An Inside Look at the Evolution of Boquete and the People Who Had the Vision to Make It Happen
If you were on a quest to find and talk with the single expat who knew more of the inside story, either by witnessing it, or by being part of it, of the evolution of Boquete from a sleepy Panamanian hamlet into the famous expat retirement destination it is today, you could find no one better than Paul McBride. Visit with Paul as he takes Jet from the time when everyone (but one person) thought that Boquete would stay as a Panamanian backwater.
Jet Metier: Hi Paul. How’s the beach? Which one are you enjoying?
Paul McBride: We generally stay at a friend’s house at a beach resort called Las Olas, which is located in Barqueta Beach.
Jet Metier: How far is Barqueta Beach from Boquete?
Paul McBride: From Boquete, it takes us just over an hour to get there. Given my work schedule, we generally go for one, maybe two nights. Panama is a fairly narrow country, geographically speaking, so you’re never very far from a coastline. The trip is on paved roads the whole way and passes through mostly agricultural and ranch land.
Jet Metier: Can you work while you’re at Barqueta Beach?
Paul McBride: There’s Internet service in the area, so there are no problems with connectivity.
Jet Metier: What is a typical day like at the beach house?
Paul McBride: When we’re staying at the ocean we generally spend the day relaxing by the pool or taking walks along the beach. Barqueta Beach is nearly 14 kilometers long (almost 10-miles) so the beachcombing is fantastic. It’s not a very busy place, so we almost always have the beach to ourselves.
Jet Metier: What’s the drink at sundown?
Paul McBride: We don’t have any special beach drinks. We prefer instead to have a glass of wine when the sun goes down.
Jet Metier: What’s the weather like right now where you live compared to the beach?
Paul McBride: Panama is in the equatorial tropics, so the temperature remains fairly constant year round. We do have two distinct seasons – the wet season and the dry season. The dry season (called summer here) usually begins in mid-December and lasts through the end of April. The wet season begins in May and lasts until mid-December. The dry season, between January and the end of March, is really dry – we generally get very little rain during this time. But it’s not like a switch is turned on and off with the change of seasons. There are extended periods of transitional weather when you have beautiful mornings and early afternoons before the rains start. Temperatures are a function of elevation. Because Boquete is higher in elevation (over 3,000 feet) the temperature is moderate. The coastal areas are always hot. However, because Boquete is located along the side of a mountain (Volcan Baru) we get much more precipitation than the beach areas. So for us, leaving for the beach during the wet season often means getting out of the rain.
Jet Metier: When is it “sweater weather” in Boquete?
Paul McBride: Boquete is actually a fairly large municipality with areas as low as 2,000 ft. above sea level and areas over 6,000 feet. If you get over 3,000 ft. you’re going to have a distinct cooling off at night (roughly in the 60’s F). That’s the sweater weather. Where I live (at about 2,200 ft.) it never really gets cold. Our nighttime temps usually stay in the low 70’s.
Jet Metier: That’s good sleeping weather! What are your memories of dramatic or severe weather in the Boquete area?
Paul McBride: The most dramatic weather events are usually associated with heavy downpours. Most of our rain comes from convection (warm air rising against the mountains) and sometimes this can produce extended periods of very hard rain (over 9 inches an hour). Even though this area is geographically suited for a lot of rain, when it rains that hard flooding and landslides can occur. This doesn’t happen often and the last flooding event occurring in 2010.
Jet Metier: I’ve heard, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” Why is getting water a difficulty in some areas?
Paul McBride: Although we are sitting on an ocean of fresh water (we average around 200 inches of rain a year), the water distribution system hasn’t kept up with the growth in the area. This is the main cause of the water outages that some areas experience. The residential community that we’re building, Boquete Canyon Village, has its own water system so we don’t rely on the municipal water system.
Jet Metier: How is the landscape designed to take advantage of the rain or not get washed away by it?
Paul McBride: Landscaping can be challenging because we get extensive rain much of the year, but little or no rain for three to four months. Over the years we have found a mix of plants and grasses that can thrive in this type of environment.
Jet Metier: In terms of work, is there an affect the weather and seasons have?
Paul McBride: We know the temperatures are going to be warm in the day and cool in the night and it will rain during some parts of the year and will be dry during other parts. It’s the consistency of the weather that makes it so enjoyable and predictable. We do get some wind during our summer time (it’s the weather phenomenon that creates the dry season) and you just learn to tolerate it when it happens.
Jet Metier: How would you describe living in the land of “eternal spring?”
Paul McBride: Well, the mountains are always lush, the temperature is always mild, the people are always warm and friendly, we have no traffic issues to deal with, and the birds are always singing in the morning….I could go on and on. When people ask me what I like most about living here, I tell them that my life is so easy. Once you get over the learning curve of living here, things just flow naturally.
Jet Metier: Where did you live before you came to Panama and what were you doing?
Paul McBride: I previously worked in the airline business and moved quite a bit in our early years of marriage; Denver, Colorado, Alaska, Seattle, and Santa Barbara before settling in Napa, California in 1991. We lived there raising our two boys until my wife moved down here with me in 2007.
Jet Metier: Why would you be the least likely guy to move to Panama?
Paul McBride: Actually, I’m the most likely guy to move to Panama. When I first visited in 1997 (at the invitation of Continental Airlines, when I was in the travel business) I immediately fell in love with the country. I thought the natural beauty was amazing, the history and culture fascinating and the opportunities for business abundant. What’s not to like?
Jet Metier: Panama sounds like it was actually a good fit for you. What did Boquete look like when you first came?
Paul McBride: It was a very sleepy, mountain community based on an agricultural economy that wasn’t doing very well. As I often tell people, at this time there were more horses than cars in downtown Boquete (which is hard to believe if you see the downtown area today). Services were very basic then. There were few restaurants, no Internet, poor cell phone coverage. The closest decent medical care was in David, an hour’s drive away at the time. The early expats were pioneers in the true sense of the word. Probably less than a dozen foreign residents lived in Boquete in 1999. They tended to have large properties, assimilated with the locals and had very low expectations of modern services. However, that’s why they came here.
Jet Metier: Who were the pioneers of Boquete as a retirement destination?
Paul McBride: Boquete as a retirement destination is due to one individual – Sam Taliaferro. Sam was a true visionary and came to Boquete in the late 90’s after running a successful high tech company in Costa Rica. Sam coined the term “land of eternal spring” and began marketing the area as an expat retiree paradise.
Jet Metier: When did you first meet Sam Taliaferro?
Paul McBride: I first met Sam in 2001 when he was starting Valle Escondido, his residential development and Boquete’s first expat community. To be honest, I thought he was absolutely crazy and there was no way mass numbers of expats would come to live in Boquete.
Jet Metier: What was the original vision?
Paul McBride: Sam had the vision and created both the community and the amenities (golf course, country club, restaurants, Internet cafes, etc.) to attract an international clientele. Without Sam, Boquete would still be a sleepy village. Unfortunately, Sam passed away in 2011 but what we now know as Boquete is his legacy. Most newcomers don’t realize it but without Sam they would not be in Boquete today.
Paul McBride: Sam Taliaferro was a pioneer and visionary in the truest sense of the words. Sam came to Boquete and was so impressed with what he saw that he couldn’t help but share it with the world. He was a true visionary in that he could physically see how things could be. By that I mean that he could look at a piece of property or a building site and visualize the possibilities. He then had a remarkable ability to transfer that vision to paper and, working with others, create the physical manifestation of that vision. It was truly remarkable. He had a level of focus that I have rarely seen in others, enabling him to create and build things in Boquete despite the thousands of obstacles. Remember, when Sam started Valle Escondido (the first residential project in Boquete), there was nothing here. He started from scratch. Today, Valle Escondido is the most successful residential community in Boquete. Nearly everyone living in or visiting Boquete today is here because of Sam Taliaferro, whether they know him or not.
Jet Metier: Tell us more about Sam. What type of impression did he make on others and on you?
I first met Sam in November of 2001 when he began developing Valle Escondido. I was with a group of people and we were invited to see his project. At the time, Boquete was truly a sleepy little Central American mountain village and the idea of foreigners retiring here was unfathomable. After touring the project and hearing Sam describe his vision, the consensus among the group was that Sam was the craziest gringo that they had ever met. Obviously, Sam proved us wrong. Four years later I met Sam again and he invited me to participate in one of his projects, a company called Prima Panama. Sam was an excellent teacher and mentor and he passed along to me just about everything he knew about developing and marketing real estate in Panama. All the knowledge and experience I have today is due to the solid foundation that Sam so generously gave to me.
Jet Metier: Do you have any anecdotes of the struggle that the community had in its building or incipiency or the creative ways you overcame problems that show a foundation of philosophical or spiritual drive?
Paul McBride: Boquete is a very interesting place and, curiously, the changes that have occurred are not really obvious. For example, the town of Boquete itself is very much like it was 15-years ago. There’s more traffic to be sure and parking is now difficult but the façade of the community is basically the same. What’s really changed are the small conveniences that people have come to expect. Things like cell phone coverage, high speed Internet, more specialty goods available at the local stores, more restaurants – these are the things that have really evolved in Boquete. However, on a quiet morning strolling through town it’s not really different than it was 15-years ago.
In my opinion much of the difficulties and struggles you hear about are not with Boquete itself but with the expectations and the capabilities of the people who come to live here. There’s a pretty steep learning curve when you move to any foreign country and some people just can’t adjust. Also, time has a much different meaning in the tropics and you either learn to go with the flow or you get crushed by the rocks.
Jet Metier: How is your new development Boquete Canyon Village shaping up?
Paul McBride: The investors I work with (all from Panama City) purchased our development at a foreclosure auction last August. It took time to clear up the title and other legal issues and they became the legally registered owners in November. Since then, we’ve spent most of our time, resources and energies getting the project back into shape and dealing with operational issues associated with nearly two years of deferred maintenance.
Jet Metier: What is it like marketing to an international clientele?
Paul McBride: We’re now at a point where I feel the development is really ready to be marketed and we’re starting construction on two new homes in the next month. We are also doing an extensive remodeling of our clubhouse to include a member’s lounge area, a coffee shop and Internet café, a fitness center and an outdoor swimming pool, pool bar and extensive gardens. It’s the amenities and the landscaping that drive business here.
To be a successful development you need to make a connection with prospective buyers and that means you have to have a visually impressive community. People come to Panama with preconceived notions of what living in the tropics should be like and it’s the challenge of the developer to deliver a community that appeals to these notions. A lot of this is done through landscaping, which is where we are spending substantial time. You also have to deliver and create value for your buyers. As a developer, this means that you need to leave a little money on the table, so your homeowners can build equity in their homes quickly. That helps sell the project.
Jet Metier: Paul, I'm not sure I know what that means. What do you mean when you say "this means that you need to leave a little money on the table"? What would this mean to a buyer?
Paul McBride: Thanks for asking, Jet. What I mean is that a smart developer intentionally sets the prices of the building lots and homes lower than what he could sell them for in the market in the beginning stages of the development. This means that early buyers have a better chance of seeing the value of their homes go up as prices rise when more properties are sold. Historically, the people who buy the first homes in a development get a better deal.
Jet Metier: Now that Boquete is filling out, what expectations are you managing and what adjustments in perception are you facing?
Paul McBride: Now that Boquete has matured, people have greater expectations about the services they want to receive. People expect high speed Internet, a variety of good restaurants, good cell phone coverage, quality medical care and many of the amenities that we take for granted in the US. It’s amazing to me how far Boquete has come in such little time that many of these expectations are met.
Jet Metier: What tools in marketing are helping you expand your reach that are working well for you?
Paul McBride: We plan to focus our marketing message on the quality of life here in Boquete and that you can live this lifestyle for less money than in the US, Canada and Europe. Internet marketing is our primary tool for connecting with our buyers. Our research shows that the vast majority of people considering a move overseas spend significant time on the Internet researching their options before they even visit a given destination. Our job, as marketers, it to engage these folks as early in the process as possible and provide them with clear and objective information that can help in their decision.
Jet Metier: What surprises you in this chapter of your career in real estate and marketing?
Paul McBride: The biggest surprise that I have is that there aren’t more people looking to take advantage of the benefits of living overseas. I know that it’s a big leap for most people, but the cost/benefit advantages of living in a place like Boquete are hard to beat.
Jet Metier: What do you miss about California?
Paul McBride: I really don’t miss living in California. Of course, my wife and I miss our sons (one in Oakland, California and the other in Seattle, Washington) and my father who lives in Walnut Creek, California. We try to get back and visit at least twice a year and we do a bit of shopping. Other than that, it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there (cliché, I know).
Jet Metier: What kind of entrepreneurs are needed in Boquete?
Paul McBride: The biggest challenge most people have when they move to Boquete is dealing with the culture and working around the language issue. Despite what you read on a few real estate marketing sites, English is not widely spoken and it does take some knowledge of the Spanish language to live here successfully. That said, there’s certainly an opportunity for an enterprising person to act as a cultural and linguistic liaison to create a thriving business here.
Jet Metier: What kind of business or service would make life easier in Boquete or would eliminate not having to go into David or Panama City?
Paul McBride: One of the recent game changers for this area was the completion of a new 4-lane highway connecting Boquete with David. This is an amazing asset for the community and has made the drive to David both quicker and safer. Now, you can drive to David in about 30-minutes. Before, it could take an hour or more, considering traffic. In the past, this relatively long drive was not only inconvenient, but it had a dramatic effect on health services. Now, being able to get to a good hospital in 30-minutes can be a lifesaver. So, there’s really nothing that needs to be added to Boquete to make it more convenient.
Jet Metier: What are expats doing to change the culture or behavior in Boquete that you fully applaud?
Paul McBride: Change is inevitable and there’s no question that the influx of foreigners has had an effect on the local culture and identity. But a surprising thing has happened over the past four years. The worldwide economic crisis really didn’t have an impact on the Panamanian economy. At the same time, it had a huge impact on the number of foreigners who were able to afford to make the move to Boquete. Now there are more Panamanians (primarily from Panama City and David) purchasing property in Boquete than there are foreigners. The result is that the Panamanian culture is actually beginning to once again overtake the foreign influence. I find that comforting.
Jet Metier: If Boquete were going to put you in their annals, what would you like said of you and your accomplishments?
Paul McBride: I can’t claim to have had any measurable effect on Boquete either in the past or the present. If I were to want to have a legacy it would be to keep the story alive that Sam Taliaferro started over 14 years ago and to act as a historical bridge for the new residents so they understand why Boquete is the way it is today.
Jet Metier: When you aren’t working (even at the beach house), what can you be found doing for fun and rejuvenation?
Paul McBride: When I’m not working, my wife and I like to travel around the country exploring new areas and revisiting areas that we’ve seen in the past. My wife is an avid photographer and I’m her loyal assistant and driver and stop the car when I’m instructed.
Jet Metier: What theme or message in a book you are currently reading are you are integrating into your life and how see the world?
Paul McBride: The book I’m currently reading is “All the President’s Bankers, The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power” by Nomi Prins. I’m fascinated by how the financial interests have captured the American economy and the political process. The recent economic crisis was in most part caused by the financial institutions and the next crisis will be their doing as well. We live in interesting times. Living in Panama helps me be a bit more objective in how I view current events.
Jet Metier: What does your soul ache to find?
Paul McBride: What does my soul ache to find – honesty, courage, justice and equality. These are virtues in short supply these days.
Jet Metier: Thank-you so much Paul for giving me such thoughtful responses to my curiosities about your life in Boquete. I wish you and your wife continued good health. And please tell her that if she wants to share her photos of your road trips through Panama, I would be very happy to see them and if she wishes, to share them with our community at Best Places.