Journalist, producer and media consultant based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and the tourism industry. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
The steamy glamour of Panama, and that air of infinite possibility that lures people here in search of a new life is not exclusive to the capital, Panama City. High end residential developments up the Pacific coast and on the islands scattered off it, promise to deliver the requisite combination of oceanfront setting, high-tech communication systems, stylish architecture and cosmopolitan multiple home-owning neighbours. Unlike in the UK, heading to the provinces of this Central American republic doesn’t necessarily mean going without.
Until last year the stickiest property honey-pots were Bocas del Toro, an archipelago close to the Costa Rican border on the Caribbean side, and the cool, misty mountains around Boquete. Much of Bocas is beyond redemption, an erstwhile backpacker haven, now overcrowded in parts, overpriced and polluted after a frenzy of amateurish property speculation and budget development. And Boquete, synonymous with retired North American in gated communities and handy for English-speaking clinics (wile affordable, with plenty of 2-bedroom villas still under the $200,000 mark) comes up short on hedonistic pura vida and tropical Oomph. But Panama has more to offer, and lately, it’s been the deserted Pacific coastline that has piqued the interest of developers looking for space to create self-contained exclusive dream home enclaves.
Fortuitously, the allure of peace and obscurity has also attracted the rich and the famous (Mick Jagger, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie, New York hotelier Paul Stallings and Prince Maximilian of New Liechtenstein, among them), and developers and buyers are converging on the lush and rolling Azuero peninsula, real cowboy country with a long convoluted coastline and a smattering of sleepy pueblos, easily accessible – if you own a small plane and four hours by car from Panama City if not.
The most eagerly anticipated of the region’s residential development projects is Azueros on an 880-acre development at the peninsula’s tip, masterminded by the owner, French architect, Gilles Saint-Gilles, more often associated with the restoration of French chateaux and exquisitely designed Saudi palaces. Saint-Gilles is designing a community; his holistic master-plan with attention to everything from reforestation to exterior wall palette is intended to produce an environment in which international settlers can enjoy a tropical lifestyle in harmony with nature without the faintest compromise on style and design aesthetics. The several distinct residential zones share his trademarks: simple lines, open stairs, delicious surprises: doors and windows opening onto colours and spaces, windows like giant letter boxes open to slices of ocean, an emphasis on local “noble, natural and breathable” materials, curving Venetian plaster walls and inlaid pebble mosaics, all in all balanced and soothing and filled with honeyed light, set apart by topnotch craftsmanship (an on-site workshop has been set up to provide training in old world techniques). Where, as in La Reserve, people buy lots, they erect one of the Saint-Gilles-designed model homes on a pre-designated build envelope selected by the architect and designer wife Camille to minimize impact, maximize views. Exterior walls can be any colour as long as it’s khaki, terracotta, salmon or a variation on white.
Didactic perhaps, but the varied landscape has a real sense of cohesion as a result. And Saint-Gilles is quick to stress there’s scope for personalization. “Azueros attracts a diverse group of people” he says. “While adhering to the harmonious general design concept, they’re interested in putting their own personality into their houses, and a great deal of work is invested in personalising each property.” Some opt for fundamental changes – adding more rooms, one replacing a mezzanine wall with a mashrabiya; for others the changes are cosmetic – stone floors for terracotta, lime plaster interior walls for wood paneling. “There’s a great diversity in the form of each house” says Saint-Gilles, “The varied terrain also contributes to the diversification. Cohesion is not created by conformism and ennui.”
There is nothing so far that can match Azueros for dreamy style and quality, but there’s a sudden plethora of self-contained developments aimed at hedonistic second-homers and young retirees along Panama’s Pacific coast. The first batch radiate some distance from the well-established tourist destination, Playa Coronado, 84km west of Panama City and include the 700 acre Vista Mar with golf course perimeter condos starting from $312,900, and ocean-view homes and smallish lots from $700,000-$900,000. West of Coronado, there are several home and holiday multi-purpose fun in the sun developments like Playa Blanca Beach Resort, Spa and Residences which plans to offer 1,600 modernist condos, 160 villas and a whole town complete with town suites along with hotel, and a Nikki Beach resort which will include 5-storey blocks of ocean-view residences for those reluctant to leave. Those in the second batch, closer to the Costa Rica border and David, are mainly in the planning stages, have a more family-orientated community feel, but include the ambitious Las Olas Resort Community, destined to stretch along 18 miles of Playa La Barqueta with hacienda style oceanfront homes averaging $399,000 for 3 bed, $599,000 for 4-bed. Visits to another holiday destination, Contadora, have inspired residential development on the Pearl Islands which, like the Azuero Peninsula, have the benefit of being both pleasantly remote and easily accessible. A 20 minute flight or two hour sail (if you happen to have a yacht) from Panama City will get you to Isla Viveros, endowed with the typical tropical bounties of turquoise seas, fine sand and palm trees, and soon to feature a cluster of 550 buildings including beachfront mansions, amenities including shopping malls, clinic, hotel, marinas and ubiquitous Jack Nicklaus golf course. Lots start from $300,000 and lot + model house from around $750,000.00. There’s a sense that in meeting the entirely understandable demand for rural properties, something is being lost. Gilles Saint-Gilles’ Azueros hopes to have a bustling village at its heart, complete with artists’ studios, cafes and shops selling estate-grown organic produce along its cobbled streets but, uniquely, it eschews golf courses and orchestrated fun, and instead celebrates the peace of the natural setting. A large area of land has been set aside as a natural reserve, reforesting is underway, and already the air is filled with the sound of toucans, kiskidees, the screech of hawk eagles, rustling trees and the thump of waves. This is an idyllic convergence of high design and tropical living for lucky and discerning sophisticates. Azueros.com, Tel +507 232 5050; Prices range from $500,000 to $1.5 million for lot + house. [Panamaplayablanca.com, Tel +:507 263 9600; Nikki Beach Playa Blanca: panamaresidences.com; Isla Viveros: Tel +507 264-3900]
SORREL DOWNER / FINANCIAL TIMES