Cerro Azul—Mountain Living Only Minutes From Panama City, Panama
We moved to Panama with the intention of living a different lifestyle from what we were living back in the States. We’re still a young family, trying to figure out where we’re going to settle down, and a constant challenge for me has been the debate over whether to stay in Panama City (where Marlene wants to remain) or move out to the interior of the country (where I believe I’d be happier). So far, the closest thing to a happy medium seems to be Cerro Azul.
This is a mountain town, or really I guess it’s a mountain gated community, that’s only about a 45-minute drive away from Panama City. It’s so close that I’d actually consider it part of Panama City. This is a place where I can easily see owning a home and basing my writing studio, with 360-degrees of fabulous views. I can imagine looking out over the Chagres National Park while penning my next novel or working on these PFR Location Reports. I’ll tell you more about the views later. First, let’s talk about how you get to Cerro Azul.
Getting to Cerro Azul
To get there you just hop on the Corredor Sur, in the direction of the Tocumen Airport, and keep going until the corredor ends. Then you keep going straight until you reach 24 de Diciembre (not the date…that would be a hell of a drive, but the town).
At 24 de Diciembre you’ll see all of the usual Panama City findings, from large supermarkets, gas stations, and local department stores to small clinics, banks, and fast-food chains. A left hand turn behind the Xtra supermarket, then a right, and another left, and you’re on your way to Cerro Azul. You turn left right after the Fucer park (just try to pronounce that without giggling). My wife swears it’s pronounced Fooser, but I refuse to believe it. It will always be FOOKER in my book.
Be advised, there is a police checkpoint at the corner of Fucer Park and the street you need to turn onto to drive up the mountain. The first time I visited Cerro Azul, I got stopped and had to show my passport and all that. This time I got lucky and drove right through, but make sure you have your paperwork or ID ready if you’re planning a trip up the mountain.
Once you pass that police checkpoint, it’s smooth sailing up to the top of the mountain, and you have about a 20-minute drive up to the gated community that’s officially named Los Altos de Cerro Azul (http://losaltosdecerroazul.net/). Along the way you’ll pass amazing views of Panama City from above and many small towns, with mini-supermarkets, little fondas or restaurants, and even a church or two.
On the way up the mountain, we passed this little town where a group of teenagers was practicing their folklore dance.
You’ll notice on your way up that most of the land on the mountain is owned by the Melo chicken company. Farms and factories are seen on both sides of the road, along with living facilities. We found out from a resident of the area that what usually goes on is the Melo company hires people from all over the country and gives them free room and board as part of their employment package. So you’ll see these small strips of apartments all over the place.
You’ll also find plenty of fincas or open land for sale on the way up the mountain. To both sides of the road you’ll see “for sale” signs posted. We also passed a couple of developments, but it doesn’t seem that any work has been done since our first trip to Cerro Azul, over a year ago. Things are definitely moving slowly in the area, but that could mean great opportunity for you. As in so many other towns in Panama, there’s still the chance to bring something new.
Once you pass the Comasa, the one mini-supermarket in the area, you’re there. Just make a left at the following sign, and make your way up to the security gate. The security guard on duty during our visit was very nice, but serious about his job. He checked our name to the list and made a phone call before he let us in. For this reason, if you’re planning a trip, don’t try to do it unannounced. Make sure you contact Los Altos de Cerro Azul at the link I provided higher up in this report, if you want to visit. Or you can contact one of the hotels/hostels/B&Bs and if you’ve booked a room, they’ll get you into the gate.
The inside of Cerro Azul looks a lot like the outside, only it’s cleaner. Being inside the gate is mostly about having the piece of mind of knowing that security is controlling entry to the area and that some added amenities exist, that make living inside a great idea. In addition to the security, you’ll find a recreation center with a pool and tennis courts.
Welcome to Los Altos de Cerro Azul
Los Altos de Cerro Azul is a private, gated community that sits high up on the mountain (at 2,500 to 3,000 feet above sea level) overlooking the Chagres National Park. It’s high-elevation living, with rain forests and wildlife all around, but super close to the city. Plus, with temperatures that hover around the 70-80 degree mark during the day and dip down in the evening, you’re guaranteed cool evenings, so cool that Marlene needed a jacket in the evening and shivered through our breakfast on the B&B patio in the morning.
Getting to the community is easy and as you make your way through the security checkpoint, you find a shaded entry with trees forming somewhat of a canopy over the road, welcoming you to your new home. Moments later, you dip down towards a bridge and come to your first river. It’s a great spot to stop and take photos.
When no cars are going back and forth, the place is amazingly quiet and the sound of the water rushing over the rocks and the wind blowing through the trees makes you feel welcome to Cerro Azul. It’s this quite serenity that makes Cerro Azul such an awesome place to be. From high points in the neighborhood, you can look out and see Panama City in the distance, yet you have none of the loud construction noise or traffic congestion.
We stopped at the river to stretch our legs, shoot video for the video report, and let the kids get up close to the water. As you can see in the following photo, Marlene got up close too, doing her ninja-style photography.
As you cross the bridge and drive deeper into Cerro Azul, you’ll find another picturesque pit stop, or mirador as they’re called here in Panama. At this spot you can see a waterfall off in the distance.
From the wooden perch built for visitors and residents wishing to take a quick break and check out the mountain views, you can relax and listen to the sounds of nature.
Once you pass this point, you reach the neighborhoods of Cerro Azul, with signs detailing each section and arrows always pointing you towards the exit, which I found out on our most recent trip, are very helpful. I had no idea how much of a labyrinth this place is. Anytime I branched off onto one of the side streets, I made sure I kept track of where I was going, so I could easily get back to the main street, but I still got lost.
Getting lost helped me get a few more beautiful photos, like the one below. I was sure I knew where I was going until I hit this dead end.
What I like about Cerro Azul is that it’s not full of cookie-cutter style housing. No two houses look the same. This could be a turn off for anyone who digs uniformity, but I’m a fan of putting my own unique personality on a home, so I like it. Plus, unlike many other mountain communities, the homes here are set up high enough so that you have clear downward views of the sprawl of land all around. In some places, like El Valle de Anton (which is beautiful in its own way), the homes are down in the valley, so you see the mountains around you, but it’s different. Homes in Cerro Azul are on the mountains, not in between them.
And you should check out some of the views these homes have. I can imagine having a second floor bedroom with a balcony that overlooks the Chagres National Park, where each evening a crisp breeze blows in through the sliding glass door and each morning I wake up to the sound of the large variety of birds singing. This isn’t an exaggeration. This is what you find in Cerro Azul.
When we visited Cerro Azul, we stayed the night at a place called The Ginger House (http://gingerhouse-panama.com/) which is a Bed & Breakfast at the end of a street, where it literally drops off into the Chagres Park. I sat down to work a little bit on the second draft of my upcoming novel, in a cozy sofa on the second floor balcony, and it was so hard to concentrate on the writing with so many fantastic distractions. Hummingbirds were buzzing their way back and forth between the bird feeders, and just beyond, I could see layers of mountains in the distance with shadows from the setting sun darkening the rolling hills.
***UPDATE*** The Ginger House B&B has been sold and is no longer open for business, updated 8/25/2014
You won’t find much inside the gates of Cerro Azul except plenty of nature and neighbors. I stepped outside, in the backyard of The Ginger House B&B, while my wife sat inside talking with owner, who goes by the nickname Picasso. I stood shrouded in darkness, with only a porch light on behind me, and was in awe by the power that I felt around me. The wind blew through the trees like a hurricane was on its way. The swooshing sound was similar to the crashing of ocean waves and I’m not exaggerating when I say I felt my heart thundering in my chest. I know not everyone reading this is religious, and that’s cool, but I honestly felt a higher power at that moment.
The raw beauty you find in Cerro Azul is just out of this world. Animals roam around freely and at The Ginger House, Picasso loves to feed the birds and squirrels. She keeps bird feeders full at every corner of her property and places bananas out on ledges and on hanging platforms for any creature wishing for a quick snack. We watched as a squirrel made his way up to a ledge and snatched up a slice of banana. Greedy little monkeys show up often and steal the bananas, but this time, the squirrel knew better.
Bird watching is a popular pastime in Cerro Azul as the area is home to over 900 species of birds and some are unique to the area. Marlene, who loves humming birds, sat on the patio at our B&B and was just in awe at the variety of hummingbirds, of all different colors, visiting the feeders. We saw Tucans playing tag in the sky above and the song of so many different birds all around us. Nature’s symphony was rocking out that day.
All of this is what you get in Cerro Azul, but what is it actually like to live there? Let’s talk about that.
What’s it like to live there?
Life in Cerro Azul is for a certain kind of person. It’s quiet. Some might complain that it’s too quiet and secluded. I noticed that a lot of the homes had “For Sale” signs outside. I’ve heard that people living along the road that leads up to Cerro Azul have fallen victim to burglaries. But from what I’ve gathered, inside the guarded entry gate (inside the actual community of Los Altos de Cerro Azul) is safe and secure. So I don’t think that has anything to do with people leaving. For added piece of mind, there’s a small police station just outside the main gate.
I imagine it has a lot to do with the intense tranquility the area provides. Some people move to a foreign country thinking that they’re ready to abandon society all together. So they move high up on a mountain, but once there, they realize it’s not all they expected. It can be an amazing, fulfilling retirement or lifestyle period, but it is what it is. Living in Cerro Azul would mean driving down the mountain for any groceries you can’t find at a mini-supermarket.
Living in Cerro Azul means either homeschooling your kids, sending them on a bus to the public school down the mountain, or driving them yourself to a private school (probably not a realistic option as it would be a long and tedious drive).
But, when you really put some thought into it, you might drive an hour away to do your grocery shopping in your home country. With the traffic problems you find in most major cities, a 20-30 minute drive down the mountain might not seem so difficult.
I want you to understand that going up and down the mountain is a reality in Cerro Azul, because there is literally nothing besides wildlife and houses in Cerro Azul. If you’re okay with that, it could be a really cool and rewarding lifestyle. If you wanted to retire to a small town in Colorado, you’d probably find the same situation. You’d be buying your milk, bread, and eggs from a small mom and pop store and traveling a little farther for the bigger items.
Picasso, the owner of The Ginger House, makes the trip all the time. She heads down the mountain and into the town of 24 de Diciembre to do her grocery shopping, or she travels even farther to Pricesmart (like Costco here) or to wherever she wants to buy her produce and other items. She’s a chef, so she does what it takes to run a business, and she seems fine with that. She loves her life on the mountain.
Let’s break down the Cerro Azul lifestyle a little further.
What to expect from Cerro Azul?
The roads in Cerro Azul are not the greatest. Some are flat and some are riddled with potholes. We made the trip in our little Mazda, with no 4-wheel-drive, and it was a little bit rough on our car. Some of the roads have steep inclines. And with the rain coming down, we found ourselves nearly stuck at one point. I had to back up far enough, get a running start, and force the car up the hill. There were areas of the neighborhood where I was honestly afraid to go.
This doesn’t mean you can’t visit the town without a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, but you’ll probably feel a lot more calm if you do. If I lived there, I’d definitely invest in a stronger truck or SUV.
Electricity is great on the mountain and the water is drinkable from the tap. We saw a lot of satellite dishes on the roofs of houses. Cable TV, phone, and high-speed Internet all work great. Gas for cooking and gas dryers can be delivered to your home. We saw the truck in the photo below on his way to Cerro Azul.
The small propane tanks (like you’d use in gas grill) usually cost less than $5. What most people do is buy a couple of the large tanks, that way, when one runs out, they just flip the switch over to the second, ensuring they have gas to cook with while they have the empty canister swapped out. These large tanks usually cost somewhere between $40 and $50. For my large family, we go through one tank in about 2 months. For two people it will probably last 4-5 months, depending on how much cooking and laundry you do.
I’m not sure about the cell phone reception in Cerro Azul. I’ve been told that it works fine, but during my recent visit, I hit quite a few spots where I had no reception at all. So that’s something you’ll have to check out on your visit. Garbage collection is done at one central collection point near the first river as you enter the community. It’s a large, stone, bus-stop-looking building. Residents just drive up and toss their garbage over the wall on their way out of town.
One thing that was mentioned by residents of Cerro Azul, and I heard the same thing about Altos del Maria (another gated mountain community in the interior of the country), is that having things delivered, getting work done on your property, or having utilities serviced…basically anything that requires someone to drive up the mountain to assist you, can take some time. It’s probably the same with any mountain community anywhere in the world. It’s just something to keep in mind and to know in advance, so you don’t find yourself ticked off the first time you’re left hanging or waiting for service or a delivery.
At this point in the report, I’m going to mention the town of 24 de Diciembre a lot, because most of what you need (that you can’t take care of in Cerro Azul) will be in this town. For example, I didn’t see a single ATM on top of the mountain. And there are no banks. It’s possible I missed an ATM, but I don’t think there is one. I didn’t see one in the Comasa, which is the main store just outside the gate. Don’t worry though because you’ll find that most banks that have a branch here in Panama, have a branch in the shopping center in 24 de Diciembre.
Same goes for medical care. Remember you’re less than an hour’s drive to Panama City, where you’ll find the best hospitals. So really this isn’t an issue. If you just want to visit a clinic real quick, you’ll find several small clinics, labs, and pharmacies at the bottom of the mountain in 24 de Diciembre.
It’s basically the same story with every other lifestyle topic I usually cover. Aside from one bible school near Cerro Azul, you’ll only find a public school at the base of the mountain. School buses go up and down the mountain taking kids to and from school. And speaking of buses, you will find small Coaster buses that make the trip up and down the mountain, so you could get around that way, but that’s not a very realistic option. Living in Cerro Azul, you’d want to own a car, and you’ll find gas stations in 24 de Diciembre.
You’ll only find a few restaurants up near Cerro Azul, but most of them aren’t open very often. On the road that leads down the mountain you’ll find a few small restaurants and fondas.
Once you get to 24 de Diciembre, you’ll find a lot of restaurants serving Panamanian food and some other options. You’ll even find McDonald’s and the local fried chicken chain, Pio Pio.
As far as shopping goes, you really only have the Comasa, which is a small store with some foods, household goods, and hardware items. This is where you’ll pick up your soda, beer, snacks, and a few of the necessities. For anything else you’d need to travel down the mountain.
Again, in 24 de Diciembre, you’ll find most of what you’ll need to sustain life in Cerro Azul. Three major supermarkets are there including Super 99, Xtra, and El Machetazo. You’ll also find a few department stores (none you’d know by name), electronics stores, hardware stores, beauty salons, cell phone providers, and even a few small fresh produce markets. I just saw a billboard the other day announcing the construction of a major indoor shopping mall in 24 de Diciembre, so that’s something to look forward to.
In the meantime, if you’re not satisfied with what you find at the base of the mountain, getting to any of Panama City’s major shopping malls is easy. Albrook Mall, Multiplaza Mall, Metro Mall, and Multicentro are all less than an hour’s drive away. And that’s great news if you’re someone who gets bored often. Entertainment in Cerro Azul is very limited.
You’ll find rivers, hiking trails, lakes, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and all the bird watching you can handle. At the bottom of the mountain, right at the corner where you turn to go up the mountain, you’ll find a small park called Fucer park, where you’ll find another pool, a restaurant, and a few other activities.
If you need more than that, just head into the city and go bowling at Albrook Mall, or catch a movie at one of several theaters, hit the clubs on Calle Uruguay or the great bars and restaurants in Casco Viejo. Being on this mountain doesn’t necessarily mean a constant escape from society. Cliche, I know, but society is only a stone’s throw away.
Oh, and if having a church nearby is important to you, I saw two small Catholic churches on the way up the mountain, plus a Jehovah’s Witness center, and a funeral home/cemetery.
What does it cost to live there?
Take a look at the budget I’ve posted below to see the “big picture.” If you compare it to the other budgets in the Budget Snapshot page in the main navigation menu above, you’ll see that it’s relatively close to the cost of living in Volcan. However, because you can pick up so many fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish in Volcan, I think the cost of food would be less there. In Volcan, I set it at $300, but in Cerro Azul, I think $400 is more realistic.
Remember that every person is different and what one person might spend on entertainment can be completely different from what another might spend. You might be perfectly content with staying on the mountain, barbecuing with friends and hanging out with your loved ones. Or you might feel the need to hit Panama City’s nightlife scene every weekend. These are things that completely alter the budget I’ve posted below. This just gives you an idea of what a couple might spend, living in Cerro Azul.
|Rent||2 Bedroom house||$800|
|Electricity||Won't need AC, only ceiling fans||$75|
|Gas||For cooking and dryer (2 small tanks)||$10|
|Phone card for calling the U.S. (if you don't use Skype/MagicJack)||Telechip International, for 5 hours talk time||$5|
|Food||For 2 people||$400|
|Entertainment||There's not much to spend money on in the way of ent. costs, other than dining out.||$100|
|Routine Doctor Visit||Once per month for each person ($25 each)||$50|
|Medication||Varies, but for my monthly high blood pressure and diabetes meds this is what I'd pay just to give you an idea||$45|
|Getting around town||Gas for your car, at least $50 as you'll be heading down the mountain quite often.||$50|
|Travel outside of town||By bus||$40|
|Extras||Other things you may need||$50|
|Total Monthly Expenses||For 2 people||$1,670|
I set the rent at $800 to give you some wiggle room. I found a two-bedroom home online renting for only $550 per month. So you can see that renting can be affordable in Cerro Azul, or it can be much more expensive. The good news is there are a lot of homes for rent and for sale.
Shopping online is usually not the best way to go about your search. Visit and take photos of the houses. Take photos of the rental signs so you have the phone numbers handy. Then, have a Panamanian friend call to get the prices. Because most people know that foreigners are willing to pay a little more, you might find the prices a little higher if you call yourself. This isn’t just for English-speaking foreigners. I have a Venezuelan friend who refuses to call to get real estate prices because he knows they can tell by his accent that he’s not Panamanian, and there’s a good chance the price will be higher than if a Panamanian friend calls.
At the following link, you’ll see there are homes in Cerro Azul for less than $100,000 and of course the prices go up from there. Keep in mind that I’m posting this report on the 15th of November, 2013, so depending on when you read it, the listings on that page might be completely different from what’s there now. See for yourself here: http://www.compreoalquile.com/casas-en-venta-ubicado-en-cerro-azul.html
Again, you want to visit the area and check out these houses first. Please DO NOT buy something from what you see online, without first seeing for yourself (in person) what you’re getting into. This seems like common sense, but you’d be amazed by what people get themselves into when they get excited about a move.
My overall gut feeling?
Cerro Azul, is a place I’d consider great for someone who wants to live off the radar. Most people who think they want to do this, don’t realize what that really means. To truly live in seclusion, you’re talking about building a home out in the middle of nowhere, where you’d probably have a hard time getting Internet, cable, electricity, or even water easily established. This sounds great in theory, but if you imagine the hardships that come along with trying to do it all from scratch, you might realize that Cerro Azul is somewhere right in the middle of following the crowd and doing it all on your own.
In Cerro Azul, everything is set up for you, but you still have that smokey mountain kind of lifestyle. You can live alone, without being bothered. I think it would be amazing. Plus, it’s rare that in any place like this, you have the ability to get to a major city in less than an hour. You can literally get to Multiplaza Mall, the high-end Mall in the area, plus the best hospitals, and the wildest nighlife Panama has to offer, in 45 minutes. That’s not even a roadtrip. That’s the amount of time it took me to get to work in South Florida. That’s pretty cool.
I think Cerro Azul has very slow progress. Not much has changed since I first visited a year ago. But this doesn’t mean it won’t change eventually. I’m sure it will keep it’s quiet, tranquil atmosphere, but I imagine at some point you’ll see more restaurants and more development going on there. And with new things always being built in Panama City (like the new mall coming to 24 de Diciembre), you know you’re never far from the progress made outside of your small, gated community.
I like Cerro Azul a lot because I appreciate it for what it is. It’s mountain living only minutes from Panama City.
To see the Cerro Azul VIDEO report click here.
Thanks for reading,
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