boat, which makes them part of the 1% around here. That, plus the phone man (Abram) says he has access to “all the properties”.
Our first stop is at a parcel next to a group of over-water bungalows. The captain, whose name escapes me, shows me what he thinks are the lot lines. I pace off the width as he watches. It’s about fifteen feet, so there’s plenty of room for a walkway to a toolshed or possibly even an outhouse, but not enough space for anything as extravagant as a Tiki hut.
I think my look tells him all he needs to know, so he shows me a much larger lot only a few houses away that he also claims is for sale. It’s nice and wide, and across the street from a very nice stretch of beach. The only thing it has in common with the first piece of land is that it is also devoid of such cheap advertising gimmicks as a “For Sale” sign. I ask the price, and the Captain looks at his First Mate, as if they are mentally coming to the correct answer through some kind of aboriginal mind meld trick that White Men can never be privy to.
“$150,000”, says the Captain.
“No shit”, says I. “Show me something else.”
So we proceed to another part of the island, still on Bocas, that he says has some very nice Gringo-style homes on them. As we approach, I notice barbed wire and “No Trespassing” signs strung all the way across our water route. Abram says this is no problem, because he has a plan, which is to delicately lift the barbed wire over the canvas top of the boat as we pass under it.
There is a tense moment when both Abram and I are standing on the stern of the ship trying to loop the wire over a small antenna, but soon we are through, and the Captain joyfully guns through the mangrove swamp at full throttle, ignoring all of the silly “No Wake” signs, which are after all written in English, so I’m sure he just didn’t understand.
There are indeed some beautiful homes here, which Abram assures me are within my $300,000 price range, even though some of them feature multiple boat lifts, sea walls, marble columns, and as much room under air as your average Marriott. I tell them to turn around, because by now I’m getting just a little suspicious of these two guys, and I can see the Captain is actually a little pissed that I haven’t signed my life away yet, in spite of the fact that he’s invested nearly $11 in gas and broken several Panamanian Marine Laws in an effort to show me some property, albeit not property that is actually for sale.
On our way back, Abram points to a cute pink bungalow and says it can be had for $175,000. I agree to see it because I have nothing else to do and I am an idiot. It’s not accessible by road and is solar powered, but it really is nice inside, which I can tell by peering through the window, which I have to do because Abram does not in fact have “access” to anything, including perhaps his own home. I proceed around to the front of the house but my progress is arrested by a large chained dog. I notice that Abram and the Captain are still in the boat and decide I probably should be as well.
Now that I’m actually telling this story I realize it makes me look like a complete fool. Guilty. But I will say that Abram was not even my second choice, just the only guy available, and he had a reputation as a realtor in town. Not a good reputation, but still, we were burning his gas, he was showing me around, and like I said my plan on Bocas consisted of nothing more than a three day drinking binge anyway.
I’m telling this so that you’ll understand why I continued on to yet another property with these guys. That’s right. Guilty.
The next home looked like an abandoned facility from “Cannery Row” perched out over the water on Caranero, a neighboring island known for its nightlife and little more. It’s a half finished house, but it does have some stairs leading to the second floor, which provides a great view of the Caribbean Sea. As I’m admiring the view, an irate woman approaches from the dock and scolds us for parking our boat in the wrong spot, so we are forced to leave. I’m told the home costs, $175,000 as it sits, but really I don’t believe a word they’re telling me by now.
I ask to see what I know is a legitimate development called Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos. They agree to take me, but instead want me to look at a home on Isla Cristobal that they assure me belongs to an old lady who desperately needs to sell it for only $300,000. Such a deal! Abram and I walk from the dock to a set of steep stairs leading up to the house, which is really in a rain forest on the side of an ocean facing mountain. Abram tests the stairs with some trepidation before refusing to continue.
Now, at this point, it would have been wise to turn back, because I can see my hosts are pretty nervous, and I doubt it’s just because of the quality of the stairway construction. No, I’m afraid they think maybe we’re not really supposed to be here. But the place looks so cool from the ground, way up there where the view must be spectacular, and as I said before I am an imbecile, so I begin the ascent without my guides, who have proven themselves to be beyond useless anyway by now.
I climb what seems like, oh, maybe 3 vertical miles before I summit in front of the kind of home that Tarzan would admire if he didn’t live in a tree. It’s actually 2 homes, and of course it’s off grid and without air conditioning of any kind, which is kind of a big deal when you live in a steamy tropical jungle. I walk around the place, yelling hello so that I am hopefully not shot for trespassing, before deciding that I really must be crazy and should just go. On my way back down, I notice a palm-covered shack that remarkably conceals a huge winch, which is attached to a kind of inclined cable car, which I’m sure makes it much easier for the old woman (who supposedly lives here) to haul groceries when she needs to get up the steep slope. So of course I try to get it to work so I can save some energy and possibly my life walking back down, since Abram is right about the state of repair of the stairs, but naturally it doesn’t work, having been abandoned to the jungle probably since at least the Carter administration.
By now, Abram and the Captain are yelling for me to come back, and I’m a little concerned this may be because the Coast Guard has arrested them for trespassing or because they are being assaulted by pirates, so I head back down. I arrive safely and without incident back at the dock, and I ask that we return to Bocas.
When we arrive, I give the Captain $20 for his trouble, an amount I don’t think he likes, but in my opinion is still far more than what his expertise and effort has been worth. I tell them goodbye rather than see you later.
That evening, pondering this little exercise in futility over a bottle of cheap merlot, I devise a plan to go to Red Frog Beach directly and talk to the salesperson on the site myself. I don’t need no stinkin’ middle man, after all, especially characters as shady as Abram and the Captain.
So I leave for Red Frog the next day on my own nickel, ponying up only $5 for the ride. On the way in to dock, we pass by some impressive looking vessels at the marina, which is a good sign, especially after the gnarly mangrove swamps I was forced to fight through the day before.
I’m met by Christopher Hahn, who is a partner in the development, and he wastes no time in hustling me over to the beachfront restaurant, where I give him my parameters. He shows me around in a golf cart, and what I see is very impressive, because in addition to the brick lined streets, beautiful beaches, and terraced rows of nearly new homes stepping up the sides of the hills, they have already put in such expensive and important infrastructure improvements as their own diesel power, water plant, and sewer system, so this place is not just a gleam in the developer’s eye, but a real operation already going in to Phase II.
In fact, it’s so nice, I doubt it’s in my price range, and that’s pretty close to being correct, because the only thing he can show me are some very cool looking Balinese bungalows that feature synthetic thatched roofs and magnificent ocean views for $315,000-$325,000. He claims these are selling fast, and I can see why, but they’re not for me, having A/C only in the bedrooms and featuring only one bath which you can only access by going outside of the house and reentering a different door. That’s a little more rustic than I’d imagined in this price range, and I’m actually a long walk from the ocean here.
He also shows me a resale home with no view except the jungle, but it is beautiful inside and out and features a very nice little splash pool for $450,000. One thing I should mention is that this place had a strong musty smell even though the air was running. That may be because this was one of the first units built back when the development came to a halt due to a worker’s strike. Many of the homes were almost completely given back to the jungle before work resumed, and I’m afraid there may be intractable mold issues. Maybe not, but it’s a word to the wise.
So, my impression of Bocas real estate? It’s a very raw market where you’d be wise to pick your way very carefully. There are a whole lot of expats who’ve embraced the laid-back, anything goes atmosphere of these islands, but most of them have done it on the cheap, and I think that’s the way to go here, unless you’re buying a business. I’d certainly rent first, which is always good advice, and keep an eye out for the shady characters who can and will take advantage of you. There is no shortage of horror stories about stupid people, mainly Americans, buying a “pig in a poke” instead of the dream home they were promised, even after they consulted an attorney. So, caveat emptor!