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The Lure of Panama: U.S. Efficiency with a Latin Soul

Panama Attracts U.S. Second Home Investors

By Tom Kelly

If you have traveled abroad, you know the routine . . . Shuffle off the hot, stuffy plane, dump your bags in the room and then check with a local - perhaps a cab driver or a hotel clerk - about his favorite place to grab a bite to eat.

You discover this wonderful, cool refuge tucked away in a back alley and immediately request. . . bottled water! The initial inquiry in any far off place is for that prized, sealed-top liquid which not only satisfies a thirst but provides a sense of security and reliability at the same time.

In most places in Panama, your waiter or host will enthusiastically interject that you absolutely can drink the water that flows from the Chagres River, a key tributary of the Panama Canal watershed. A popular old saying is often repeated: "Once you drink water from the Chagres, you will return to Panama."

For many second-home seekers who have toured this intriguing country, a new saying has surfaced: "Once you see the variety of affordable real estate, you will run back to Panama.''

The Panamanians are a proud people, and the fact that the water is drinkable is a fitting metaphor for their country. This small, Central American nation feels comfortable to foreigners, especially North Americans, who seem more preoccupied with the quality of drinking water than visitors from other parts of the world.

In fact, Panama is perhaps the only Latin America country where you can indeed drink the water and not worry about a negative outcome. The nearly 100-year presence of the United States in the "canal country" has produced many dividends, including an excellent water purification system that is the envy of neighboring countries.

As a second-home market, Panama is appealing for individuals looking for a hybrid of U.S. efficiency and a Latin soul, combined in an intriguing mix that offers both comfort and adventure.

From the moment you step off the plane at the modern, bustling Tocumen International Airport, located approximately 30 minutes from Panama City, you know that you've arrived in a region that is unique in Latin America.

A divided four-lane highway whisks you into the suburban sprawl of Panama City, complete with freeway exits, strip malls, high-rise buildings housing a variety of corporate regional headquarters and expansive manicured homes and gated communities that resemble Miami more than any other city in Central America.

Panama City's dramatic skyline appears along the coastline, with construction cranes everywhere. The familiar feel of the U.S. permeates the infrastructure, yet with a distinctive Latin American flair that is carried by the culture and its people.

For example, you will pay your taxi driver in U.S. dollars - and your change will be delivered in U.S. dollars by a driver eager to show you that the local coins, called balboas, resemble U.S. currency and carry the same value (but won't work in soda machines back home).

The buzz about Panama - an inexpensive, fascinating second-home market - has turned to boom. North Americans are visiting in droves and buying property.

The buying interest has expanded outside of Panama City, to what is called the "interior" that includes mountain highlands, colonial towns, beachfront developments, islands, gated communities, and suburban-style developments.

There are now developments, properties and estates to match any taste or budget, from an affordable view condo ($100,000 in 2007) in downtown Panama City to multi-million dollar homes on the beach.

Tom Kelly, former real estate editor of The Seattle Times, is a columnist and talk-show host specializing in the second-home market. Copies of his latest books - "Cashing In on a Second Home in Mexico" and "Cashing In on a Second Home in Central America," written with Mitch Creekmore, senior vice president of Houston-based Stewart International are available on his website,

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