Since my first visit to Panama's Caribbean archipelago known as Bocas del Toro more than 15 years ago, I've not been a fan.
When it comes to the purchase of real estate, this region of Panama is the riskiest. Much (though not all) of the land is held not with freehold title but with rights of possession (ROP). Though real estate agents in the area will tell you rights of possession is the "same as title"... it's not. ROP doesn't mean you own the piece of property in question; it means you have the right to use it. Some other owners with actual title could present himself at any time in the future.
As this reality suggests, Bocas has attracted more than its share of shyster real estate types. Every emerging market, including throughout Panama, attracts property sharks, but a few emerging markets stand out in this regard. Bocas del Toro is one of them.
Those two practical realities are as true today as they've always been. They're not reasons to take Bocas off your list but things to be aware of. All investment markets come with risks. You protect yourself by working with a good, experienced attorney.
My real objection to Bocas del Toro, Panama, historically, has been not practical but aesthetic. On one hand, this is a beautiful region, quintessentially Caribbean. Long stretches of soft white sand, sparkling turquoise water to the horizon, and swaying coconut palms all around. Sounds great, right?
In my experience, yes ... until you looked beyond the sand, the sea, and the palm trees. When you did, you noticed that Bocas town is little better than a slum. Historically, this has been the case for the whole of Panama's Caribbean region. This country's northern coast has been neglected as a stepchild. Since the Spanish conquistadores first trod these shores, preference has been shown to the Pacific. The Caribbean has remained under-developed and largely inaccessible.
This is changing. It's time for a fresh look at Panama's northern coast, specifically Bocas del Toro. Here's why:
Panama is making big investments in infrastructure to improve access to this part of the country. The new bridge currently under construction, the third to be built over the Panama Canal, is a $360-million project. Set to open in 2016, this will open up what is known as the country's "upper coast" in a dramatic way.
Panama's President Varela has put out tenders for the completion of a new road from Santa Fé, in the interior of the country, to the Caribbean coast. This will make Veraguas the only province in Panama with access to both oceans. Once this road has been completed, you'll be able to enjoy breakfast on the Pacific with a view of the ocean, lunch in the cooler mountainous region of Santa Fé, and dinner on the Caribbean.
The canal expansion will increase the opportunity for cruise lines stopping in Bocas, Río Belén, and Portobelo, Panama's three main Caribbean destinations, and the country's tourism authority is in active talks with cruise lines about expanding their offerings along this coast.
In addition, a plan is being discussed to build a highway from Colón to Bocas, running parallel to the Pan-American Highway. This is some years away; however, when Panama says it's going to build a road, it builds a road. This isn't Costa Rica, where new infrastructure projects are discussed and deferred for years and years or even decades. Panama's infrastructure track record is stellar and like nothing I've witnessed anywhere else in the region.
Meantime, new developments are coming online in Bocas, specifically, that are of a much higher standard than anything built anywhere along this country's Caribbean coast in the past. These new projects are stunningly beautiful with lots to do, all supported by five-star service.
In addition, President Varela has targeted Colón for renewal. To date, efforts to resurrect this seriously down-at-the-heels harbor city have failed. However, Varela wants to focus investor attention on Colón in the way that it has been focused on the country's other colonial sector, Casco Viejo, over the past decade-and-a-half. He's committed $600 million to the effort.
The first step, as in Casco, is to relocate the squatters. The government is building 5,000 new homes where they intend to move any in residence illegally or unofficially. The second step will be to try to jump-start renovation of the old colonial structures at the heart of this city, starting at the ocean and extending 16 blocks back. This two-square-mile area will become a tax-free zone.
As I said, time for a new look at a part of Panama I've historically written off. This Caribbean coast currently holds out some of the most interesting opportunities for travel, for lifestyle, and for investment in the country and, indeed, the region.