(The Street) If the only thing holding you back from moving to a Caribbean paradise is your fear of hurricanes, there’s good news.
Like all of Panama, at just 9 degrees latitude, Bocas del Toro is located too far south to get hit by hurricanes. Situated close to Costa Rica, the sparsely populated province of Bocas del Toro stands out as the most popular Caribbean location in Panama for North American expatriates.
So what would it be like to live in Bocas del Toro? Best Places In The World To Retire has in excess of 6,000 answers provided by more than 400 expats who live in Panama, Belize and Nicaragua. Here’s what they say about life in Bocas del Toro.
Bocas del Toro Lifestyle
If you like lush jungle and crystal clear, warm, calm water, you’ll like Bocas del Toro. Many residents don’t have cars; they have boats. It’s not unusual to take a water taxi to your favorite restaurant for dinner, boat home to watch the sunset and then enjoy a quiet, relaxing evening, watching brightly shining stars, because there is so little competing light.
The main town (predictably called “Bocas Town”) is small, with a Caribbean vibe. This makes it distinct from much of the rest of Panama, where the major population centers are on the Pacific side of the country, and have a different feel.
Anne-Michelle Wand, who moved to Bocas del Toro from Colorado, describes it this way: “In Bocas, you take a water taxi like you take a land taxi, since most of the places you want to go, you can only get to by boat. Most of the drivers know where all the beaches and islands are and where to take you for lunch or dinner on an island, where the restaurant is on stilts over the water and you can snorkel while they cook for you.”
You’ll meet plenty of interesting characters in Bocas del Toro. Here is how JB Seligman, who has had careers as a bluewater yacht captain, Texas cowboy, and radio personality, describes how he came to Bocas del Toro 11 years ago: “I was looking for new adventures and a place to call home like Jimmy Buffett’s Key West 40 years ago. I found both here.”
You’ll find a mix of people in Bocas del Toro, from Ian Usher, who “sold his life on eBay,” purchased a small private island in Bocas del Toro and built a house on it, to those living a more traditional lifestyle. As Seligman said, “There are people here who are reclusive, who like to live out on the outer islands. You have also the social set, who are the people who live in town. There is always live music and bars here in Bocas Del Toro.”
The expats on our site tell us that you can get by if you only speak English, but it’s better to learn some Spanish.
Bocas del Toro Cost of Living
According to Wand, “I know people living on $1,000 a month, including rent. If your income is $2,500 per month, you can live very well in Bocas. You would have no problems renting a home, buying your groceries, going out to eat, or doing any kind of activities, and you can afford extra services such as a maid and a gardener. Even $2,000 a month would give you a great life.”
Local food costs less than in Bocas del Toro than in the U.S. but more than in other parts of Panama. Imported food costs more. That maid or gardener that Wand mentioned would set you back only $20 per day or less.
You can take a car taxi anywhere in the main town for 60 cents. A water taxi can be $1 to $3.
Most people tell us that their entertainment consists of getting together with friends, and just enjoying the spectacular jungle and water activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. If you like the symphony, however, you’ll have to go somewhere else.
Bocas del Toro Safety
Bocas del Toro is a small, touristy place, so crimes of opportunity are not uncommon. If you leave your iPhone or laptop out for any length of time, there’s a very good chance it will be gone when you return. However, like the rest of Panama, unless you’re involved in the drug trade, violent crimes are very rare.
Bocas del Toro Real Estate
In certain areas of Panama, and particularly in Bocas del Toro, some real estate is “rights of possession,” which means that it does not have clear title like you would expect in North America. Still, many people buy these properties and many real estate firms offer them. Be sure to work with a reputable agent so that you know the risks if you buy one of these properties.
Your choices of homes range widely. For example, you can buy a house in Bocas Town close to a disco for a low price of $200,000 because it’s noisy, or you can purchase your own island, like Ian Usher. Wand tells us that you can buy a rather large half-acre lot in Bluff Beach (a surfer beach that’s desirable but lightly populated) for $150,000 and build your house on it.
For more standard fare, Aberto Socarraz (originally from Miami) reports that prices for a 3-bedroom/2-bathroom home on Isla Colon (the main island of Bocas del Toro), start at $200,000. According to Socarraz, “For the same style home on a nearby island (Isla Carenero, Bastimentos or Solarte), prices start at around $150,000.”
Bocas del Toro Downsides: Health Care and Shopping
Bocas del Toro is lightly populated, so it’s not surprising that the province doesn’t have higher-end medical facilities. Like almost all of Panama, it does have very basic local care if you have a general health issue. However, if you have a heart attack or a stroke, health professionals in Bocas will do their best to stabilize you, but it could take hours to evacuate you to Panama City for sophisticated, high-tech treatment. If you have a chronic health care problem that requires ongoing medical care or if you think you’ll have health care issues, Bocas del Toro is not for you.
By North American standards, all of Panama is slow, but Bocas del Toro is even slower. It’s fairly remote, so it doesn’t really have the trappings of a sophisticated life. There’s no golf, the mall shopping is nonexistent, and the ballet is nowhere to be found.