Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In Cerro Azul - Panama, a Home in the Mountains

Tito Herrera for The New York Times
The ground floor of the three-bedroom, three-bath house features tile floors, hardwood doors, wide windows and a stone fireplace.

Tito Herrera for The New York Times
Rachelle and Ben Smith have owned this home in Cerro Azul, near Panama City, since March 2006. It was one of the original residences built in the 500-home development and is about 2,600 feet up a mountain.

In Panama, a Home in the Mountains


December 2, 2007

The terrace of Rachelle and Ben Smith's home is one of the few places on earth with views of both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. On clear days, they sit there and watch the ships line up to enter the Panama Canal.

The area is also something of a bird paradise. Ornithologists regularly lead tours through the valleys, hoping for glimpses of the toucans, migratory birds and rare hummingbirds that regularly visit the treetops in the Smiths' backyard.

"The rope across there is for the monkeys," Mr. Smith said, pointing to ropes strung through the tall pines around the house, near platforms covered with sliced bananas and bird feed.

The couple paid $150,000 in March 2006 for their three-bedroom, three-bath home. The house is situated on two acres of land, and it is a little more than an hour's drive from Panama City.

In 2003, after Mr. Smith ­ who goes by "Smitty" ­ sold his plumbing business in Jacksonville, Fla., the couple spent three years living on a 38-foot sailboat called the Seawolf. But two years ago, while they were visiting relatives in the United States, their boat was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma.

Their initial search for a new home focused on the Caribbean and Costa Rica. But then they met Marie Farrell, a Panama native and an agent with ReMax in the Jacksonville area.

Fast-growing Panama is generally considered an easy place for foreigners to buy property, compared with other countries. English is commonly spoken, the United States dollar is the accepted currency, there are no restrictions on owning land in most areas and the government offers a long list of friendly discounts for pensionados, expatriates who have settled in Panama.

For the Smiths, Panama had an extra appeal ­ no hurricanes. "We were sick and tired of running from hurricanes," said Mrs. Smith, 52.

Mrs. Farrell first showed the couple properties in beach resort areas, where a four-bedroom condo with 230 square meters (2,475 square feet) of living space sells for about $375,000. But then Mrs. Smith mentioned their love of birds. "That was it," Ms. Farrell said. "I knew they wanted the mountains."

Mountain property in Panama is much less expensive than the coast and offers lush tropical landscapes, albeit without the sandy beaches. A new three-bedroom house with 225 square meters (2,400 square feet) of living space in Boquete, an area in the north popular with expatriates, sells for around $265,000.

Cerro Azul, the community where the Smiths bought their home, was first developed a generation ago as a retreat for wealthy Panamanians, Mrs. Farrell said. Most of the land in the area is owned by the Melo family, which made its fortune in Panama's poultry industry.

Today the narrow two-lane road that goes up the mountain is still lined with well-tended chicken ranches. Children on the side of the road sell bundles of nance, the little yellow fruit common in the local valleys.

Near the top of the mountain, where the elevation is 2,600 feet, there is a gate and security guard at the entrance to the development; it is another 15 minutes on a narrow winding road to the Smiths' house.

Although there are 500 homes on the property, there are only 50 full-time residents ­ mostly Americans and Canadians ­ plus a country club, a pool, tennis and basketball courts and a small restaurant. Many of the houses are empty or run-down; wealthy Panama City residents these days prefer the cool mountain air of the fast-growing resort areas in the north.

The Smiths' house was one of the original "Melo homes," owned by the family, and was clearly well maintained over the years. Beyond the $13,000 that they spent on a garage and the terrace, including a concrete barbecue, they have done little work on the 2,200-square-foot house, which they bought furnished.

The ground floor has tile floors, hardwood doors, wide windows and a stone fireplace. The second story has the feel of a cozy loft, with dark wood floors and a small veranda with panoramic views off the main bedroom, where Mrs. Smith has put her favorite rocking chair.

"The shower sold Smitty on the house," Mrs. Smith said, showing off the master bathroom's wide window and its views to the Pacific and Panama City. "The very first thing we did was get a 40-gallon propane hot water heater."

Shipping their possessions ­ including a car and assorted dogs and cats ­ to Panama proved to be easy. But it took months of bureaucratic hurdles to gain admittance for their parrot, Morgan, due to concerns about avian flu. "No one knew the law," said Ms. Farrell, who ended up as the Smiths' lead bird negotiator.

Since moving in, Mr. Smith, 60, has taken the lead in the garden. He put in 40 coffee plants and assorted pineapple, orange, banana and palm trees, as well as the begonias that line the circular driveway. He starts out every day with what he calls a perimeter check. "We have several types of ants that would take over if we let them," he said.

A few nights earlier they had spotted a black panther ambling across the back lawn. Snakes of various sizes and shapes, as well as tarantulas and scorpions, are common. At night they can hear the howler monkeys in the valley.

Although both spoke little Spanish when they arrived, they have found it easy to live in Panama, where many of the locals speak at least a bit of English. They say they rarely go into Panama City, preferring the markets in nearby towns and the small open-air family restaurants in the area, where they can feast on plates of rice and beans for $3. And "it's 32 cents for a beer," Mr. Smith added.

They spend their days working on projects, hiking, and teaching their Australian shepherd puppies how to play with a Frisbee. Several hammocks are strategically positioned around the gardens.

With a collection of 200 DVDs, satellite TV and high-speed Internet, Mrs. Smith says they never feel isolated, although their cellphone reception is poor. Visits from their 7 children and 13 grandchildren help.

And there are always the birds. As the seasons change, there are always new varieties passing through, including migratory orioles from North America, and the hummingbird feeders are swarming with unusual breeds. "If you put a hibiscus flower in your ear," Mr. Smith said, "they'll come right up to you."

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Anonymous said...

Ben Smith,

How have you been its your nephew Dustin Darche, my dad is David.

I see that you have left the states and you have a lovely home and wife.

Dustin said...

Ben Smith

How have you been its your nephew Dustin Darche, my dad is David.

I see that you have left the states and you have a lovely home and wife