Buying property in Panama is not for everyone. It is an option for those with a willingness to invest the time to get educated, a stomach for risk, and a solid supply of bravery and faith.
In early 2018, Ken and I took the leap and did it.
Although this first purchase was solely on me financially, Ken’s contribution of time, coupled with his insightful advice, loving encouragement, and solid commitment to me as a person, makes him an equal partner in my eyes. If not for him, this deal would very likely never made it to closing.
I marvel at how far I’ve come. When Ken and I met in early 2013, I was figuratively stashing my irreplaceable nest egg under my mattress. In his usual gentle and patient manner, Ken eventually convinced me to conquer my fears and put my money to work for me.
After buying two properties in my hometown, I am now thrilled to call myself the owner of a little bit of vacant land on the Azuero Peninsula.
Despite feeling as good about my planning, research, and ultimate decision, I still have the occasional night where I’m jolted awake by a surge of adrenaline courtesy of my inner demon—”What if you lose it all, Janet???”
Fortunately, almost immediately, I hear Ken inside my head—”Just calm the f*ck down, J-Dog.” 😂
Regardless of whether you agree with what we did and how we did it, there’s definitely some good info here that will help you with your own process of buying property in Panama should you decide to take the leap as well.
Renting vs Buying Property in Panama
Despite my financial fears terror, renting in Panama wasn’t something we spent much time considering.
As I mentioned in our checklist for living abroad post, there were several reasons why buying property in Panama seemed like the better choice for us:
- Between my B.S. in Real Estate, my former stint as a real estate appraiser, and a long shared history of owning property, Ken and I were comfortable with owning;
- Real estate felt WAY safer to us than leaving our money in stocks and mutual funds (which we knew very little about);
- We have both seen the people who take reasonable and educated risks in real estate get ahead and we very much wanted to get a little ahead;
- My plan to open a nature & book retreat wasn’t conducive to renting.
Buying Property in Panama (The Short Version)
Yes, it’s legal and safe for foreigners to buy property in Panama. But, as with pretty much everything else in this world, it’s important to know what you’re doing.
This is the short version of how Ken and I went about buying property in Panama in early 2018:
- Get educated on buying property in Panama (thank God for the internet!)
- Decide on general area to look for property
- Nail down budget and make wish/non-negotiable list
- Search online for listings and active sellers and agents
- Get WhatsApp working and reserve a 4-wheel drive
- Go to Panama
- Check out Cambutal property
- Constantly look for “for sale” signs while driving around
- Call and text sellers and agents (through WhatsApp)
- Connect with real estate agent based in Pedasi
- Tour Bucaro project with seller
- Adjust wish list to match reality
- Remember the non-negotiables/rule out Cambutal property
- Tour Playa Venao project with seller
- Revisit Playa Venao project multiple times
- Meet with with property managers in Pedasi
- Meet with attorney to start due diligence and contract negotiations on Playa Venao property
- Go back to U.S.
- Transfer 10% deposit to seller
- Begin full scale contract negotiations
- Continue to negotiate contract terms
- Find the strength to continue negotiating
- Celebrate the agreement on all terms by all parties
- Attorney finalizes contract and deed
- Pay final balance to seller (before transfer of title to my name)
- Have faith and wait
- Return to Panama to record the sale with seller at the Direccion General de Ingresos/Ministerio de Economia y Finanazas and the Notary
- Watch the sunset from my new property
- Wait for seller to submit everything to the Registro Publico to complete the transfer
- Get notification from attorney that all docs are in his possession
The good news is that, with the exception of Steps #20—#22, the experience went very smoothly. These few steps were challenging at best—and thoroughly exhausting at worst—for a couple of reasons.
First, I think I’ve already made it clear that I was terrified to be investing my nest egg (did I mention it was irreplaceable???) outside of the U.S. The voices of all the naysayers, including the tiny one sitting on my own shoulder, made it tough to navigate through a process I was comfortable with on my home turf. I wanted to be absolutely sure to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ to prevent future nightmares.
Second, all three parties involved in the transaction—the seller, myself, and my attorney—were detail-oriented and headstrong to varying degrees. 😏
I did my very best to maintain professionalism and have grace—and I believe the seller and attorney did as well.
Here’s the day-by-day rundown (AKA “Long Version”) of our experience buying property in Panama…
Buying Property in Panama (The Long Version)
Before We Arrived
Months before booking our flight, Ken and I both spent a lot of time learning as much as we could about buying property in Panama — primarily from various websites (of attorneys, real estate brokerages, etc.) and several expat Facebook groups.
We nailed down where we’d be shopping on a reconnaissance mission in December 2016. After driving the circumference of Panama, Playa Venao was the hands down mutual winner, but we were both open to the Azuero Peninsula in general.
We were primarily looking for vacant land—not because we were excited about the prospect of building in a foreign country, but because we didn’t want all of the risks and hassles that would come with being absentee owners of a house until we moved to Panama in three years.
As I shared in our Expat Living in Central America post, trees (with monkeys), ocean, and privacy were our non-negotiables. Our hope was to have about 3-5 relatively remote acres.
I was clear on what I could afford to pay for land and still have enough left to build.
Ken was in charge of pre-arrival online shopping. He found one particularly tantalizing property listing—a 2-1/2 acre parcel of vacant land in the tiny surfing community of Cambutal. The American who answered Ken’s email made arrangements for us to meet his “guy in Panama” on our upcoming visit.
Day 1 — Explore the Azuero Peninsula
Of course, Playa Venao was our home base. We hit the ground driving right after breakfast, starting with exploring more of Playa Venao and checking out two other nearby surfing communities: Guanico and Cambutal.
Guanico is pretty much just a small cluster of surf camps and hostels, so it was a quick visit.
Further down the road is Cambutal, a quiet one-road haven for seasoned surfers, yoga enthusiasts and avid fishermen. The road is lined with several boutique hotels and restaurants, a few hostels, a peaceful yoga retreat, a popular kayak and fishing resort, some homes, and loads of good energy.
The highlight of Cambutal is the popular 411 surf spot. The only thing missing was a grocery store, which was about 35 minutes away in the town of Tonosi.
When we found the property that Ken had found online, I was simultaneously thrilled and deflated.
The view was breathtaking, and I was definitely digging the town, but there was a blaring lack of trees (and monkeys) and I was pretty sure this good-sized chunk of Paradise was going to be way beyond my budget.
Cambutal is deceiving—when you come to the end of town, it’s easy to believe you’ve hit the end of the road. Not true—IF you have a 4-wheel drive!
The road goes on , winding between a stunning coastline and lush farmland for quite a ways. Every so often you come across a simple dream house right on the beach.
The further we drove, the more lush it got. We jotted down phone numbers and chatted with a landowner who flagged us down to tell us about his future project.
Our conclusions? Our love for Playa Venao was solid, Guanico was great to visit but not a fit for living, and we had a big crush on Cambutal.
Tomorrow we would meet with the “Panama guy” at his place near Playa Venao and get the full scoop on the Cambutal property.
Day 2 — Meet Seller #1
Today we found our very regular selves chatting with four fascinating people at a quaint oceanfront compound near Playa Venao.
The “Panama guy” and his wife, also known as José and Mara, were our hosts; our fellow guests were two American women who were both here scoping out various opportunities.
José is a Panamanian who went to school in Australia and the U.S., worked as an investment banker in Boston for a number of years, and speaks better English than us. He’s a non-stop thinker with a passionate entrepreneurial spirit and giant philanthropic heart.
To the soundtrack of crashing waves, José shared his vision for the Cambutal property—the 2-1/2 acre parcel (1 hectare) was going to be subdivided into 10 lots for the eventual construction of custom homes (😫). The plot plan was already complete and grading was about to start.
Although this was very different from the vision I had for our living situation in Panama, that view, our crush, Ken’s inner surfer, and our mutual desire to learn all that we could about buying property in Panama had us making plans to meet up with the group in Cambutal the next day to tour the property.
After we left, we checked out a few other properties Ken had found online that were close by where we were staying. The fact that they seemed overpriced and didn’t excite us in the least had us a bit worried.
Day 3 — View Property #1 & Contact Real Estate Agents
Grading had indeed started on the Cambutal property.
As we walked around, José pointed out the various lots and steered us toward one in particular—the one with the most trees. (Smart man 😏)
When we finally got to talking prices, I took a moment to recognize my keen real estate senses. The price of a single lot would tap me out. My worry jumped up a notch—we very well might have to do some major adjustments to our non-negotiables.
When we got back to Playa Venao, we WhatsApped two local real estate agents—one Ken had found online who was listing a couple large parcels of land not far from Cambutal and one with a gorgeous lot (that we hopped the fence and snuck onto back on Day 1 🤫) overlooking Playa Venao.
Even though he was snowboarding back in the states, Tedd Tennis of the enticing listing on which we trespassed (and Playa Equity Real Estate) responded really quickly to our Whatsapp message. (He’s one of the serious ones!) After listening to our description of what we were looking for, he confirmed that there wasn’t too much available that met our criteria, but there were two for certain.
Within a couple of hours, we had an appointment with a former San Diegan (😲) who was developing two projects on the Azuero Peninsula—one in Bucaro and one between Cañas and Playa Venao. (The latter wasn’t the one we snuck with Tedd’s sign in front—it was a different one altogether on the other side of the mountain, overlooking Cañas.)
Day 4 —A Funny Story, View Property #2 with Seller #2, and a Shitty Lesson
Since Tonosi would be the town where we’d go for groceries and other services if we lived in Cambutal or Bucaro, we stopped off for breakfast there on the way to check out the Bucaro project.
Once upon a time, two gringos walked into a Panamanian restaurant…
The food in Panama’s “fondas” (inexpensive restaurants) is usually served cafeteria-style, (understandably) without signs for the benefit of the occasional English-only speaking gringo. In the one we chose in Tonosi, everything looked delicious, particularly one dish at the end.
We pointed to it and ordered in eloquent Spanish…”Uno, por favor.”
The woman behind the counter looked down, then up, tried to speak to us, then resorted to pointing at the adjacent dish…communicating wordlessly that she was quite sure we would prefer that one.
We smiled, shook our heads, and pointed back at the one that looked so very delicious. She shrugged and ladled a generous serving onto our plate next to the piles of side dishes.
By the time she handed the plate to Ken, my lightbulb went off. When we sat down at our tiny table, I looked at Ken and whispered, “We just ordered ourselves some tripe, didn’t we?”
His lightbulb was in sync with mine. “Yep, we sure did.”
Now, to be clear, Ken and I are seasoned travelers and adventurous eaters—just not at 9 a.m. in the morning. I can’t even eat my mom’s beef stew before noon. But, we refused to let a heaping plate of stomach lining defeat us.
It actually was delicious. If I just told myself I was chewing (and chewing) calamari, I could truly enjoy it…after noon. Ken was right there with me. We ate just enough to hold our heads just high enough as we walked out the door.
Bucaro is a sleepy fishing village situated on a waveless cove midway between Playa Venao and Cambutal. We met Scott Miller at his home at the end of town, climbed into his four-wheel drive, and ascended a mountain.
First, we learned about Scott.
Back in San Diego, he had been an engineer at Hewlett Packard. After many years developing property in Costa Rica, he brought his talents and successful development formula to Panama.
For the past several years, he’s been busy carving numerous lots out of the sides of two mountains, maximizing both privacy and views. One of the first things he said to us—”I couldn’t find anyone in Panama to do it how I wanted it done, so I’m doing it myself.”
For the next couple of hours, we saw some amazing lots with trees (with monkeys), privacy, and views.
At this point it was clear that our desire for 3-5 acres and the ocean wasn’t realistic. The good news is that Scott’s engineering prowess proved that technique was more important than size.
The man is meticulous and extremely good at what he does. And, best of all, he’s not out to gouge his fellow gringo.
We left Scott a few hours later with hope, overloaded brains, an appointment to meet him the next day at the Playa Venao/Cañas project—and the gate code, a map, and a plan to sneak a big peek that afternoon.
But, first, one last visit to the Cambutal property…
As we walked around the property this time, our rationality kicked in. “That view” and our crush on Cambutal weren’t going to be enough for us to ditch our non-negotiables—my soul needed more privacy, more trees (with monkeys), and my nature & book retreat.
It was lunchtime, Ken and I were getting hangry, and the cute hotel near the entrance of town was calling us.
Ken ordered ceviche and I opted for the fresh catch-of-the-day. We discussed the plusses and minuses of the Bucaro property and chatted with the friendly owner of the hotel. <<< Jaws theme begins to play >>>
The gate code of Scott’s Playa Venao property was burning a hole in my brain—we didn’t have long before the sun went down, so we drove straight there.
Once through the gate, we came upon a fork in the road—and took the high road. Within minutes, we parked, hopped over a rope, and walked across the outer edge of a lot.
If I’m being totally honest, this was the moment I knew I had found my place.
The views were killer—prettier (to me) than the Cambutal property because they included a tiny island (which we would come to learn was a sea turtle sanctuary called Isla de Cañas), farmland, mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Having my nature retreat here would give me a serious competitive advantage over all of the places on the other side of the road.
Back at the fork, we took the lower road and found more lots with equally incredible views. After we watched the sun go down from one of them, I did a quick inventory:
Although Scott assured us there were monkeys, I was skeptical. Would they really cross the road? And, why (seriously…when it was already quite nice on the other side)?
By the time we left, I had our top three lots memorized and a bad case of anxiety—would they even be available???
Shortly after we got home, Ken was in a bad way—pale, sweaty and never far from the bathroom. He finally outed himself:
“I knew as soon as I took the first bite that the ceviche had turned, but I didn’t want to hurt the owner’s feelings by sending it back.” 🤦♀️
Day 5 — View Property #3 with Seller #2
There could literally NOT be a worst time for Ken to have food poisoning. I was a woman on a mission and we had a lot of ground to cover in just a few more days.
Thankfully, he is a stronger partner than I.
After very little sleep, he somehow managed to rally enough to go meet Scott. As he stuffed a roll of toilet paper into his backpack, we plotted how I would cover for him if he had to suddenly bolt off into the trees.
Scott picked us up at the front gate and immediately shot me down on our first lot choice. It had recently sold…😩. BUT OUR SECOND AND THIRD CHOICES WERE STILL AVAILABLE!!!
He showed us the best of what was available so we could be 100% sure about our choice. During our tour, Scott filled us in about the project:
- There were only three existing homes so far, all built by retired Americans.
- Several of the lots had been sold, but quite a few were still available.
- Scott had mad drainage engineering skills as evidenced by a lack of significant issues in the past several years.
- Water was supplied by a community well and each lot was plumbed to the driveway; once a home was built, the owners would then pay a proportionate amount for water.
- Power was currently supplied by generators, but Scott would be connecting to public power within the next couple of years (the bad news was that this meant power poles would put a little dent in the surroundings).
- The property had direct beach access.
- Until the lots were all sold, Scott would be maintaining the roads, community well, etc., and owners would be charged an annual fee of $? for this service; once all of the lots were sold, the owners would form an association and maintain the property themselves.
- Howler and white-faced monkeys were regular visitors to the trees throughout the project. (Really? 🤔)
Ken managed to survive the tour (without a single bolt) but, after the tour, he was a done deal.
Day 6 — Revisit Property #3 & Find Attorney
Before we made any final decisions (😂), we went back to the Playa Venao property to explore some more, find the beach (and hopefully monkeys), then have a serious talk.
Once again, we were stoked to have a four-wheel drive as we set off to find the mystery beach. The road kept going and going—and got pretty rough in some spots—then abruptly ended just in front of an opening onto what looked an awful lot like sand.
When we walked around the corner, we were blown away.
There was a tiny private cove—complete with sandy beach and surfable waves! Sure we were trespassing, our visit was brief and we made a mental note to ask Scott who was the lucky owner of this tiny slice of Paradise.
As we made our way back to our first choice lot, something caught our eye. There was a pack of howler monkeys, one of whom was quite horny after crossing the road. 😂
That was it for me—and, thankfully, Ken was on board. We let Scott know he would definitely be hearing from us and started working on finding an attorney. (It was a good sign for me that finding one was not nearly as easy a task as it would be in the hyper-litigated U.S.)
Day 7 — Visit Isla de Cañas & Meet Local Property Managers
After looking down on Isla de Cañas from above several times now, it was time to walk on it. There wasn’t time for the official tour—that would definitely come later—so we just took our independent selves for a short visit.
It was low tide when we arrived, which meant walking quite aways through really squishy mangrove mud. (Thank god we both wore our water shoes!)
My guess is that the captain was happy to see a couple of gringos with no clue what the boat fare was sloshing out of the mangroves—$10 seemed pretty pricey for a two minute ride, but we didn’t have the energy to haggle.
A long walk along a concrete path—past houses and the occasional business—ended at a vast empty beach. The cloud-filled sky reflected on the receding waves making it look like a giant painting. And, there, in the distance was “our” property.
After a quick swim, we made our way back. A different captain was manning the boat—and he didn’t blink at our offer of 50% less than our earlier fare. (BTW…if you time your visit to high tide, you can bypass the muck for a boat ride the whole way!)
Unfortunately, with Tedd—the real estate agent who had connected us with Scott—out of town, we had to navigate the decision-making and offer stages on our own. Waiting until he returned wasn’t an option, so we hoped our combined experience with real estate transaction in the U.S. and input from locals who were willing and able to help us out would suffice.
We were thankful for the opportunity to meet with local property managers.
Robert and Candace Smith of Pedasi Living manage short and long term rentals, primarily in the Pedasi area. They were gracious enough to spend some time with us to share their personal and professional experiences with living, building, and managing rentals in the area.
Their input was incredibly valuable—by the time we said goodbye, we knew which builder to steer clear of, which ones to add to my future contact list, and what attorney to contact.
Our meeting with the Smith’s was instrumental in our decision to keep moving forward and meet with our new attorney, Mario Pezzotti of Pedasi Services.
Another perk of our meeting with Robert and Candace was a meal at Chichemito Pedasieño. It’s still one of our favorite restaurants—tiny, casual, family-owned, delicious and cheap, just the way we like them. For only $3.50, we ate a plate full of grilled chicken, beans, rice and salad. 🤤
On the way back to our temporary home, we stopped off at “our” property to watch another sunset. It was abundantly clear that any doubts and fears I had about buying it were not nearly as terrifying as the regret I would have if I didn’t.
Day 8 — Rest & Revisit “Our” Property
Having made the decision to move forward with the purchase, a day of rest was in order. Ken was fully recovered from his brush with death by ceviche, so we returned to the Surf Dojo beach where we first lost our hearts to Playa Venao.
It was a blissful day filled with ocean time, naps, lunch at another local fonda, and a final visit to “our” property.
This time we found the closer beach Scott had told us about. Playa Raya is massive, breathtaking, and apparently an extremely well-kept secret. We peeked inside sea caves, oogled at cactus, and felt a little guilty for leaving footprints on what was a previously untouched canvas of sand.
And, as if we needed more confirmation that we made the right decision—we learned that that incredible little cove we thought we were trespassing on was actually Playa Madroño, a highly coveted surf spot that is only accessible by boat or through our gated property.
We ended the day making an appointment to meet Mario at a local hotel in Pedasi.
Day 9 — Meet with Attorney & Start the Process
Meeting with an attorney in Pedasi is exponentially more pleasant than meeting one in the U.S.
As we sat at a table on the patio of a quaint hotel, we filled Mario in on the property, he gave us an overview of what was to come, and the process officially started.
There is no official escrow service in Panama. Mario would manage the process and ensure that we were protected and everything got done so the deal could close. I learned that I would be returning in the next few months to record everything at the public offices.
Back in the States
Shortly after we arrived back home, the emails between Scott, myself and Mario began to flood my inbox. This lasted for several weeks—at times getting so tense as to threaten the deal.
Fortunately, everyone’s patience and persistence finally got us to a place of mutual agreement and the final contracts were drafted.
Mario completed his due diligence on the property and gave the green light on title.
One of the most nerve wracking moments of my entire life was signing the wire order to transfer a frightening amount of money to Scott before title was in my name. Mario assured me that all was in order and all would be fine—and I had no choice, but to have faith.
He was right—and Scott was a man of his word, doing all that needed to be done to pave the way for title to eventually be transferred into my name.
As soon as Scott gave me the thumbs up, I returned to Playa Venao—this time solo—to record title at the public offices in Las Tablas.
Final Recording in Las Tablas
Recording a deed in Panama is a two-step process—a visit to DGI/MEF (Direccion General de Ingresos/Ministerio de Economia y Finanazas), followed by a visit to the Notary—where LOTS of stamping occurs. (Seriously, Panamanians have a thing for stamps. 😂)
Within a couple hours, the last step in the process of buying property in Panama was complete—and I was a bona fide property owner!
After a late celebratory lunch with Scott and his wife, I came full circle—watching the sun set behind the mountains from my property. I did it.
Who would have thought my money would have gone from under a proverbial mattress to a tiny surfing community in Panama in just five years???
I was both exhilarated and terrified—a sure sign that I was on exactly the right track.
Time will tell…
Will this be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life or will I regret buying property in Panama?
Will my investment pay off or will I lose a chunk of my irreplaceable nest egg in the long run?
Will building in Panama go smoothly or will it be a nightmare?
The combo of a very strong gut feeling and a solid education, I’m pretty sure this is the start of one of the happiest and most successful chapters of my life—but, only time will tell. If you’re curious, stick around—I’ll be sharing the whole story here.
Hopefully, what I’ve shared here will help you in some way. If you do end up buying property in Panama, I wish you the very best!!!