Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chiriqui, Panama...Boquete, David & Boca Chica

My wife and I just returned from a nice 3 day sojourn to the northern state of Chiriquí in the Republic of Panama. It is about a 5 hour drive to David, the major city of the state of Chiriquí from our home in Panama City. We were ready to get out of the city for a few days and also had some real estate projects to check on in that region for some clients.

It had been about 3 years since I made it up that way for a stay of any kind. Our whirlwind 3 day tour started out in Boquete from where we branched out to the capital David, Volcan, and Cerro Punto which is near the highest point in Panama at the Baru Volcano. The third night we stayed at Boca Chica which is a new tourist development area about 60 kilometers southwest of David. Probably the easiest thing to do is summarize each areas highlights one at a time. You also can see a few of our favorite photos HERE that might be of interest.

Boquete is 30-40 minutes into the mountains from the city of David. It has experienced a tremendous amount of development and increased tourism in the past 7 years or so. The temperatures drop 10-20 degrees very quickly in Boquete from what you experience in David and at sea level. It used to be a quiet valley primarily focused on growing some of the best coffee in Latin America. Now you will find many of the coffee plantations being sold off and turned into residential tourist homes with a large amount of new residents coming from the retirement wave in North America. Some call this area "little Switzerland" as you can easily get the feel and cool breezes some associate with the Alps of Europe. It truly is a refreshing change from the relative heat and humidity of Panama City and most of Panama's touristic destinations. They even have trout streams up in these mountains much like you would find in my home state of Michigan or out in Colorado. This area features many outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, white-water rafting, touring beautiful gardens...and I was happy to see increased options in town for dining out. My initial sense of the area years ago was that it was too "sleepy" and small for this city boy. It was quite obvious in just these 3 years how fast the area has grown, with lots more traffic and buzz to go with it. Some of the locals probably feel a bit displaced in their own hometown.

Chiriqui...and Boquete in particular...were hit heavy by the worst torrential rains and floods during the rainy season this past November. I remember seeing a number of videos on YouTube a day or two after the storm. Many of the videos have been taken down for some reason. HERE is one of the most impressive depictions still online depicting some of the spots that are in my photo journal as well. Hard to believe the devastation happened so recently. I was impressed how fast they have cleaned up much of the devastation, but you can still see the washed out bridges and HUGE boulders and trees that were washed down the Caldera River during these downpours. My Photo journal also shows you a brand new hotel that never got opened and is still sitting in the rubble waiting for something to happen. It has also been published that the unusual weather patterns have destroyed almost half of the coffee crops for this year which is obviously hitting the poor farmers hard even in the middle of the continued development in the area.

The first foreigner to put Boquete on the international radar was Sam Taliaferro who bought a big stake in the area about 12 years ago and built out one of the first significant developments here, "Valle Escondido"...or "Hidden Valley". I had hoped to run into Sam while here, but found out he was on vacation in the USA. We did enjoy driving through the development and observing some very nice homes and condos built around the areas only existing 9 hole golf course. I have included some photos from there including the hotel that I have heard is an excellent place to stay while in the area. I follow Sam's informative blog and I get quite a bit of traffic to this blog as well from the linkout he has been nice enough to include.

Hotel-wise we chose to stay at "Boquete Garden Inn"...a small bed and breakfast type hotel run by a young English couple who recently purchased it. In my photo journal I have included photos of our room and the beautiful grounds of the place. I thought it a good value at $97 cash per night including breakfast for both of us. The service staff were all top notch for Panama which most people know I am critical of Panama's overall service factor. The staff at Boquete Garden Inn has it going on...

We wined and dined very well indeed. The first night we had a fabulous steak dinner at the Panamonte Inn and Spa, which reportedly is a fine place to stay and be pampered as well. Again, service was EXCEPTIONAL in this fine dining room and we had one of the best value meals I can think of in our 4+ years of living or traveling in Panama. We both had the Angus Filet steak...I think the Chiriqui beef is exceptional here. The grilled octopus appetizer we shared was also first rate in a great sauce. The next night we took in the Peruvian restaurant "Machu Pichu" and once again we had a stellar meal of excellent Peruvian style seafood. We started out with a huge appetizer platter for two of various seafoods...calamari, ceviche, fish rolls, shrimp, etc. For main course I had the langostinos in a parmesan cheese sauce all mixed together on a half conk shell with mashed potatos. My partner seemed quite happy with her Peruvian style steak. We were quite pleased when the bill came all this food plus a bottle of wine cost us only $50. Unbelievable value! Once again, the service in all these places including the hotel was way above normal Panamanian standards. I was very happy to see that.

The second day we took a road trip back down the mountain to the "big city" of David. I had stayed there 3 years earlier, but it was new to my wife. There is a lot more traffic now than I remembered back then and they have a number of new stores and USA style commercial establishments. There is also a new hospital which I'm sure is a happy addition for the aging foreigners who have moved to this area. As the "boomers" age and retire, it will be critical for developments in these countries to be located very near critical healthcare if they want to sell to this demographic. We are being very conscious of this in our developments we are involved in closer to Panama City.

We had lunch at the "Renegado" (Renegade) which I had read about in a local's blog. It's a small "hole in the wall" place from the outside, located on the main highway headed out of David towards the Costa Rica border...but we had a tasty and low priced quality lunch at this place even though we were the only customers at 1PM. I had their Oso Bucco which is hard to find...especially of that quality. My wife had a tasty chicken dish with a nice Spanish style sauce on top. It’s hard to diet when you eat in all these wonderful restaurants.

After lunch we headed towards Costa Rica on the highway and then back up the mountain but on the other side of the pass towards Volcan and CerroPunta. I had heard this was the new up and coming area to compete with Boquete. Land prices are much cheaper here and quite honestly it looked to me more open for farming and development...less "steppy" than the land around Boquete. There were some properties advertising for less than $3 per M2 which is getting to be scarce in Panama with the recent boom and all. Yet...there wasn't really much going on in this area except a lot of farming, and some nice horse farms at that. But, you really have to like being with yourself to live up in this area…It takes about an hour to wind your way up to Cerro Punta which is like the "great divide" of water running either to the Pacific or to the Caribbean. It even got a little rainy this day in the midst of dry we didn’t get out and hike like I had thought we might. The interesting thing is that when you get up to where the Volcano and national park're only 6 Km from Boquete. get back to Boquete we had to wind all the way back down the mountain to David and then all the way back up to Boquete. I understand they are planning a road to connect the two regions, which would be a good idea. But, who knows when the budget and will power will really be applied to that concept.

After our second night in Boquete we were actually planning on returning to the city, but first I had business interests in checking out a new tourist development on the Pacific coast called "Boca Chica" which would be right on the way home. I knew that the road and been newly completed with blacktop recently, so to me that is a sign of commitment towards development of an area. We easily found the turnoff to Boca Chica at the Horconcitos intersection of the Pan American highway and traveled about 25 minutes before finally seeing the water and bay of Boca Chica. The whole 20 kilometers was almost all fresh new blacktop roads...with nothing hardly along it accept the village of Horconcitos. Somebody sure had some pull to get these kinds of public funds put into that much road in the middle of nowhere.

I had also heard of a new boutique hotel there called "Seagullcove Lodge". They had a nice website and I was quite keyed up to see it in person and perhaps be able to refer clients and tourists to this new place in an up and coming tourist zone. We found the entrance gate which is very private. It is owned/operated by a Spanish couple (who it turns out had built and sold the “Boquete Gardens Hotel” we stayed at the two nights before)...and while Ms Pilar was kind enough to let us take a quick peek at their facilities (which were very nice), she refused to let me take any photos and didn't sound too interested in our promoting their business through any of our websites or even word of mouth. We weren't trying to "sell" them anything nor looking for "commissions", but she was adamant right from the gitgo that they were very picky about whom they allow there...and nothing was available there for "the public"...which we took to include us…even though there were NO guests at that moment. Strange way of doing tourism business in Panama...but we have seen similar attitudes before in this industry between Costa Rica and here. I often wonder what drives these types of peculiar people to go into service or tourism oriented businesses? So...without née a glass of water or use of the bathroom, we exited these plush but "frigid" grounds looking for warmer welcomes.

Fortunately, we found them right next door at the "Gone Fishing Panama Resort". This is a large villa style house overlooking the most beautiful salt water bay I have seen in Panama. Their website isn't as "fancy" as Seagullcove Lodge's, but the place was immediately more inviting and wide open to guests or visitors. Bruce and Donna Skinner built this place about 4 years ago and it features 6-7 rooms and then the wide open common areas all built or finished with beautiful teak wood. Quality and class are evident everywhere here, and yet there is a laid back attitude about Bruce and Donna as well as their staff. At first we felt like we were invading a private home...and there was a small group of people at the small bar out on the patio overlooking this tremendous bay and islands that lie just off of Boca Chica. Maybe we were a little paranoid after our first stop and we weren't sure at first if we were intruding or not. Fortunately here we were quickly offered drinks and use of the bathrooms. As we got to know everyone at the bar (all gringos), we soon felt right at home. Drinks turned into lunch, and then lunch turned into deciding to stay in their featured "Blue Room" (see photos in my online journal HERE) with a wonderful balcony with hammock. After settling into the room we headed for their small but adequate and refreshing "infinity pool" at just the perfect location for viewing the bay and feeling a part of this whole unique corner of God's universe. The lodge features a limited menu of a couple choices per meal...but dinner was a great combination of a creative vegetable salad with nuts mixed in and a healthy portion of spaghetti and meatballs. I had smelled the sauce cooking for hours in the kitchen so I knew it was going to be good. The nicest room in the joint was $125, and the whole day of two meals for both of us, drinks and a bottle of wine with dinner came out to a total of a C-note. Again...great hospitality at a very reasonable price. We also were impressed to hear about Dr. Donna's private school that she is developing for the children right there in Boca Chica. Good deal. Thanks Bruce, Donna, Ari, and the rest of the kind staff for making our last night of our trip so enjoyable. We WILL be back! Gotta go fishing next time...

So...there you have it. Chiriquí in the northern part of Panama is still on the up and coming. Not everyone will like living there. It is a bit isolated and away from many amenities Panama City has to offer. It is a unique combination of wealth living with or next to poverty. This provides a quality of life that I personally embrace. One of the great values of living in an emerging country like Panama is that every day you see great wealth mixed with great poverty...and life's battle between wealth and poverty is evident at every turn. To me this helps one keep perspective about the world at large. Without some wealth around, the poor will never have a chance to improve their lives. They will not have better jobs or get better educations for their children and grandchildren. Yet, I also believe it is important for those of us more "well off" to be involved and expose ourselves to those less fortunate. We can continue to pursue our fortunes while balancing it with helping a few people below us to step UP a few levels. I see this in Donna's sponsoring of her private school in Boca Chica. I see this with our Peace Corp friends like Amy who is spending two years of her young life living with and teaching the Embera Indians English and how to do business or trade with the first world. I see this poetry in motion between the Ranch owners and the ranch hands in the many rural areas I traverse and develop in this country. We are all learning from each other if we allow ourselves the opportunity and exposure...and we can do so without pride or injustice.

Life is good in Chiriqui...whether you are living there...or just visiting.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Take the American Investor Survey...

I am requesting all American citizens who view my blog to participate in this "non-scientific" survey. It is totally anonymous, so don't worry about your answers being "judged". Your views and comments would be much appreciated and interesting to compile I think...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Audit the Federal Reserve

I've been so busy trying to make some money during these peculiar times in the markets...I have not had much time to read or write. I have though been consistently critical of all the knee jerk reactions by Congress and government overall as they bailout one after another of incompetent, failed companies many of whom were at the root of the financial devastation our systems are going through to begin with. The main problem for me has always been government intervention in areas they know less about than those who caused these problems.

My other big concern is the ongoing growth of "socialism" on a global basis that is becoming more and more accepted by the common person as the only answer to global dilemmas. We are taking all personal responsibilities off our own shoulders and placing them in the hands of government bureaucrats, global corporate powers and even religious leaders. The masses are being herded as if we were all programmable clones with no hope but to "follow our leaders" and respect authority. Even the President has to go on media tours and show up on Jay Leno in order to be heard and get support when his own Congress is in disarray on these matters.

In the midst of all the morass, iconic political hero Representative Ron Paul once again sponsors a bill and speaks out as "a lone voice in the wilderness" on fiscal responsibility and the political reality that our government has no money of their own to fund bailouts of the failed...and they are immoral to just commit our money blindly to patching up the dikes of failed thinking and misdeeds. The witch hunt is on to take down all the Bernie Madoffs of the world while not recognizing EVERYONE'S responsibility to watch and manage their own financial affairs. And we are surprised when the wolves eat the chickens we have given them to care for?

I thought Federal Reserve Chairman Bernake did a nice job in the 60 Minutes interview last week in opening up the veil of the Federal Reserve at least for a peak. He comes off as a "next door" kind of guy who really cares about what happens to us and our financial systems. The only problem is, he doesn’t seem to be so forthcoming on how much money is in the system and how its value will be supported. It doesn’t take a doctorate in finance to realize that when you just print more money in a broken system, you continue to undermine the supporting currency and drive up inflation during a time when people's credit is over limit. We don’t need any more credit. We need savings and cash...yet our government and Federal Reserve chairman are campaigning for us to SPEND SPEND SPEND. After all...that is what THEY are doing. In my opinion, they are giving it to the wrong people...but understandably the people who got them elected and finance their campaigns to begin with. What a crock...

So...I must once again join Ron Paul's chorus calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve. At the same time I have to wonder why it would take an act of Congress to demand that. Shouldn't they be subject to the same financial reporting rules as every other institution of Government? Amazing actually. SO yes...please do your part if you are an American to support the bill H.R.1207 by following the directions at Ron Paul's website.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Angry Americans

After spending a couple weeks back in my home country, the USA, I leave again perplexed and yet probably more understanding of my observation that Americans in general are angry and defensive about their country’s economic conditions and loss of face in the world politically.

Of course, one can guess a few reasons in these times why many Americans might be a bit angry. Many have lost 20 years or more worth of savings in their investment accounts, pension funds are drying up with many bankrupt companies and the federal government continues to raid any available funds (including social security) to float its economic ship which continues to sink under impossible debt loads and diminishing production compared to many other areas of the global grid. Our country is becoming a metaphor for the angry and failing child who is hurting and confused as he struggles with failure at school or in sports, but doesn’t want anyone to touch or go near him.

During my trip I watched very little TV or news and instead talked personally and long with many friends, family and business associates about their views, experiences and projections about the future. Most average people on main street America are skeptical of their government and institutions as the powers that be continually raid the public coffers for bailouts and Band-Aids. Meanwhile, many Americans feel they have a better chance being heard by God at church than by their government that continues to reshuffle the deck of economic outlook every other week. Most feel quite helpless about their circumstances while others are trying to wait and time “the bottom” to know when it is safe to invest and “live” again.

Some people (and maybe even some of you reading this) get a little peeved or outright angry at some of my viewpoints about why we are here and what we should do about it. It appears to some that since I don’t live full time in the USA anymore, why should I have an opinion or why should I care. It’s as if somehow to some people you are no longer an “American” if you aren’t residing within the borders. Of course, as usual I argue that in some ways when you leave the USA you more truly understand the differences of culture and attitudes throughout the globe and you also get a bit more objectivity about how our country looks from the outside looking in. It really is quite a different picture than those who live all their lives in their own backyards. It’s nice living in your backyard…if you have a nice one…and if that is what you want to do. As for me, I have always been curious about “otherness” and interested in cultural histories and experiencing firsthand the rapid development of “Globalism”. But even after almost 10 combined years of living outside the USA in various Latin American countries, I am still the “Gringo”…the foreigner…the “Expat”. I value freedom and productivity more now than I did when I lived in the US of A. And yes, I think I DO have some new insights into the pros and cons of America and the “Western Culture” that I didn’t have before leaving “home”.

Back on point, I think I do understand the anger of Americans. I was there a number of years ago when the tech market “correction” almost wiped me out, there were no “bailouts” for investors then, and I had to rebuild and reposition MYSELF very quickly and effectively. The only difference between then and now is that this economic collapse is on a much bigger scale.

Here are a few other “Angry” items I hear or observe Americans being upset about:

• The government is busy bailing out “big business” from our tax dollars. It basically amounts to robbing “Bucko” in order to cover the losses of Wall Street “wise guys” and the corporate elite.

• What is the government doing for the middle class and small business…which generates over 80% of the jobs in America?

• They are REALLY angry about all the free bailout money given with HUNDREDS of pork barrel and special interest items included…along with the big bonuses corporate leaders got from the first go round of bailout funds.

• It took FOREVER for the government to come up with a plan for ordering mortgage renegotiation and brokering deals so hundreds of thousands could stay in their homes. We waited for a whole new administration before Congress really dealt with that issue.

• The administration is making cuts on College and other educational funds while adding to the budgets of homeland security and the Pentagon.

• And the FEW Americans who know this are angry that the Feds have raided once again the Social Security reserves for Billions to cover their budget deficits.

What would be a better plan for bailing out America? A successful and astute acquaintance this past week said that if all these Trillions from the government had gone to each registered taxpayer, we would each have over $80,000 to do our own stimulating of the economy with. Our individual bank accounts would be flush with cash and the “broke” banks would once again have money to grant loans. Many small businesses could be opened with $80,000 and provide multiple job opportunities for the unemployed from the ground up…not the top down. Sure, many would fail, but many others would grow to be the next “big cap” stocks on Wall Street. American pride and productivity would reign again as the most profitable, rich country in the face of world history rediscovered its productive roots.

America’s core problem is we AND our government have lost faith in these values of entrepreneurship and individual ingenuity…and we have deferred to big government and big global corporations to ensure our futures. We have grown lazy counting on our “entitlements” for just being an “American”…and we are slowly coming out of our slumber of false hopes and facing a mountain of doom and despair.

I truly hope that America’s anger can be turned to some positive developments. I hope angry Americans take back the power of democracy and demand taxation only with representation. I hope some wealthy Americans do get their money in productive new businesses or buyouts, even offshore, before the government can tax it into a small mound of futility dollars. And yes, I do think we will see angry Americans taking to the street before this is all over…creating a lot of chaos and panic in the halls of big government. I can only hope that the anger will have direction and be able to focus on positive solutions instead of just destruction and anarchy.