Cerro Punta—Real Country Livin’ in Panama’s Highlands
As I sit at my desk, contemplating how to begin this report, it’s hot, typical tropical Panama hot. There’s no getting around it. Don’t get me wrong, we do have air conditioners, but central air? No way. Not in my run-of-the-mill, Panamanian-style home. Sometimes I tilt my head back and think, “Man…what I wouldn’t give for a blast of frigid Alaska air right now?” I’ve lived in Anchorage, Alaska, and in Chicago, Illinois (I’m convinced Chicago is colder), so I’ve experienced my share of cold weather, and strangely enough, I loved it.
So why am I living in Panama? Well, I love warm weather too, plus this is my wife’s home country and we (my family) are all happy here. That doesn’t mean I don’t get a little bit sad from time to time when I stop and realize that I’ll never again experience a chilly climate. Then, it dawns on me that I can actually escape the heat of Panama’s major cities and beaches by simply climbing to a higher elevation. I’ve written about Volcan and about Cerro Azul already, and in both of those destinations I mentioned that the temperature was much cooler than in places like Panama City and Penonomé. Well, I’ve found a place even colder and I’m so excited to tell you about it.
Cerro Punta, located in the Chiriqui highlands (the west side of Panama, remember Panama runs west to east, not north to south), is only a little over an hour drive from Panama’s 2nd largest city, David. It’s only about 20-minutes from Volcan’s center.
Getting to Cerro Punta
If coming from Panama City, just keep traveling down the Pan-American Highway until you pass David and see the signs telling you to turn right to get to Volcan, at the town of Concepcion. From there you travel all the way to Volcan, and once you’ve reached the mountain town, make a right at the street in front of the police station (by the Delta gas station). Then it’s a 20-minute, straight shot into the town of Cerro Punta.
It’s an easy drive too, with no seriously steep or scary inclines. You won’t need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle if you’ll be staying on the main, paved roads. As long as you’re not planning to go off-roading and you won’t try climbing up to any of the houses set high up on the mountains, you’ll be fine in your typical rental car.
Located at an altitude of nearly 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) above sea level, Cerro Punta’s days are often windy and its nights drop down to a comfortable cool temperature. Seeing people in coats, windbreakers, and even cold weather hats, is quite common. I want to say that it must have been somewhere around 60-degrees fahrenheit during our visit. We had our windows down and at one point it was just too cold for the kids.
As you enter town, you’ll see sprawling fields of green to both sides of the main road. Cerro Punta is said to provide Panama with about 80% of its vegetables. Cabbage, broccoli, potatoes, onions, lettuce, beets, and much more is grown here. And don’t forget strawberries. This is the strawberry kingdom as you’ll find out when you go to order at any restaurant or snack shack. Everything seems to have strawberries in it. I’ll tell you more about that a little bit later.
Cerro Punta even has its own frozen goods processing and shipment warehouse. And with so many exports going out of the area every day, watch out for the 18-wheelers constantly making their way through town. You know I’m a movie buff and seem to relate everything to some flick I’ve seen, and Cerro Punta was no different. The main road, with the Mack trucks speeding down it, reminded me of the road on the movie Pet Sematary (spelled incorrectly on purpose, just like Stephen King’s title). It’s all peaceful and quiet until one of the trucks comes barreling through. These drivers weren’t too bad though. They seemed to take it slow for the most part.
Cerro Punta is made up of 4 little neighborhoods, or villas, but the place is seriously so small that it’s hard to tell when you’ve left one and entered the next. The Miranda, Guadalupe, Las Nubes, and Bajo Grande are the villas that make up this town.
When you first enter, you’ll come to a town center of sorts with a few small restaurants, mini-supermarkets, and other businesses. I’ve been to Cerro Punta twice, and during our first visit, I thought that first main town center was all of Cerro Punta. I didn’t drive any farther, and instead just cruised the streets taking pictures, thinking I’d seen all there was to Cerro Punta. Volcan was the main focus on that trip so I didn’t really dig into Cerro Punta.
I’m glad we made this second trip as there was a lot more of the area to see. We found this out when we stopped and asked one of the locals, a lady selling blankets on the side of the road, what the best restaurant in town was. She kind of laughed and shook her head, then told us that we wouldn’t find much in that part of town. She pointed down the street and told us to keep going, and that we’d find plenty of places to have lunch in Guadalupe. She said we’d know we’d reached it when we see all the people in the middle of the street. She was absolutely right. We drove a few more miles down the road and found Guadalupe, Cerro Punta’s main center for tourist activity.
People were milling about, checking out the souvenir stands, browsing the selection of cold weather hats hanging from makeshift storefronts, and standing in line to get their hands on chorizos on sticks, brochettes (shish kabobs), or cups of strawberries and cream. As I mentioned earlier, strawberries are in everything, and I couldn’t wait to get ahold of a strawberry milkshake (batido de fresa). They’re the best in this area. At $2 each, the whole family took a break and drank a shake. I had to go back for seconds.
Vendors sold sacks of vegetables, known as puercas (very similar to the word puerco, which is pork), for insanely cheap prices. We bought the bag you see in the following picture for only $6. It had cabbage, lettuce, carrots, beets, potatoes, cilantro, onions, celery, and broccoli. I think I’m forgetting a few of the items because it just seemed like it had a little bit of everything in it. It was huge. This thing easily had a week’s worth of veggies. I’ve seen smaller bags for sale on the side of the street in Panama City for $7. If I lived in Cerro Punta or Volcan, I’d never ever buy produce in a supermarket again. This puerca had so many fresh salad fixins…it’s crazy!
Oh, by the way, make sure you have plenty of quarters when you visit Guadalupe, as many of the restaurants and businesses had signs up advertising the use of their bathroom for $.25. These tourist towns know how to make their money, so unless you want to find yourself holding it all the way back to Volcan, bring change.
We decided to try one of the restaurants in town, Restaurante Mijarr, and it was pretty good. Marlene enjoyed her baked chicken with patacones (squished and fried plantains). We also ordered two medium pizzas for the rest of us. All that and drinks came to right around $30. We could’ve saved a lot by buying from the street-side vendors, but we wanted to try an actual sit-down style restaurant.
After lunch, we set out to discover what a life in Cerro Punta would be like. Is it just a fun place for tourists or is it somewhere you could actually base your retire overseas adventure?
What’s this place all about?
Let’s just get right down to it. Cerro Punta is country living, high up in the mountains. I love it. It’s wide open spaces with tractors parked in fields and sprinklers wetting down rows of cabbage. It’s blue-collar workers getting down and dirty, making an honest day’s wages. It’s peaceful folk living a regular life in a cool weather climate. It’s some of the most amazing views I’ve seen in Panama. It’s great, but like anyplace else, it’s perfect for some people, but maybe not for others.
Living in Cerro Punta would mean being secluded. You’re not going to find high-class social gatherings. I mean, I’m sure some of the people in town host parties, and you might even find some of the expats in town or down in Volcan putting together friendly get togethers, but it’s definitely nothing like Panama City. The town population seems to be made up mostly of local Panamanians and members of the indigenous tribes. I did see a couple of what looked like gringos, and I definitely saw plenty of tourists.
It only takes a few minutes in town to realize that you’ll need to get used to the incredible silence the mountain lifestyle provides. This is a place I’d consider owning a husky (I want one really bad, but having one in the hot city is just mean), and just letting him go nuts in the yard while I chill out in a front porch swing and crack open a new Stephen Hunter novel while I sip sweet tea.
I’m no gardener, but I think in a place like Cerro Punta, I’d learn to be one. This is one of the most colorful mountain towns I’ve ever seen and I think I’d want my house to be included in that beauty. Plus, with plenty of places in town to pick up plants and flowers, it’d be easy to get started.
If you love horses, you’ll be happy to know that Cerro Punta is home to two very important horse breeding centers. Haras Cerro Punta and Haras Carinthia are both located here and are well known for their thoroughbreds. I read that the higher elevation is great for developing a horse’s lungs.
We stopped off on our way out of town and hung out next to one of the horse centers. The sun was going down on the horizon, sinking down behind the mountains, and a pony was following its mom around the field. With the silence all around and the shadows settling across the field, we watched the pony plop down to rest. It was really cool and so peaceful. Check out our video on Cerro Punta to see what I’m talking about.
This is a place where you can breathe freely; a place where mother nature still reigns supreme and shows her dominance with spectacular views all around, all the time. It’s just gorgeous.
Is a life in Cerro Punta realistic?
As with every other place I’ve reported on, this is completely subjective. It has everything to do with the person planning this new lifestyle. I told Marlene just the other day, “I think I could be happy in a place like Cerro Punta.” Her reply? “Are you out of your mind? You would be bored in a week.” She might have a point. At this point in my life, 34-years-old, with a wife and 4 kids, Cerro Punta probably isn’t realistic for me. However, I think that by the time I’m 50, I might seriously consider a place like this.
To help you decide if this place is right for you, let me tell you what you will find in the area, and what you won’t find. Let me lay all the cards out on the table.
Water is ice cold, seriously cold, and drinkable straight out of the tap. I saw satellites on most of the homes in town, so satellite Internet and TV seems to be the popular choice. I saw an Internet cafe and a cell phone store in town. Speaking of cell phones, mine worked fine while I was in town and I saw many others chatting on their Smartphones. So keeping in touch shouldn’t be an issue. I didn’t see any mail or package centers though so you’d need to go to either Volcan, or maybe even as far as David, to set yourself up with a P.O. box and receive mail and packages from back home.
You’d probably want to own a car here. You could get by without one, as most of the Cerro Punta area is walkable, but you’d be a lot more comfortable with a car. If you do have a vehicle, there’s a Delta gas station in town and a car wash. Buses run into town and out constantly, so if you decided you’d rather not have your own ride, you could hop on a bus, or even a taxi, and come and go easily.
The roads in town are quite smooth as long as you stay on the circular track that takes you from Volcan to Cerro Punta, then wraps around the back side of Cerro Punta. Once you leave the main roads you’ll start finding a lot more potholes, plus many of the roads turn into dirt or gravel trails.
You won’t find a single bank or ATM machine in Cerro Punta. That doesn’t mean much though since Volcan is only 20 minutes away. I sit in traffic for more than 20 minutes getting to a bank here in Panama City. So no big deal. In Volcan you’ll even find a Western Union.
You also won’t find a major clinic in town. There is one Centro de Salud when you first enter Cerro Punta, but if it’s closed, or you need to see a specialist, you’ll have to travel to either Volcan, or maybe even as far as David. I did see one pharmacy in town and I’m sure the mini-supers carry the basic cold and headache medicines. Smart business owners, like the one you see in the photo below, keep first aid kits handy just in case.
Grocery shopping in town would need to be done at one of the several mini-supers. Remember, you have easy access to fresh produce in Cerro Punta, so you’d really only need to to go to the mini-supers (or drive to Volcan for larger supermarkets) for pantry items and your meats.
You won’t find many stores in town. I saw a few novelty stores, a cell phone store, a hardware store, and tons of agricultural shops, as farming is such a major part of life in Cerro Punta.
I saw one house with a hand written sign declaring that it was an American clothing store. The only other places I saw to pick up threads were a vendor with slacks and suit jackets set up outside of one of the mini-supers, and the souvenir shops which sold some hand-woven, cold-weather gear.
At the souvenir shops you can find everything from bracelets and earrings to jackets, windbreakers, and knitted caps. You’ll also find a lot of typical Panamanian desserts and snacks, like banana bread, carrot cake, empanadas, candies, and more treats with strawberries mixed in.
If you’re tired of doing your own laundry, there is a dry cleaner/laundry in town. What you won’t find is a high-end beauty salon. I did see a small salon, and a very tiny barber shop. Or you can do like the guy in the photo below and just get your hair cut by this dude outside one of the novelty shops. I’m not sure what he charges, but it can’t be much.
If you like to attend church, chances are you’ll need to learn to speak Spanish, or just do your own kind of worshipping while the preacher or priest delivers his sermon in a foreign language. I’ve been to church with my wife and kids, Catholic church in Spanish, a couple of times. I don’t understand most of what’s gong on, but it’s still nice to step foot in a holy place from time to time. Even if you don’t fully understand what’s going on, you can usually follow along and do your own kind of praying. In Cerro Punta I saw a couple of 7th Day Adventist churches, a couple of Catholic churches, an Evangelic church, and a Jehova’s Witness church.
If you’re thinking of moving with school-age children, you’ll find two schools in Cerro Punta, plus a couple down in Volcan, but they’ll all be Panamanian schools. There are no international schools in the area. In Cerro Punta I saw an Adventist school, attached to one of the 7th Day Adventist churches, and a public school in Guadalupe. So your options would be to fully immerse your kids in one of these all-Spanish Panamanian schools, send them to one of these schools half the day and then homeschool them the other half, or homeschool full-time.
I noticed a small police station near the entrance to Cerro Punta. I didn’t see a fire station though. I may have missed it, but if there isn’t one in town, I know there’s one in Volcan.
Entertainment in town consists mostly of outdoors kind of stuff, like hiking, fishing, swimming in rivers, etc. I noticed a lot of the neighbors gathered around the big baseball/soccer field in town to watch the local teams go at it.
Most of the hostels and hotels will have their own restaurants and bars, plus I saw a couple of other small bars in town. Volcan has a small pool hall and a couple of night clubs, so a trip to Volcan might be necessary for any kind of nightlife (Volcan isn’t exactly Vegas though, lol). You’ll also find some tourist activities, which I’m sure you’d grow tired of quickly if you lived there.
We hiked to the top of Mirador La Fresa, a tire lined trail that climbs quite steeply up to the top of a high hill, where you get some great picture taking opportunities. The cost was only $.50 per person. The kids had a great time and begged me to climb the hill a second time.
From high up on the hill you get a view of Guadalupe and the surrounding area, beautiful rolling hills and mountain views, plus you get an aerial view of the horses in the field just below.
Other tourist activities consist of hiking the Quetzal Trail and visiting the Dracula Orchid farm. Don’t expect to find a movie theater, a mall, or any fast food restaurants you’re familiar with.
One of the great things about living in this high-elevation town is one of the great things about living almost anywhere in this country. It’s the ability to have a complete change of scenery in a short amount of time. If you needed an escape from this quiet retreat, just drive to David, only a little over an hour away. It’s not a city full of high-rise condos and major traffic congestion, like Panama City, but you will find most things you need in David. It’s definitely a happy medium.
If you felt the need to spend the evening with other expats, just go to Boquete, which is really close. And if you wanted to go to the beach, you could head to La Barqueta or Las Lajas (down by David) or take a trip to Bocas del Toro. You could even take a bus to Panama City for probably somewhere around $20 each way. I know it’s only $15 to get from David to the Albrook bus station and mall in Panama City.
When it comes to homes in Cerro Punta, it seems there’s a little bit of something for everyone. You’ll see everything from very low-income style housing, basically just cinderblock walls with a tin roof, to typical local Panamanian-style homes, which are usually small and very colorful.
You’ll even see some large, very modern looking houses, with more reserved hues. The best thing about owning a home in Cerro Punta? No matter what style of home you’re living in, whether it be an old cabin retreat or a brand new structure, you’re sure to have an incredible view.
Another great thing about the homes in Cerro Punta is that a lot of them have gigantic backyards, and most seem to be growing some sort of fruit or vegetable.
Farming is such an important part of life in Cerro Punta. And of course, as with any other farm town, you’ll see cattle grazing in open fields.
Cost of living in Cerro Punta
First, I think it’s important to talk about the real estate situation. I reached out to a realtor, one of the main ones in Volcan, and I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t receive much help. I asked about the price of rentals and was basically told that you’ll find very few good ones in the area and that their office didn’t even handle rentals. Sounds to me like renting anything in Cerro Punta (and probably Volcan too) would require dealing directly with the owner of the house. I didn’t see any rentals while I was in town (that doesn’t mean there weren’t any). Oftentimes rentals in these area are found only by word of mouth or through local postings at supermarkets and things like that.
If you take a look at the budget I’ve posted down below, you’ll see that I set the price at $1,000 per month for rent. Marlene thinks that’s a bit high, but I’d rather not set you up for failure. As I said, not even a real estate agent could tell me what the current rental costs are. I’ve seen rentals in Volcan for about $850, so, since Cerro Punta is a little more exclusive, I figure it’s smart to add a little bit to that amount. For $1,000, I think you’d be able to find something decent in Cerro Punta, if you’re able to find a rental at all. This is Panama For Real, so I have to keep it real.
As far as the cost of purchasing a place goes, I found a house online (162m2) going for $35,000. It looked like it might be more of a vacation rental though. I also saw a 2-bedroom (1,811m2 property) going for $185,000. Those were the least expensive homes I saw. Of course, a few at much higher prices were listed as well; one was $350,000 and one was even $1.5 million. A 6 hectare plot of land was going for $120,000. Where that was located, I have no idea, meaning it could be a steal in a great location, or could be on the side of a mountain somewhere. You’d really need to visit the area and speak with a real estate agent who can break it all down for you.
Take a look at the following budget, keeping in mind that you need to be flexible with the rental costs as you might find something for much less, or maybe a little more.
|Rent||2 Bedroom house||$1,000|
|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||$300|
|Entertainment||Dining out, bars, playing pool, not much else in town to pay for||$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||Buses and taxis||$20|
|Travel outside of town (to David once a week)||By bus||$40|
|Extras||Other things you may need||$50|
|Total Monthly Expenses||For 2 people||$1,740|
You’ll notice that I set the electric at $75 per month, which is what I put on the Volcan budget, but from what I experienced when i visited, Cerro Punta was colder than Volcan. So you might not even spend $75. I don’t even think you’d need a ceiling fan there. Just prop open a window.
You’d probably spend about $10 per month on gas tanks for your stove and dryer, $5 each for two propane tanks. You’ll probably spend about $45-$50 on a phone, Internet, and cable/satellite TV package. That’s the average price almost anywhere in Panama. Making international calls is cheap if you just use Skype or Magic Jack, or one of the other systems available. If you don’t want to go that route, you can get a phone card with about 5 hours of talk time for $5.
I set the food costs the same as I did for Volcan, at $300. Honestly, I don’t think you’d spend that much on food in Cerro Punta. Like I mentioned earlier, I bought a gigantic bag of vegetables for only $6. I figure that might last a week, so 4 of those in a month and you’re only at $24. Then add your drinks, meat, chicken, pork, etc. I think you could easily get by on $300 a month or less.
Your entertainment costs should be low as there’s not much to do in town that would cost money. Once you’ve done the few touristy things, you’ll grow tired of that quickly. So, you might go out to some of the small restaurants or maybe to one of the bars from time to time. $100 should be plenty for entertainment.
If you need to see a doctor often, you can either visit the Centro de Salud in town, which will be very affordable, or go to one of the clinics in Volcan. The average cost of a routine doctor visit in Panama (in the smaller clinics) is about $25-$30 (I’ve seen a doctor for as low as $1). So $50 for two people to see a doctor once per month in Volcan, should be enough. To see a specialist, you’re usually looking at about $40-$50 a pop.
Medication is obviously something I can’t put a real price on, as I have no way of knowing each person’s needs, but I think it’s important to leave room for it in your budget. So, I like to put $45 in there, which is about what I spend per month on my blood pressure and blood sugar meds.
You shouldn’t spend more than $20 per month on buses or taxis to get around town. If you stick around the Cerro Punta area, you might not even spend much more than that on gas. Just get out on foot and walk the town. It’s a beautiful place to get in shape. Traveling outside of town will cost a bit more. If you head to David every once in awhile, you might spend about $40 per month on travel.
I always add $50 to the budget, just for the little extras. You might need hand soap, dish soap, detergent, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc. So leave room in your budget for those things. So, all that added together comes out to about $1,740. Again, Marlene thinks that’s too high for Cerro Punta, and I kind of agree with her, but again, I’d rather give you some wiggle room than set the budget too low and hear later that you’re stressing out living in Cerro Punta (a place that should be anti-stress). So, you could definitely cut costs by finding a cheaper rental (or by buying and either having a low mortgage payment or none at all if you buy the place outright). If you don’t spend on travel, entertainment, and if you cut your food costs down, you could be looking at a fairly low cost of living. This is a great place for a simple life, so just keep it simple.
My Overall Gut
I’m a big fan of Cerro Punta. I haven’t visited every place in Panama, but I have visited a lot of towns here, and Cerro Punta is probably the breeziest and prettiest place I’ve encountered. I love the crisp, cool air. I can easily see myself going out for daily walks just for the exercise and the chance to admire the amazing views. I might even pay the $.50 daily to hike to the top of Mirador La Fresa.
A life in Cerro Punta would definitely take some getting used to. The silence might be tough for some people at first. To me, the hardest part about living there would probably be the lack of shopping. I could get used to the small cafes and the snack shacks. Those are pretty cool. But the lack of stores might bother me a little bit. Then again, a shopping trip to David once or twice a month could be enough for me. Plus, with Internet shopping so popular nowadays, you can get anything you might possibly want, even while living in a little mountain town like Cerro Punta. It just might require a drive to wherever you’ve set up your P.O. Box. I know David has Mailboxes Etc. and probably has a few other mail service stations.
So, I think a life in Cerro Punta is definitely doable. And it could probably be very satisfying to anyone who digs a country(ish) lifestyle in the mountains.
What I don’t want you to do is just abandon your senses and buy a place in Cerro Punta, just because Chris said it was awesome, lol. Please don’t. I always suggest renting in a place first, to make sure it’s the lifestyle option you’re after. Renting in Cerro Punta might require a bit of work. You might have to settle for renting for awhile in Volcan, and making day trips up to Cerro Punta often, or try to set something up with one of the hostels, hotels, or lodges so you can stay for an extended amount of time and make sure this is the right place for you.
Who knows, maybe you’ll love it, and you can tell me all about it later. I’ll definitely be visiting Cerro Punta again in the future, and if I never actually move there, you can bet that if I’m living anywhere within driving distance, I’ll be taking the family there for my favorite strawberry smoothies…and to escape the heat. Thanks for reading.
Don’t forget to click on Cerro Punta Video Report.
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