Buenaventura, Panama, Trip Report
Panama over the years has gotten press—both good and (recently) bad—as a flag-planting destination. I took a quick and easy week vacation with my wife, and wanted to pass along what information I found. For all of its other possibilities, Panama stands as a good destination to plant a “playground” flag.
More than a decade ago, when Panama was first coming onto the scene as a possible getaway and business destination in the mainstream overseas publications, my travel buddy and I decided to take an exploratory trip. As best I can recall, we only stayed for three or four days, and in that time visited Panama City, Bocas del Toro, and then the Arco Seco (“Dry Arc”) vacation destinations that start about 90 minutes outside of Panama City.
At that time, Panama had good infrastructure, but property was still inexpensive. I recall seeing a top-floor ocean-facing condo in the city, in one of its nicest areas, 3,000 square feet with high end furnishings, for $300-350,000. Also, prior to the crash, Panama offered something that was even then fairly unique in the area: first world financing of real estate. HSBC was giving loans for vacation homes purchased in Panama to qualified buyers. Because real estate could only go up (hey, it was about 2005, I didn’t know better), I was determined to get in on the ground floor. I took a second trip on my own to visit one of the developments touted by the overseas living magazines: Playa Blanca Resort, where one could buy a condo starting in the mid 100s, with 80 percent financing.
I actually stayed at the resort itself, a mid to lower-range all inclusive, and noticed that the condo towers being touted were all dark at night. I realized that most of the tourists were either Panamanians taking long weekends out of the city, or package tourists from Canada, but with access to restaurants and outdoor amenities, the condos were going unrented as guests chose simple rooms instead. While there, I took a few real estate trips outside of the compound, and visited the nearby Buenaventura Resort.
Buenaventura was a mile or so farther down the road, which became unpaved once you went past Playa Blanca. Inside Buenaventura, however, the developers had built oceanfront mansions, were in the process of building a high-end hotel, and had also built some condos and lakeside villas. I remember thinking that this could turn out to be a nice place, but didn’t give it much thought when I left Panama.
For more than a decade, I never made it back to the country. There was no real reason for my absence, other than the fact that there were plenty more places around the world to explore. I’d never quite figured out where I’d bring my wife, either. Bocas del Toro was a hassle to get to, Panama City was interesting, but frankly I didn’t think either would hold our interests for a week. But every year, I’d plan at least one trip, usually in the winter, with my wife, somewhere overseas, and each year, I’d give her a few different options to choose from.
This year, we decided to travel in the summer because our winter was busy, and again, I gave my wife a half-dozen or so choices. Typically, with our limited time, we want a place that allows us to relax in a fairly private setting, but with options for physical activity—sports, gym, swimming, etc. I decided to throw in Panama—and Buenaventura—as an option, but figured she’d choose something else—perhaps Punta Cana or Nicaragua, where we’d gone before. My wife chose Panama to see something new, and because she liked what she saw in Buenaventura.
We were attracted to the solitude it seemed to offer, the beauty, and also the opportunities for activity such as swimming, biking, and walking on the beach. We looked at options in Buenaventura both in vrbo.com and Airbnb.com. There were a number of options, from lakeside houses to one beachfront villa and many oceanfront condos. We settled on a condo in an oceanfront building that was part of the phase of Buenaventura called Puntarena Ocean Village.
The development boasted a golf course, tennis courts, a JW Marriott hotel, a number of pools, a beach club, a few gyms, and a couple of miles of beach.
Something not to be discounted for a playground is the ease in getting to the location, and while it was not difficult to get there, it took all of an early, long day. We left our home airport, flew into Miami, then to Panama City, then had a private driver take us the 90 minutes to Coronado where our rental car awaited us. From Coronado we drove to the development, but not before stopping to get groceries. Inside the development it took us a little bit to find the right building—because this was more a development than a resort, there was no concierge to help us find our way. Eventually we made it, though we were too tired to go to the restaurants and instead just ate some of the food we got from the grocery store.
There are two things to understand about this resort that set the tone for our week. First, is the demographics. Buenaventura appears to be a high end resort—perhaps the poshest in Panama—for wealthy Panamanians, primarily city dwellers from what I could tell.
Second, I unwittingly set our vacation during Panama’s low-season: what they call winter, which is wet season. What this meant was that the weather was generally overcast, with rain coming for a couple of hours every day.
The resort was sparsely populated on the weekends, and a ghost town during the week. This turned out to be a mixed blessing. On the downside, all of the advertised restaurants were shut down during most of the week. On the upside, however, it felt like we had almost the entire development to ourselves.
We spent our first full day just walking and bike riding around the development, and getting the lay of the land. The bulk of the people we saw were workers, manicuring the evergreen vegetation, repairing homes, taking out trash, etc. There were a few visitors, but things were quiet. There was a variety of homes, beachside and golfside mansions, townhomes and condos.
We decided to spend our afternoon at the beachside Faro Beach Club, which was pretty well populated on Sunday. There was a large pool, lots of covered lounge sofas and chairs, and small lap pools that were sort of mini-private pools alongside the various lounge areas. Food and drink prices rivaled anything in the States: two mixed drinks ($12 each), paella for two, and a couple of soft drinks set us back almost $80. These weren’t “gouge the gringo” prices either. Matter of fact, best I could tell, we were the only gringos in the club, which was primarily full of wealthy Panamanians. Young adults who appeared to be the children of wealthy, as well as older Latins who were wealthy in their own right, chilled and lounged poolside, served with ice buckets of champagne. Young ladies lounged in thongs that barely covered their surgically enhanced backsides. My wife rolled her eyes at the spectacle, but it made for interesting people watching.
The resort was probably 1,000-2,000 acres, flat, and was the type of place where the owners, if it were in the U.S., would use golf carts to most easily get around. Here, however, the owners were more conspicuous with their wealth, and rather than golf carts they drove expensive UTVs—the types that in the States would be used to traverse unpaved wilderness, not a high-end seaside golf development.
The units were not cheap either: a condo in Puntarenas started in the $400s, with homes off the oceanfront quickly exceeding a million. Even the oceanfront homes had their own pecking order, first with oceanfront “spec” villas on quarter-acre lots made by the developer on one of the resort, all the way to multi-acre estate lots on the ocean, 10,000 foot mansions, with full-time staff manicuring the grounds.
During the week, we decided to utilize the large interlocking pools, with pool bar, that were part of the immediate condo complex where we stayed. Though a sign warned us that we could not bring in outside drinks or food, that rule wasn’t enforced. The pool bar was closed, the huge pool empty of guests, save for a couple of (Latin) retirees, and a couple of Russian women and their kids.
The quietness of the development meant that we had few eating options other than fixing our own food that we bought from a nearby supermarket. But the pools, the beaches, and all of the play areas were our own private playground. Buenaventura had its own separate set of beach cabanas complete with a lifeguard—who boredly checked his phone while my wife and I sat on a two mile stretch of beach all by ourselves.
The condo owners had excitedly told us about all of the restaurant options, but failed to mention the restaurants were closed during the week. They also failed to mention that the adjacent to the condos, workers were dredging and constructing the newest phase of the development—a soon-to-be marina, cut out of a pre-existing river.
Marina units started in the $200s, pre-construction, but quickly went up to over a million for penthouse units and multi-million for oceanfront units that sat within the marina. The marina at this point is just getting started, but is slated to have the first units constructed within a year.
For a lifestyle choice, Buenaventura would merit a look for those who want to live in a golfing or sporting community. It is also a good vacation destination for the right people. I have to believe that even in the busiest times, the development would offer lots of space.
As an investment option, these properties would likely be a bust from a cashflow standpoint. The complex I stayed in was probably less than ten percent occupied while we were there. Given that, I realized that I’d paid too much for my rental. Having a better sense of the locations, if I went back, I could find units with equal locations for almost half the price.
When I first visited Panama, while the Arco Seco had already started to grow as a vacation destination, there wasn’t much else other than resorts, except for the El Rey supermarket in Coronado. Now, however, the towns had grown to include many malls, hardware and box stores, and if someone wanted to live in the Buenaventura development, they’d likely have all they needed for their everyday shopping and supply needs within a 30 minute drive.
I intended to take a couple of day trips to explore the surrounding area, but alas, I was just too lazy.
Final verdict? Nice place to vacate, and I’d come again. If you want a higher-end location, with lots of open spaces, privacy, and lack of crowds (at least in the rainy season) it might be a good lifestyle choice. While real estate in this development would likely not be a good investment, for the right folks, it might be a decent lifestyle choice.
If you’re wanting something with fellow gringos, there aren’t many here. If you want something more down to earth, with “average” locals, then this might not be for you. I think it’d be a fun space to spend some time.
For links to the development:
/Note that there is an English choice, but the website does not appear as up to date in the English version.