Panama - Cultural Crossroad
Panama is the wild west of diving in the Americas - a place where a sense of adventure thrives, and divers explore the brink of an untamed frontier. Come up for air and find much of the same raw character in endless tropical rainforests, on scores of palm-fringed islands laced by reefs, and in remote territories where local peoples like the Bribri and Kuna live as they have for centuries.
But there's quirky contrast, too. Just a four-hour flight separates this Central American nation from Houston. Upon arriving, the ties to the States seem many: a modern central infrastructure thanks to Uncle Sam's canal, dead U.S. presidents on the official currency and a wealth of emigrant investors. And for expat hopefuls wanting to quickly assimilate, Panama provides a cultural crossroad where nationalities easily mix and an emerging hub for Americans looking to stretch retirement dollars or to invest in tourism trade - and realize a dream.
Jim Kimball has made good on such a dream. After cashing out of his petrochemical career in Houston, he and his wife teamed with a business partner to scout the Caribbean in search of a remote location on which to build an eco-lodge.
"We liked the Caribbean because we didn't want to go halfway around the world," he says.
After a deal fell through in Belize in 1998, the Kimball clan pushed south. The next year they arrived in Panama and felt they'd stumbled upon paradise.
"Bocas del Toro (a Panamanian province) was pretty raw then, but it had an airstrip and flights to Panama City. The diving and fishing potential is quite literally off the charts," he explains.
With the surrounding 28,600 marine acres of Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park dedicated as a marine habitat, Kimball knew the area would stay relatively undeveloped, its reefs pristine.
"So much of the marine park has never even been explored under the surface, and many dive sites are unnamed," he says.
After five years of struggle - from finding decent workers and sourcing construction materials to installing a $10,000 generator and building a 150-foot-tall Wi-Fi antenna - his Tranquilo Bay eco-lodge opened on a private island several miles south of town.
"I didn't pay bribes; I demanded inspectors follow the rules and got a good attorney who knows the law," Kimball recounts.
Now, Tranquilo Bay sees divers and adventurers weekly. Kimball's family has grown to include two children - who have yet to discover the joys of TV, much less cable. No traffic, no war coverage. Nothing but an idyllic life on a Panamanian island.
"It's all very liberating and frees up your mind, like stepping back in time," he says. "I can't imagine a better life."
On a private island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, tranquilo bay (tranquilobay.com) eco-lodge provides guests diving at exclusive "no other divers in sight" locations within three to 15 miles. Bocas water sports (bocaswater sports.com) visits shallow and mid-depth sites that include walls, coral caves and wrecks within a 30-minute ride. Find more information through ipat, Panama's official tourism site (visitpanama.com).Learn about residency and business opportunities by visiting business panama (businesspanama.com). Expatriate information can be found at escapeartist.com. A good, blog-style source on all-things Panama is thepanamareport.com.