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U.S. Baby Boomers Retiring in Panama, Part 1

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U.S. Baby Boomers Retiring in Panama, Part 1

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U.S. Baby Boomers Retiring in Panama, Part 1

U.S. Baby Boomers Retiring in Panama, Part 1

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Two-Part Series

An increasing number of retiring "Baby Boomers" are moving to Central America in search of inexpensive property and easy living in a tropical paradise. Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama are now home to thousands of American retirees. In the first of a two-part series, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on how the boom is affecting communities on Panama's Caribbean coast.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. A new Los Angeles Times Bloomberg Poll out today shows American's think home prices will continue to rise. Well, that's good news if you own a house, but if you've yet to break into the hot real estate market, you may be wondering what your options are. Well, maybe you should consider going south. Way south. Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, previously known to be politically volatile, are now hosting thousands of home-buying Americans. In the first of a two-part series, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently visited Panama's Caribbean coast to see how the boom is affecting the American's there.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

My first introduction to the real estate boom in Panama happens as I'm standing in line for a flight to the small island town of Bocas del Toro. Next to me, a Panamanian woman is speaking loudly to her companion about how she wants to kick a family of Indian squatters off her land before a party of Americans comes to take a look at the property. The idea that there's a real estate feeding frenzy going on only grows stronger on arrival to the one room airport at Bocas. The walls are covered in real estate ads. They all offer a little slice of paradise, at seemingly affordable prices.

Walking down the street, Bocas looks like a quaint, fishing village. The roads are unpaved, the general atmosphere low key. You won't find any five-star restaurants. Most of the considerable tourism, up until now, has been geared towards the surfing crowd, who've been coming here for years. But Bocas is prospering. I visited here fourteen years ago, and there was one hotel, and most of the guests were research scientists. Now, there's dozens of hotels, and the thirty-page Bocas directory advertises a gourmet supermarket, island generator services, and spa facilities.

Mr. JIM MCCARREN: We used to know everybody. We used to have Thanksgiving in here, and everybody came in and people brought stuff, and it was really nice, and we were all pioneering at the same time. And now, there's a lot of people that I don't know. There's more and more and more people all the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jim McCarren has been living in Bocas for nine years. Longer, he says, than almost any other American. He used to work in telecommunications, but like many in that first wave, he came to Bocas for a change.

Mr. MCCARREN: The people who are coming in have a lot more money, they have different attitudes. I don't think that as many of them are as involved in the community as the people who first came down who had different goals. Who didn't necessarily come down here to make money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the property boom is having an affect on this small, tight- knit community. McCarren now operates a real estate company, one of about sixteen that are advertised in the business directory. And while he may not have come down here to make money, like many other longtime residents, he's cashing in, selling property to Americans.

Mr. MCCARREN: What seems to be happening is that a large percentage of the people are going to be baby boomers. People in their fifties, who have a lot of equity in their home in the United States. People don't have much in the way of retirement programs anymore in the United States. There are no pensions to speak of. This is the Caribbean. If you compare this to any place else in the Caribbean, this is cheap.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: McCarren says he makes sure his property is honestly come by and properly titled, but lots of other people are getting involved in the boom, selling off parcels of their own land, and tales of unsavory practices abound. The local community here is mainly made up of Ngobe Indians, English-speaking blacks, and farmers. The main employment here used to be the United Fruit Company. Open the English language newsletter, the Bocas Breeze, and you're more likely to find news on the gardening club, and feel good profiles of local residents.

But last month, it published this editorial. It reads, in part, "So many of us who came here in search of a more relaxed lifestyle have gotten caught up in the boomtown antics. Stop unlawful land sale. Instead of being the first one in line to gobble up a good deal, remember every time one of those sales occur, someone has been stolen from, probably a Boca Toranio. Protest the latest development located smack dab in the middle of a pristine rain forest, instead of seeing what a great price you can get on the biggest condo." It's signed anonymous.

Mr. DON KING: This place here, three years ago, was eighty thousand dollars. Today, it would take you three or four hundred thousand dollars to buy this location with this building sitting here. We bought a piece of property on the waterfront down here for a hundred and twelve thousand dollars two years ago. We're being offered four hundred thousand dollars for it now, because, you know, everybody wants to be in Bocas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Don King came to Bocas three years ago, and is now selling real estate.

Mr. KING: I am a marine biologist. I worked in Micronesia for four years doing impact studies. The work I did caused a change to occur in development. You know, that you can't stop everything. There will always be development, but you can try to influence where it happens. Reasonably, where it should happen, and where it should not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: King says he's trying to do positive development. He started a number of projects that helped the local indigenous community. He began his building on the smaller scale of things.

Mr. KING: You have the two groups. You have the one group that's very into, I want to go into a real natural environment, and I want to save it. You have the other group that is in appreciation. I see a financial gain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The tension between the two groups is increasing, but there's big money coming in. King says an insurance company approached him to buy one million dollars worth of property in Bocas. And large developments fronted by international companies are being built, offering close to a million dollar homes.

Mr. KING: This is a crazed machine. These people are coming in in private planes, they're being flown in, they're buying like mad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now these Americans who fled the United States to get away from the rat race have found that the rat race has come to Bocas.

Ms. JOAN BERGSTROM: My name is Joan Bergstrom; I have been here ten years. Yeah, quite a while.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joan Bergstrom is an artist who owns a beautiful, four-bedroom bed and breakfast on the water. She came here on a boat and never left. She was another one of the pioneers here, and in her flowing skirts and talk of healing the earth, she's just the kind of person you would imagine finding in the old Bocas.

Ms. BERGSTROM: Ten years ago, to see everything, just small pineapple patches growing, you know, along the shoreline, and the way they have lived so simply here and so beautifully for so long was such an inspiration. And that's the tragedy--it has so quickly turned. I mean, it's been discovered. I am not interested in supporting this capitalistic society. I think it's destroying the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She complains that Bocas has largely been ruined, and she's considering leaving to find her next refuge.

Ms. BERGSTROM: I will move. I'll probably--I don't know where. Maybe Nicaragua. Maybe, I don't know. I'll keep moving.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But one thing that Bocas has shown is this: where the first Americans go to get away, other Americans will follow. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Tomorrow, we'll learn about how the boom in Bocas is affecting the locals.

Unidentified Man: I have a lot of friends that is not from here. Americans and so forth. And I really see that things is coming.

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