For years now, Costa Rica has enjoyed unrivaled growth in Central America as the region’s top eco-destination. Luxury rain-forest resorts and stunning oceanfront real estate now characterize the nation and set it apart from its neighbors. Increasingly, however, the county’s southern neighbor, Panama, with its equally impressive natural environment and nascent real estate boom, is making for tough competition.
Visitors to both countries are comparing today’s young and explosive scene in Panama to that of Costa Rica in the 1980s, when luxury hotels, adventure tour companies and real estate moguls had not yet caught on.
Interestingly, Panama appears to be better equipped and far more prepared to handle a boom. Its dollar economy, international banking history and rich indigenous culture are the kind of things that could push this tourism thrust over the top.
Panama’s impressive infrastructure is drawing more and more people away from Costa Rica and the United States every day. It can all be summed up in an image of the capital city’s skyline, where construction cranes for new apartment buildings crop up almost every hundred yards.
The diverse offering of condominiums in the city can range anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million, with the average three-bedroom apartment with ocean or city view costing about a third of its counterpart in Miami. From the ever-trendy TrumpTower in Panama City’s Punta Pacífica neighborhood to what’s destined to be the tallest building in Central America, IceTower, the country’s real estate boom appears to be setting high standards.
Just an hour outside the city sits the beach town of Coronado, where the real estate bug is just beginning to bite. Not unlike the Jacó area on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast, mainstream condo projects smelling of Waikiki are spidering outwards from Coronado to towns such as Gorgona, where oceanfront condos can be picked up for under $200,000. Nearby, residential communities with private beach clubs and accessible shopping centers are offering pre-construction houses for as little as $110,000. Exploring these towns, it becomes clear that the supply for product is far below the demand, spurring a rapid increase in prices.
Farther west along Panama’s Pacific coast is what many consider to be Panama’s final high-end tourism frontier, the AzueroPeninsula. Here the landscape is characterized by rolling hills, jagged cliffs and some of the most spectacular island-studded beaches in the country.
Often compared to Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste region, the AzueroPeninsula is a place of unrefined beauty; but unlike Guanacaste, buying property here doesn’t burn a radioactive hole in your bank account. A 123-acre, ocean-view lot in Azuero, for example, runs about $13,000 per acre, whereas its equivalent in Guanacaste may cost more than $30,000. This might explain why a good number of Costa Rica’s outpriced vacationers – the ones who wish they had arrived 20 years ago – are now looking to Panama.
The isthmus of Panama has worked hard over the past decade to rid itself of the Noriega stigma earned during the military leader’s reign in the 1980s. Since then, the government has cleaned up its act; personal safety in the country is better than ever, and the expansion of the Panama Canal, as well as a new seat on the U.N. Security Council, is likely to draw more international attention than ever, creating a watchdog-like effect that is sure to encourage good behavior.
Everything seems to be pointing in the right direction for Panama investors, the cleverest of which have already reserved their spot.
For now, however, the country and its people seem to be content to keep their secret quiet for as long as it lasts.
Matt Landau is a travel writer and real estate consultant in Panama City. For more info about Panama and its real estate market, visit his Web site at www.thepanamareport.com.