Aguadulce, Panama – Real Country Living in this Sweet Water Town
Aguadulce, Panama, while still off the radar of most expats and even most Panamanians, this place holds a special place in my heart. It was here that I launched my “writing about Panama” hobby. I was first sent to Aguadulce on a writing assignment. Actually, I was trying to come up with a writing assignment when I heard a buddy of mine mention visiting his girlfriend’s parents in Aguadulce for a weekend trip. I’d never heard of the place. Then, about a week later I heard someone else mention that they’d grown up in Aguadulce.
Where was this place I’d never heard of? And why did it seem like such a secret? I knew I needed to find out.
I’ll never forget my first trip to Aguadulce. Before heading out there, I knew that I wasn’t in for a fun, exciting trip. That’s not Aguaculce. That’s zip lining in El Valle or diving off the coast of Portobelo. Aguadulce isn’t a hot carnaval destination and it’s not where you go if you’re planning a wild weekend away from the kids. Aguadulce is the opposite of all this.
What I found was a small-town Oklahoma vibe, where everyone seemed to be walking everywhere and those not on foot were on bicycles. In fact, there was even a bike maintenance shop and the police station had a huge bike rack out in front of it. It seemed more people had bikes in Aguadulce than cars. It was great.
Vendors sold fruits and vegetables from small stands all over town. Some were right out in front of the main supermarket, meaning you could check for fresh, more affordable vegetables outside, before heading inside to buy everything else. From the backs of pickup trucks people sold fish out of coolers, picked up earlier that morning straight from the dock.
One man on a corner sold live chickens. I’m not kidding. Hector stood under the shade of a tree, with his sombrero on, chickens just walking around like dogs in a backyard. A sign on the tree read: Pollos $6. If you wanted one, he’d snatch it up and throw it in a bag for you, live, just like that. And Hector was such a cool, down to earth guy.
At the town center, out in front of the church you see in the photo above, a teenager did bicycle tricks, spinning his bike around, as people passed by. A small farmer’s market added color to the main square. Kids played in the park and the older townsfolk sat playing chess. It was so peaceful and amazing. I’m not kidding when I say that everyone seemed to say hello to everyone else. At one point I heard a car horn (a rarity here) and looked over to see the driver waving hello to a friend on the street. Car horns in Panama City are used for totally different reasons, more like, “Get the hell out of my way I’m in a rush!” Not in Aguadulce. No one is in a rush there.
The buildings in Aguadulce were older, some not so appealing looking, but it kind of added to the old-town charm. The streets were clean and tidy. It seemed that everyone in Aguadulce cared about its appearance.
You’ll notice that I’m talking in the past tense, mostly about how I viewed the town on my first trip to Aguadulce, back in September of 2011, just over two years ago.
So, let’s talk about Aguadulce now. During my most recent trip, I saw lots of garbage on the ground, had at least three people beg me for change, and found the service in the town’s restaurants way below the level I’d originally been excited about on my first trip. I asked around and told my wife to do the same (some of her coworkers are from Aguadulce) and I found out I’d visited Aguadulce right after a major town festival.
This explains a lot as many of the small towns shut down following a celebration. These towns go into some sort of post-festival hangover mode. This explains the sleepy feeling that seemed to have settled over the town the Saturday I arrived. But don’t worry, but Sunday, the town center was alive and strong, reminding me of the town I fell in love with two years ago. Let me tell you all about what I appreciate so much about this town and I’ll fill you in on some of the challenges you might experience living here.
Getting to Aguadulce
I’m always asked about the ease of getting around in Panama. Learning how to navigate Panama City streets can be a bit of a challenge until you get used to it, but once you leave the city, getting to everywhere else is a breeze.
I’m not as familiar with the Caribbean side of the country as I am with the Pacific, but most towns you’ll want to visit are located off of one major highway here, the Pan-American Highway. Once you cross one of the bridges out of Panama City, it’s just a straight shot to everywhere. A few towns will require you to turn off the main highway at some point, but it’s all easy once you’re outside the city.
Aguadulce, which is only a $6 one-way bus ride from Albrook Bus Terminal, is about a two and a half hour drive from Panama City, approximately 192 kilometers away. This is definitely a town you can take a bus to. Most of the town is walkable and the taxis are usually under $2 a ride. The most you can expect to pay for a taxi is $7 one way out to the beach. That’s pretty steep, but seems to be the norm. If you take a bus to Aguadulce, you’ll be deposited at the stop in the following photo. It’s outside of a hardware store and looks just like a town bus stop. You won’t find an Aguadulce bus terminal. Just this small bus stop.
From the bus stop, you’ll probably want to take a taxi to your hotel. Speaking of hotels, you won’t find many in Aguadulce. Both times I visited the town, I stayed at Hotel Carisabel (www.hotelcarisabel.com). It’s one of the nicest hotels in town, but isn’t 5 star by any means. During my first trip, the restaurant was open and served free breakfast. The breakfast was excellent. They had some of the best hojaldres I’ve ever eaten. This time around, the restaurant was closed for some reason. They did have a new bar though, which is nice if you’re looking for a place to unwind after a long day of walking around town.
This isn’t a hotel review, but at about $40 per night, I think it should definitely be mentioned. The rooms have cable TV, warm water, air conditioning, a decent bed, and the hotel is close to everything. You can drive your car right up to your room door, which is quite convenient. The pool, both times I visited, was a mess. I’m not sure I’d take a dip in it.
In addition to Hotel Carisabel, you’ll also find Hotel Interamericano, Hotel Sarita, Hotel Plaza Aguadulce, and Sunstar Hotel. There may be other small hotels and hostels, but these were the ones I either saw while in town or found online while searching for a place to stay.
What’s Aguadulce all about?
Aguadulce is a town that has kept to itself. I’ve found a surprising number of people recently who’ve told me they own a home there and go there for weekend getaways. While many of Panama’s elite flock to the ever-popular beach town of Coronado or high into their mountain retreat in El Valle de Anton, some Panamanians find that they’d rather be in a tranquil place, far removed from the holiday weekend parties and the kids who take over the beaches Saturday nights.
Don’t ask the young party crowd what they think of Aguadulce though, as you’ll likely here one of two replies: “What’s Aguadulce?” or “Why would anyone go to Aguadulce?” I’m not kidding. Unless someone grew up there or has family living there, there’s a good chance they’ve never visited there. It’s not Las Tablas or Chitre, places most Panamanians have been to just for carnaval alone. People go to Aguadulce to get away from all that.
This kind of escape is what you find in Aguadulce. It’s super quiet. That’s the first thing I noticed when I stepped out onto the Aguadulce street. It was amazingly silent. I was so used to the construction noise, the honking of car horns, the whistling of construction workers trying to get the attention of every woman walking by, and the overall energy that runs through a major city. You have none of that in Aguadulce. It’s just quiet. That silence relieves stress, right away.
As I mentioned before, this is a place where people get out and walk. Panama City is not a great place to walk, unless you’re out on the Amador Causeway or the bay front Cinta Costera, which are both places meant for foot traffic. For the most part, Panama City sidewalks are a mess. I won’t say that Aguadulce’s sidewalks are terrific, but because of the slower pace, walking is much safer. Plus, everything you’d need is incredibly close if you live near the town center. Bikes are a major form of transportation.
Aguadulce is a safe place where many of the residents still keep their front doors open, something you’d never see in Panama City. And even the cops seem pleasant here. I walked by the police station while they were in the middle of guardmount, or pre-post meeting. I waved and most of them waved right back.
This is a town that gets most of its income from three major exports: salt, sugar, and shrimp. I was curious how the town got its name, which I figured had something to do with the sugar export, so I asked around and the story I got was that a group of Spaniards discovered the area long ago, stopped to drink from a pond, and because of the sweet taste of the water, they called it Aguadulce (sweet water). Makes sense.
Marlene and I visited The Museo Stella Sierra, also known as the Museum of Salt and Sugar, which is a small museum and only takes a few minutes to get through, but it tells an interesting chunk of history, especially for this sweet-water town. I’ll give you the cliff notes version.
Long ago, an indigenous tribe called the Escoria, noticed that whenever the tide would roll over their land, and then recede back to the sea, ditches and crevices in the ground would maintain some of the water, making puddles. The sun would beat down and boil the water. Once it evaporated, the Escoria found salt deposits all over their land. The Escoria began collecting this salt and trading it. They started creating small ditches of their own and suddenly their salt business was booming.
When the Spaniards saw what the Escoria were up to, they took over the salt trade. They built large, man-made craters in the ground and channels that would bring the sea water right into their salt farm.
A similar method is still used today in Aguadulce’s salt business. On the way out to the beach, you drive right past El Salado, the area where salt is collected. You can see the blue water ponds and channels dug into the dirt field, on both sides of the road. It’s really cool looking if you catch it at the right time of day.
Sugarcane is also a big business in Aguadulce. One of the things I’ve never seen, but I’ve often heard about, is the time of year when they burn the sugarcane fields. This is done to clear out the fields for a new harvest, but also to keep away snakes and other pests. The sweet sugarcane can draw all kinds of pesky rodents. I’ve heard that when they burn the fields, the ash takes to the air, and in some parts of the town it looks like it’s snowing. I’ve passed the area on the highway during this time of the year and you can smell the burning fields. So that’s definitely something you’d have to get used to if you want to settle down in this area.
As in many other places in this country, shrimp is also farmed in Aguadulce. We passed one of the farms on the way out to the port, but it was closed at the time. Having a shrimp farm in town means affordable shrimp in the restaurants. At one place down by the beach, I paid only about $9 for a pound of shrimp. I’ve never had a plate of shrimp as large as I did that day, and it was delicious.
Like many of the small towns in Panama’s interior, the roads in the main town square are smooth. You’ll find some cracks and potholes, but nothing major. Once you leave the main drag and head into the surrounding neighborhoods, the roads get a little rougher. Some of the roads are dirt, some are gravel, and some are paved but with lots of potholes. Like anyplace else, once you live there or spend some time there, you’ll learn which areas your car can handle, which ones should only be visited in the daytime, and which ones should be avoided all together.
Internet in Aguadulce is great. The town center, where the small gazebo is in front of the church, is actually wired for WIFI. During this trip, on a Saturday afternoon I was walking around with my sons and we saw two teenage girls playing on a laptop in the gazebo. I see the question about Internet availability come up all the time in the expat blogs, and that’s one thing you definitely don’t have to worry about in Panama. You will be able to run your Internet-based business or keep in touch with people back home very easily.
Do we have down time? Sure, like anyone else. Things happen. As I’m writing this, I’m doing it in a word document because my Internet in Panama City is down. Something about the crazy amount of rain we’ve been having is hurting the cables or something like that, so my Internet provider is changing their cables in this area, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s evolution. You try something, it doesn’t work, so you upgrade and that’s just what my Internet provider is doing.
You can rest assured, Panamanians love being plugged in. They’re up to date with Internet and Smartphones and that kind of thing. Plus, in nearly every small town in Panama, you’ll see Internet cafes. I saw a couple in Aguadulce, so if you’re one of those kinds of people who need the Internet from time to time, but don’t really want to have it set up in your home, just head over to one of these cafes and pay by the hour. It’s always very affordable. I think the one I’ve used here in the city charges about a dollar per hour, and that can be broken up into 15-minute sessions. So if you just need to check your email real quick, you might pay 25 cents.
I also saw shops for both Movistar and Claro, so even keeping your Smartphone or Blackberry or other cell phone up to speed shouldn’t be a problem. I use Movistar. I’ve heard Claro’s better, so there you go, two major cell phone providers right there in town, and if you don’t want to deal with the mother companies, you can get most stuff done at one of the local cell phone shops like the one you see below. This is the place to go to pick up a cover for your phone or to have repairs done on your phone.
Electricity is dependable and much more affordable in the interior than it is in the popular expat haunts in Panama City. Gas, usually used to run the dryer and for cooking, can be picked up by Tropigas. Most of the time you can get these small $5 tanks from the mini supermarkets around town and some gas stations, if you don’t want to go directly to the source. If you’d rather have the larger tanks delivered to your house, you can set that up too. I believe those go for about $40, but should last you a few months.
Water is drinkable from the tap. It is in most Panamanian towns, but you always want to double check first. This isn’t Mexico where you’re likely to get Montezuma’s Revenge, but water from foreign countries can play tricks on your system. I drink the tap water here all the time in Panama City. I usually fill up a 2-liter bottle with water and carry it around with me. I drink a lot of water and it’s all from the tap.
Just be careful when you visit small towns. Drink bottled water until you’re sure the water in the area is safe. You should be fine drinking the tap water in Aguadulce.
What do Aguadulceños do for fun?
Life in Aguadulce is very chill. It seems to me that most of the people in town just visit friends and live a low-key lifestyle. The casino in town is a major source of nighttime entertainment. The first time I visited Aguadulce, I met an American woman at one of the clothing stores in town. She was traveling around Panama and happened to be hanging out in Aguadulce for a couple of days. She and some of her friends hung out at the casino most evenings.
No matter what a Panamanian town is lacking, you’ll more than likely find a casino of some sort. These things have caught on like wild fire. The casino in Aguadulce is pretty big too. Most small towns will have a small casino shoved into a shopping center somewhere, or you’ll see a couple of slot machines inside of a bar or restaurant, but the Fantastic Casino in Aguadulce is pretty substantial.
Across the street from the casino, in a small bar, you’ll find a Hipodromo, or horse betting station. When I walked by on a Sunday afternoon, the place seemed to have a steady flow of customers. These guys were just hanging out outside, keeping track of their bets.
You’ll find a few other bars and nightclubs in town. Nothing huge or outlandish like the city nightclubs with lasers flying all over the place and huge security guards charging $10 covers like on Calle Uruguay in Panama City. Everything in Aguadulce is toned down, including the bars. But if you need a place to hang out and drink a beer, that’s available in Aguadulce. You’ll also find a couple of billiards spots.
If you’re able to get out of the house for a little while, and you have a hot date, but don’t necessarily want to spring for an all-night hotel, don’t worry…you’ll find a push in Aguadulce too. What’s a push? A push, or push button, is a very short term hotel. It’s basically a place to bed your partner, lover, or spouse (if you need to get away from the kids for a little while). They typically cost about $12 for two hours, or somewhere in that ballpark, depending on how extravagant the place is. You might find suites, boasting Jacuzzis and stuff like that (I don’t know about slipping into a nasty couples soup in a place like that). Some have mirrored ceilings and other sexual kick starters.
You’ll know these places because of the kinky signs with cheesy names. Names like Camp Amor, Casa de Amor…usually amor is somewhere in the title. Plus, the actual building is usually hidden from the street. When you drive into the place, you’ll round a corner where you’ll see a bunch of open garages. Just pull your car into a garage, turn off your engine (seriously, people have died forgetting this step), and close the garage door. This alerts the employees that someone has arrived. They’ll usually take your payment through the door or some sort of payment box. You’ll never make face-to-face contact with the employee. It’s all discreet. Change is typically given through a box in the wall, like a bank drive thru.
If you’re into sports, you’ll likely be able to watch the kids or even adults engage in futbol (soccer) games most afternoons in one of the parks. Baseball is also big in Aguadulce and they have a nice, large stadium just outside the town center. The first time I visited they were fixing the place up for a major baseball tournament that was making its way to the stadium.
If you have kids, you’ll find a couple of small parks in Aguadulce. On the Northern side of the Pan-American Highway, there’s a brand new park with a huge soccer/futbol field. It even has basketball courts and a small pool. At the beginning of the town’s main street that loops around the church, you’ll see a small park. It’s a nice, quiet, colorful place for people to hang out. In the evening, it’s common to see young couples sitting side by side on the benches, holding hands and flirting.
One of the things I appreciate about Aguadulce, is the amazing service at the restaurants. If you’ve read any of my other reports or any posts in my blog, you already know that customer service isn’t one of Panama’s highlights. It’s just not up to par in most restaurants. I wouldn’t say that the service is much better in Aguadulce, in terms of friendliness or going above and beyond for the customer, but food is served incredibly fast in most establishments.
When I ordered that $9 plate of shrimp I mentioned earlier, I swear it showed up in five minutes. I couldn’t believe it. Then, at another restaurant in town, I wasn’t crazy about the food, but again, it showed up at the table really quickly.
As far as variety, you’ll find a bunch of small fondas where they serve the typical Panamanian cuisine. I saw a couple of chinese restaurants, a burger joint, a couple of pizza places, and a couple of bakeries (which were also cafes/sandwich shops). No American fastfood here. The only fast food place I saw was Pio Pio, which is a Panamanian fried chicken chain, and it was located right off the Pan-American Highway. The seafood places in town are great, especially the ones near the beach. Be aware though, they keep strange hours. I think they might only be open for dinner.
Is Aguadulce a beach town?
Aguadulce does have a beach, but it’s far from being known as a beach town. In fact, if it weren’t for the small sign that lets you know you’ve arrived at the beach, you’d probably drive right past it. The entrance to La Playa El Salado is nothing more than a small hill of grass that leads out to the sand and the entire beach is probably no longer than two or three hundred yards.
I’ve visited the beach twice, during the weekend, and have never seen anyone else on it. It’s not a popular place. If you were living in Aguadulce, this would be a great thing. There’d be no one around to bother you. One of the major problems with Panama beaches right now is that so many large developments and resorts are buying up the property right next to the beach.
Panama has rules regarding the purchase of beachfront property and by law, no one can block access to the beach. But these resorts are smart. Most of them buy the land all around and put up their buildings. There’s no parking around because you’d need to park at the resort or at the development, which you can’t do if you’re not a guest or a resident. So yes, technically, by law, you can visit the beach, but it’s extremely difficult and uncomfortable. Who wants to park a mile away, walk through the town, then walk through the resort, just to get to the beach?
My point is, while the Aguadulce beach might not be one of the coolest beaches to visit in Panama, it’s one of the most tranquil. You can park alongside the road and just chill out. Chances are, you’ll have the beach to yourself.
I’ve heard that Aguadulce has plans to build a huge port near this beach. If this is true, it should bring cash to the area and will probably mean more companies, residents, and tourists coming to town.
If you pass the beach and keep going down the road, you’ll drive through a very small town. Most of this part of town revolves around the fishing trade. You’ll see people weaving nets in their front yards, nets draped over balconies, etc.
At the end of the road you’ll hit a dead end. In Aguadulce they consider this the end of the beach. You’ll see small fishing boats parked and will probably see the townsfolk just hanging out. It’s pretty cool actually. It’s a tight community so expect to have people stare at you, especially if you pull out a camera, but the people are just curious, not threatening. It’s just a simple, laid back way of life.
When we visited this time, I stopped for a second and watched a dad explaining something to his son down by the water. I have no idea what they were talking about, but being a father myself, it just caught my attention. I didn’t want to ruin their moment, so I discreetly snapped the following photo. It just reminded me that good fathers are still out there teaching their boys how to be men.
While we were at the beach, I saw a motorcycle fly by with a cooler strapped to the back, the driver racing back into town with fresh fish on his bike. This happens all day long, and especially early in the morning, when these couriers will visit the docks and grab whatever they can to haul back into town.
Down a completely different street, which you can access over by the hotel we stayed at, you’ll find another dock, the other place these motorcycle delivery guys will frequent to snatch up some fresh product to sell in town. When we visited the dock, it was pretty empty. A few people fished, but by afternoon, it’s mostly deserted.
What would life be like in Aguadulce?
As I mentioned a few times already, life is very simple in Aguadulce. You won’t find a major mall and you won’t find a movie theater or a McDonald’s. You’ll find that stuff in Penonome, which is probably 30 minutes from Aguadulce, but you will have to leave town to find those kinds of amenities. I believe, like in many of the small towns in Panama, this represents a unique opportunity, one that’s hard to find back home in the U.S. or in Canada or probably wherever else you reside.
There’s the chance to bring something new to Aguadulce. Will you become a millionaire opening up shop in this small town? Probably not. However, let’s say you always wanted to make Philly cheesesteaks. Do it. Open a cheesesteak shack and do your thing. It might be hard at first because you won’t have as many customers as you would in Coronado, but you can live a nice simple life in Aguadulce, and have a hobby/business on the side.
What blows my mind about Aguadulce is how much stuff is there. Seriously. For a small town, and you probably wouldn’t notice this by driving through, but if you spend a little bit of time there, and really look at what businesses are around, you’ll be amazed. You can take care of almost any problem right there in town.
Medical care is abundant in Aguadulce. In fact, I know someone who had a tummy tuck done, and she was sent to a clinic in Aguadulce to have it taken care of. On the Pan-American Highway, I saw the photo posted above. A new polyclinic is on its way.
In addition to the one on its way and the Hospital Regional de Aguadulce, I saw an X-ray and ultrasound office, I counted six pharmacies (and I’m sure there were others), four opticians, three dental clinics, an orthodontist, a veterinarian, and even a specialist center which housed an orthopedic doctor, a cardiologist, a plastic surgeon, and a couple of other practices.
Banking wouldn’t be a problem in Aguadulce. I saw a Banco General, a BBVA, HSBC, Global Bank, Banco Nacional, Banco Universal, and a Caja de Ahorros. If your branch isn’t located in Aguadulce, at least you know you’ll have no trouble finding an ATM. At a clothing store in town, I even saw a sign for Western Union in the window.
The largest supermarket in the area is the Super Carne, which you’ll find when you first enter town. This supermarket has a butcher, has produce, and has all of the other items you should need. To save money, you can buy most of your produce from the small stands set up all over town.
Near the town center, on Sunday morning, I watched as a couple of guys sold green plantains straight out of the back of their pickup. Customers didn’t even have to get out of their cars. They drove up to the truck and the guys handed them their purchase. Right next to their truck was another truck filled with pineapples. It was awesome. If you want to live a healthy lifestyle with easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, this is the place to do it.
At small markets like these, you can pick up corn, carrots, cilantro, yucca, plantains, ñame, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, papaya, coconut, mangoes, and just about every other kind of fruit or vegetable you might need.
Fresh fish can be purchased from vendors as well. The guy in the photo below was selling fish out of the back of his truck. He saw me snapping photos and started waving his hands, trying to get my attention. He wanted to be a part of this PFR article so I had to include him. You never know whether people will get angry, excited, or just suspicious when you whip out your camera. I’ve learned to stay far away from security guards.
If you don’t want to go into a major supermarket, but just need a few supplies, you’ll find plenty of mini-supers in Aguadulce. At most of these you’d be able to pick up the necessities like milk, eggs, soda, trash bags, soap, oil, and all the other stuff you’d find at a mom and pop operation back in the States.
You’ll notice when driving through Aguadulce, the main street heads in one direction, loops around the church, and then comes back. This loop is where you’ll find most of the department stores and restaurants. Aguadulce has several department stores, none that you’d recognize, but all sell a little bit of everything. From clothes to toys to household goods and even furniture, you can find quite a bit in these stores.
If you lived in Aguadulce and ever had a hard time locating something, remember you can always visit Panama City. You wouldn’t even need a car living in Aguadulce. You can walk everywhere, take taxis to places you can’t walk to, and if you want to visit Panama City, just hop on one of the $6 buses that will drop you off at Albrook Mall, where you’re sure to find anything you desire. Albrook even has a large movie theater and a bowling alley.
If you’re not wanting to go to Panama City, but would like to take a bus to any of the other small towns around, like Penonome just a short ride away, you’ll want to go to the area in the photo above. It’s right next to the Museum and across from the church. This is where the small buses going to Penonome or Chitre or any of the other small towns will pick you up. Prices vary, but most of the time you just pay cash once you’re on the bus, unless the town has an actual ticket counter.
But again, Aguadulce has a lot to offer. I saw beauty salons, electronics stores, and even a sports store. I don’t remember seeing a sports store in any other town I’ve visited. Hell, it’s hard to find a sports store in Panama City. I saw a copy store which would be like a small Kinkos, where you’d go to have faxes sent, copies made, and most other office tasks achieved. I saw drycleaners and shoe repair centers and a junk yard and auto mechanics and a paint store and home improvement stores. I even saw a Dicky Powers Carwash. I have no idea who Dicky Powers is. I’m sure he’s not a relative, but seeing my last name on a carwash sign definitely caught my eye.
If you have school-age children, Aguadulce might be a tough place to raise them. I did see a couple of schools in town, but they’re not international schools. They’d be typical schools with probably mostly Spanish-speaking staff and curriculum. What some expats in small towns have done is established a schedule where they send their kids to the local town school for half the day, then bring them home and have them complete a computer-based, homeschool-style program. This is an option you might consider if you decide that Aguadulce is right for you.
Some expats have also just decided to put their kids through a full homeschooling program. The good thing about the mixed program is it forces your kids to learn Spanish and get to know people in the community. Having your kids attend homeschool in a foreign country, especially in a small town like Aguadulce, where everyone knows everyone, would probably be robbing them of the chance to connect with their neighbors. You don’t want your kids to be the weird anti-social gringos down the street.
Traffic in Aguadulce is almost nonexistent. Look at the next photo to see the busiest part of the day. Plus, as I’ve mentioned many times already, you wouldn’t even need to drive around. I’d save a ton of money on gas living in a place like Aguadulce. Would I ditch my car? Probably not since I have a large family, 4 kids, and I’d need a place to load all of my groceries. Plus, I like to travel around the country, so I need a car, but I promise you I’d rarely use it in town. I’d love to live in a place where I could ride a bike everywhere or just get out and walk.
As far as religion goes, Panama is a mostly Catholic country. The main church in town, the one from the big photo at the top of this article, is a Catholic church. I did see a church called Iglesia Biblica Bautista Agua Viva (that’s a mouthful, but I think it means Baptist). There may be other churches in town. I went up and down most of the roads, but I’m sure I missed some, and oftentimes people run churches out of their homes.
As far as connecting with fellow expats, Aguadulce isn’t really the place for that. I know there are a few living in town, but I didn’t see a single one on this most recent visit. During my last visit I saw the one woman I mentioned who was hanging out at the casinos, but she was the only one.
During my first visit, I needed to interview an expat, preferably someone living in town. I knew there was one in Aguadulce because I’d asked around and it’s funny how every person we encountered knew of this mythical gringo living on the outskirts of town.
Marlene asked our taxi driver if he knew where we could find this guy and he’d seen him around, but didn’t know where he lived. So he stopped the car, hopped out and ran into a bar. He asked aloud (in Spanish of course), “Hey, does anyone know where the gringo lives?” Customers pointed him in the right direction. That’s how close everyone in this town is.
It turned out this wonderful Gringo of Oz wasn’t home at the time. The gardener was working when we stopped by his house and he gave me the guy’s phone number. I called and asked if he’d be interested in participating in the interview, but he refused. Actually, he wouldn’t even talk to me at all. His wife told me he didn’t want to be part of the magazine.
I’m telling you this, because this seems to be the type of person who’d thrive in Aguadulce. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to jump right into a pre-established expat community, this could be the place for you. I’ve heard of a couple of other gringos who’ve since moved to Aguadulce, but again, I didn’t see them around town, so chances are, they’re keeping to themselves too.
What about real estate in Aguadulce?
Like anywhere else, Aguadulce seems to have residents of all income levels. Near the end of the beach, you’re likely to find small, shack-like homes, many of which are cinder block and haven’t even been painted.
Closer to the town center you’ll find nice, middle-income homes, painted a variety of colors. Some are really beautiful and not unlike you’d see in small-town United States.
If you pass the main town entrance and keep traveling down the Pan-American Highway, you’ll see some large houses being built off on the left-hand side of the road. This would be the upscale living in the area.
The first time I visited the area, our taxi driver told us all about this new place where the rich were building homes. He had a name for it, but I can’t remember what he called it. I hoped to see a sign when driving into the neighborhood this time, but there was’t one. My friend Andres was with me so I told him to ask a young guy on a riding lawnmower if he knew the name of the place and he just kind of looked at us with a confused expression.
Andres asked him a second time and the guy just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know. I can imagine him thinking, “What the hell are they talking about? Why would this place have a name? And I just work here.”
So, I have no idea what the community is called, but I’m pretty sure it’s the one started by retired baseball star, Carlos Lee, a Panamanian who once played for a handful of MLB teams to include the White Sox, the Brewers, the Rangers, the Astros, and the Marlins. He owns a large cattle ranch in Aguadulce and has done a lot for the community.
How much would it cost to live in Aguadulce?
Aguadulce could be a very affordable retirement. If it’s the simple life you’re looking for, and you don’t plan to travel back and forth to the city to buy a bunch of imported goods, you could definitely settle down here on a shoestring budget.
Not owning a car, or not using one often, would greatly decrease your budget. Dining out is fairly inexpensive here and since you can buy most food fresh, directly from farmers and street side vendors, your grocery costs would be low. Aguadulce isn’t a cool-weather destination, so air conditioning might jack up your electric bill a bit, unless you can get by with ceiling fans.
Take a look at the budget I put together for Aguadulce. As always, you could live on less or see your budget skyrocket depending on your lifestyle. I set the rent at $500, which quite honestly, I think is a bit high. I’ve heard of people finding a two-bedroom home for rent, for about $300. Expecting to pay $500 gives you more wiggle room though. It’s a more realistic number to shoot for. I just did an online check and couldn’t find a single place for rent in Aguadulce, but that doesn’t mean nothing is available. In many of these small towns, searching the Internet isn’t the way to do it. You need to visit the area, check out the posts hung up in the supermarkets, meet locals and search for a house the way a person living in town would, by word of mouth. Rentals exist, you just need to know how to find them.
This is what I imagine the average budget for a retired couple in Aguadulce to look like:
Monthly budget for a couple living in Aguadulce, Panama (Other)
Rent 2 bedroom house $500
Electricity Mostly from AC usage $150
Gas For cooking and dryer (2 small tanks) $10
Telephone/Internet/Cable Package deal $45
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 $200
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 By bus $40
Extras Other things you may need $50
Total Monthly Expenses For 2 people $1,415
Don’t forget to check out the Budget Snapshot in the main navigation menu to see how Aguadulce compares with all of the other destinations we’ve visited.
My overall gut
I like Aguadulce a lot, but I’m a relatively simple kind of guy. I don’t go out a lot, so I think I’d be fine with the few restaurants and bars in town. If I couldn’t find something I needed at the department stores, I’d just hop online and buy something over the Internet, or drive to Panama City. I think I’d be okay with the fact that I’d be one of the few expats living there. My wife would have a hard time in Aguadulce. Marlene was about to pull her hair out from boredom when we lived in Anchorage, Alaska, so I know she’d suffer in Aguadulce. She needs to be in a larger town or city.
I like the small beach in town. Friends of mine who traveled with me to Aguadulce this time around, seemed a bit disappointed when I drove them to the beach. The plan was to drop them off for a little while so I could gather more research about the town. Once they saw the deserted beach, they quickly decided they’d rather just tag along with me for the rest of the day. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was too quiet. I think it’s kind of cool having an empty beach in town, where I know I could take a radio, a blanket, a book, and my family out for the day.
Is Aguadulce for everyone? No, it’s not. I’m not sure if I’d consider living there with school-age children. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it, but I’d have to plan how I’d go about it. Would I put them in one of the public schools or home school them? I think the slower pace and lack of entertainment might get old very quickly with young kids. Young couples who desire an ever changing nightlife definitely won’t do well in Aguadulce. However, a retired couple completely at ease with quiet evenings and lunches in the town square would probably appreciate it.
While Aguadulce isn’t a tourist hotspot, I think it’s worth stopping by and seeing if it offers the quality life you’re looking for in your moving-overseas plans. Give this secret, charming town a chance and you might love it.
To see the Aguadulce Video Report click here.
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