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U.S. Baby Boomers Retiring in Panama, Part 2

Many Americans are attracted to Bocas because of beaches like this one, called Red Frog -- named after a rare species that lives here. A huge development being built nearby will boast a 100-boat marina and homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR
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Many Americans are attracted to Bocas because of beaches like this one, called Red Frog -- named after a rare species that lives here. A huge development being built nearby will boast a 100-boat marina and homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
American expatriates say part of the charm of Bocas del Toro is its laid-back quality. There are few cars on the main island, even in the heart of town.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR /
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American expatriates say part of the charm of Bocas del Toro is its laid-back quality. There are few cars on the main island, even in the heart of town.
Chingo, a member of the local black English-speaking community, says he's unhappy with many of the changes he's seen in Bocas del Toro, even though he's benefitted.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR /
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Chingo, a member of the local black English-speaking community, says he's unhappy with many of the changes he's seen in Bocas del Toro, even though he's benefitted.
Michael Martinez, 21, catches lobster for a living. He says he would like a job working at the big developments, even though they only pay about $12 a day -- but he's worried about land being sold to foreigners.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR /
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Michael Martinez, 21, catches lobster for a living. He says he would like a job working at the big developments, even though they only pay about $12 a day -- but he's worried about land being sold to foreigners.
A backhoe digs through protected red mangroves at a future hotel complex. It's illegal to cut down this vital part of the ecosystem, but much of the destruction has gone unchecked by environmental authorities.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR /
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A backhoe digs through protected red mangroves at a future hotel complex. It's illegal to cut down this vital part of the ecosystem, but much of the destruction has gone unchecked by environmental authorities.

It's a good bet that most people at one time or another have thought about running away to a tropical paradise. For most, it remains just a fantasy. But booming housing prices in the United States and a rising cost of living for retiring Baby Boomers is prompting more Americans to look to retiring abroad.

Of course, that's not a new idea. But as traditional spots in Mexico and Costa Rica become more expensive, an increasing number of Americans are now buying their own piece of paradise in parts of Central America that were once considered dangerous backwaters -- places such as Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, previously off-limits because of volatile political climates.

Panama, in particular, is experiencing a real estate boom due largely to American retirees looking to settle down. In the archipelago called Bocas del Toro, the boom is more like a feeding frenzy.

The tourist businesses lining the quaint, unpaved streets of the main town until recently were geared toward the surfing crowd, who have been coming here for years. Now there are dozens of hotels, a gourmet supermarket and spa facilities. There are new faces in the crowd every day.

"A large percentage of the people are going to be Baby Boomers -- people in their 50s who have a lot of equity in their home in the United States, people who don't have much in the way of retirement programs," says Jim McCarren, an American expatriate living on the island for more than nine years. He's taken up selling real estate himself, selling property to fellow Americans.

Many others are getting involved in the boom, selling off parcels of their own land. Tales of unsavory practices abound -- price gouging, developments in sensitive rain forests, stealing land from Indian tribes...

Don King, another expatriate selling real estate on the islands, says development is inevitable.

"But you can try and influence where it happens, where it should happen and where it should not," he says. The real estate frenzy is getting worse as more people find out about this pocket of paradise.

"This is a crazed machine -- these people are coming in on private planes, they are... buying like mad," he says.

Island locals are having a tough time dealing with the changes brought by this gringo buying boom. There are three main local communities here: the English-speaking blacks, originally brought from Jamaica to work the plantations, Spanish-speaking mainlanders, and the Guaymi and Ngobe Bugle Indians.

A boat driver, who asks to be called Chingo, says their traditional lands are being sold off bit by bit. Locals no longer have access to certain areas, and although developers provide employment, he says the wages are too low.

"I don't want to work for $10 a day -- that is no kind of money," he says, speaking in the local English patois. "Plenty people take, 'cause they in need, though."

Michael Martinez, who makes a living catching lobsters, is more blunt about the changes on his island. "Many foreigners are coming and we sell our land to them without thinking about what comes next," he says.

"With the money they give us, we think we are rich -- but they are tricking us. The land then doesn't belong to us anymore, and they are going to throw us out like animals."

Others, like local entrepreneur Caleb Thomas Porter, is much more optimistic. There are problems with corruption, overdevelopment, exploitation and conflict with indigenous tribes -- but in the long run, a rising tide will lift all boats.

"I really see that things is coming good," he says. "Bocas is growing. When a place grows everything grows. The good things grows and the bad things grows, too."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.