Panama City’s Neighborhoods: Where to Find Your “Perfect Place”

You may think Panama City (affectionately referred to by its airport call letters, PTY) is just another megalopolis of steel and concrete. But don’t be so quick to judge. Yes, it’s bustling. And yes, it’s booming.

Yet Metropolitan Natural Park provides vast green space right in the city proper. Part of a Biological Corridor along the Panama Canal, the Metropolitano is one of Central America’s last remaining swaths of pacific dry forest. Its home to rare creatures like the titi monkey and rainbow-billed Toucan (just like the one in the Fruit Loops commercials).

A big chunk of the city’s population lives on the waters of a deep blue bay. In one of my favorite neighborhoods, you can watch yachts and cruise ships as you stroll along a palm-studded walk bordering the Canal.

No question: Panama City has its share of high rises.

Yet you shouldn’t feel limited to a newly built condo when you consider living here. That’s just one option. Take a street-level survey, and you’ll find distinct neighborhoods, each with its own character and charm.

In addition to the high rises, there are elegant and historic colonials… exclusive gated communities… ocean-view residences… and “local” neighborhoods offering property bargains you won’t believe. In the area once known as the “Canal Zone,” some of the streets evoke the best of small town USA, with neat homes and lawns and even the occasional picket fence.

Here are my favorite Panama City neighborhoods—the ones worth your attention first if you’re considering a move here.

San Francisco: Quintessential Panama

Close to Tocumen International Airport, on the eastern end of the city, is the San Francisco neighborhood. Several major thoroughfares cut through here, and on them you’ll find everything from cafes and supermarkets to banks and car dealerships. This is quintessential bustling Panama.

Nip into one of the side streets, though, and you’ll find some of the city’s old mansiones, or grand homes. They’re tucked in quietly among the modern apartment buildings, spas, restaurants, and an occasional small school. It used to be an area that only Panama’s “wealthy classes” could afford. But now, middle-class Panamanians and lots of expats fill the residences.

These transplants have discovered what the locals knew all along: San Francisco is a convenient area, filled with modern conveniences and affordable homes.  A French expat I know recently bought a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment here with a large terrace for just under $150,000. The building has a doorman, visitor parking, and a lovely social area, gym and pool. The building is close to one of the city’s best supermarkets, an upscale mall, and restaurants like Jimmy’s, the city’s most popular Greek café.

Perhaps the biggest draw, though, is Parque Omar (one of the city’s largest parks), which borders one edge of San Francisco. The lush green expanse boasts a five-mile track, sports and events areas, and even a library. On the other side of the park, bargain hunters can find central city apartments and homes in the under-$100,000 range (some for as little as $70,000).

Costa del Este: Upscale, Planned

Connected to San Francisco by a modern highway—about ten minutes away by car—is the posh district known as Costa del Este. Filled with elite Panamanians and expats (mostly from Latin America), Costa del Este is Panama’s first planned neighborhood.

Here, the wide boulevards, small, well-designed commercial plazas and stately homes feel like home to many foreigners. But you’ll pay for that familiarity. Properties in luxurious Costa del Este generally cost in the range of $300,000 to $800,000.

But if you’re living in more affordable San Francisco, it’s easy to pop over to Costa del Este for an evening walk, a visit to a new restaurant, or even to do business.

Bella Vista: The Best Bay Views

Head west from San Francisco and you’ll hit the adjacent district of Bella Vista. Best known for its ocean views, this sector includes Panama’s most famous (or perhaps infamous) neighborhoods. Look at photos of Panama’s ultra-modern skyline, and you’re likely to be looking at Bella Vista. This is the “skyscraper city” everyone’s talking about; the first area any realtor is likely to want to show you…where Panama’s first Trump tower is nearing completion.

If you’re dreaming of an airy, spacious condo with big picture windows and a balcony over the sea, this is the place to look. Bella Vista’s most popular neighborhoods, Punta Paitilla (often referred to simply as Paitilla) and Punta Pacifica offer up a charming blend of old and new. In Paitilla you’ll find older, more spacious apartments and homes, many of which are in the $150,000 to $350,000 range. Here, Panama’s movers and shakers …well…move and shake. It’s not unusual to run into political figures, local celebrities, and big business moguls at the neighborhood drugstore or pizzeria.

In Punta Pacifica, the “new” barrio, you’ll find Panama’s most modern apartment buildings and offices. Properties here get up into the $400,000 range. The Punta Pacifica Hospital sits in this neighborhood. Touted as the most technologically advanced hospital in Latin America, it’s the region’s medical institution to share an affiliation with Johns Hopkins.

Bella Vista is also home to Panama’s massive international banking district and the city’s hottest restaurant and nightclub scene. Known as “Calle Uruguay,” this area is always full and always happening. A new restaurant or club or hotel seems to open every other week. With cool pubs like The Londoner, ethnic restaurants like Sabor de la India and swank hotels like the brand-new Manrey, this area has all the ingredients you need for a lively night on the town.

Former Canal Zone: A Lot Like Home

West of Bella Vista lies one of my favorite areas, the district formerly known as the “Canal Zone.” The Zone was pretty much off-limits to Panamanians until the U.S. closed its last military base here and ceased administrating the Panama Canal in December of 1999. Once the Canal reverted to Panamanian administration, this area became the hottest ticket in town.

Today, the former Canal Zone, particularly the sector known as Ancon, is expat central. Don’t get me wrong: The majority of folks here are probably Panamanian. Still, Ancon is extremely popular with the expat crowd…especially with North Americans. Some love it because they spent much of their lives in the Canal Zone; as “Zonians,” this is their home. Others say it reminds them of small-town USA.

Paul Kimmel lives in a former Canal Zone area known as Horoco, in an upscale, gated development called Tucan. The area is just over the Bridge of the Americas from Ancon—about a ten-minute drive. Paul likes how quiet and clean the area is, and he only drives into the downtown area about three times a week. He has access to an on-site golf course, a view of the city skyline, and a view of the Panama Canal.

Says Paul, one of the things he felt was lacking back home (in Hollywood) was the sense of community he’d enjoyed in his younger years. “You would say hi to someone in the street and often get a strange look… Here, we have that sense of community, no question about it.”

Walk down nearly any street here, and you’ll see what Paul is talking about. You hear banter in a variety of different languages, especially English, which is widely spoken. People say hello when they are out for a jog or taking the dog for a walk past your home.

As this area is in high demand, you’re unlikely to find a home for less than $250,000 in Ancon…but residents say it is worth it. Paul, of course, has his golf course and expansive views. When I lived in the Clayton neighborhood in Ancon, I enjoyed the Panamanian wildlife. I was in Panama City…and yet I was in the wet, green rainforest, too. I spotted colorful tanagers daily… sometimes even toucans. Lazy sloths would slowly slink across my yard…little furry agouties scurrying past were nothing out of the ordinary.

Houses in the former Zone are beautifully refurbished and maintained. Green lawns serve as the perfect playground for kids and pets. And though barrios within Ancon, like Clayton and Albrook, are right in the city…you’ll feel like you’re miles away. And that steel-and-concrete city skyline? None of that, here. Most of this area consists of houses, not tall towers. It’s like living in a nice, quiet town…with a major metropolitan area just 10 minutes away.

Colonial Casco Viejo: Not Just For Architecture Buffs

One of Panama City’s most unique neighborhoods, Casco Viejo, or the old city, has a special romantic feel you won’t find anywhere else in Panama. Here, renovation projects chug along aside crumbling casonas and monuments and ruins.

Renovated apartments here may run as much as $2,000 to $3,000 a square meter. For true colonial gems with period tiles and other accents that add value to the homes, many feel the price is worth it.  If you’re willing to buy an unrenovated property and take on the task of refurbishing it yourself, you could save 50% and more on the price of property. Rentals in this area can vary from $600 a month for a one-bedroom or studio apartment to $1500 a month for a nice colonial unit with at least two bedrooms.

So what kind of a person chooses to live in Casco Viejo? Here you’ll find Panama’s “artsy eclectic,” as I like to call the Casco crowd. You’ll meet architecture buffs and architects, artists and art enthusiasts, and people that simply like the idea of living somewhere “different.” Though this is a tourist area that boasts nice restaurants and colonial plaza cafes, Casco can be very quiet. There are no supermarkets or McDonald’s or flashy neon signs to mar the backdrop.

On one block, you may find a cluster of stately homes and apartments…on another, a group of scrawny local boys practicing to be the next David Beckham. In cafés, couples in chic outfits sip vino before driving off in their BMWs or Jaguars. In side streets, women in hair-rollers and cranky old men spend their weekends listening to salsa or merengue. This usually on a powerful boom-box that’s been brought out and set on a chair, a power cord leading into a dilapidated apartment.

Casco Viejo is Panama at its most visceral, where the gritty old city meets the promise of renewal…a promise that’s being fulfilled one renovation at a time. Whether you fancy a Colonial apartment or not, the Casco is Panama City’s “must-see.” Just be careful, you may find yourself inexplicably drawn to the place.

Which Neighborhood is Right for You?

San Francisco: Filled with modern conveniences and affordable homes, there’s a mix here of new apartments and historic mansiones. You’re close to lushly green Parque Omar, and prices start at around $150,000 for a two-bed, two-bath apartment.

Costa del Este: With wide streets and stately homes, Panama City’s first “planned” neighborhood is where the city’s elite and many wealthy expats (mostly from Latin America) live. Not cheap. Expect to pay $300,000 to $800,000.

Bella Vista: The best bay views are here in “sky-scraper city,” which has two main sections. Punta Paitilla offers older, more spacious apartments and homes from $150,000. Punta Pacifica is where you find modern apartment buildings and offices, the international banking district, and the city’s hottest restaurant and nightclub scene.

Former Canal Zone: In pockets like Ancon and Horoco, you may think you’re in small town USA. Not likely to find a home for less than $250,000 here. Still, you can golf, enjoy the wildlife,  It’s like living in a nice, quiet town…with a major metropolitan area just 10 minutes away.


Stay Ahead of the Trends in Panama

By Ronan McMahon
Panama’s Real Estate market boomed in the mid part of the last decade. Shiny new condo buildings rose from, and were tightly packed onto every spare patch of ground in the cities most desirable areas. The preconstruction price of a 1,000 square foot condo rose from $100,000 to $300,000…and then some more. Residents, investors and speculators were attracted by Panama’s stability and position as a geographic and commercial hub.

Panama’s economy has continued to grow. But, it hasn’t been such a smooth ride for the Real Estate market.

Americans comprised up to half the buyers of prime city condos at the height of the boom. That pool of buyers dried up us the U.S. housing market collapsed and the economy faltered. Coupled with that, banks in Panama tightened their already conservative lending policies, leaving buyers without the funds for purchasing property.

The market slowed. It hasn’t crashed like in parts of the U.S. or Europe. The underlying economy is still strong. More, and better paying, jobs are being created. But, you can find fire sales, from owners (usually American of European) who bought preconstruction three or four years back, and now can’t afford to close. Or, from buyers who bought in the early part of the last decade and now need to sell because of other financial pressures.

At the peak in 2008 condos on Balboa Avenue were pre-selling for up to $350 a square foot. Now you can find deals for $170 per square foot.

Editor’s Note: Ronan McMahon is the executive director of Pathfinder, IL’s preferred real estate marketing partner, and writes for Pathfinder’s real estate investment service, the Real Estate Trend Alert.

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