Recently, I read yet another article about the perils and hazards of purchasing property in “Bocas del Toro”. This particular article implied that almost all real estate property in the area is ROP, (Rights of Possession) with no clear title. Unfortunately, “Bocas” has been given a pretty one-sided, negative reputation because of unscrupulous sellers who took advantage of unwary buyers in the early growth stages of this region. However, I would like to offer some insight based on personal experience regarding land purchase and ownership in this beautiful tropical paradise.
To begin with, Bocas Del Toro is the name for the Panama province that encompasses a large part of the northwestern corner of Panama, including over 1200 square miles of mainland and nine large islands. It is much more than the just the Caribbean island archipelago that carries the same name or the island of Colon where “Bocas” town exists. To lump all of this extremely diverse area into one box and then label it “treacherous” is unfair and unjustified to the region and the many happy and friendly people who live here. It is true that a buyer must be informed, knowledgeable and follow certain protocols if they intend to purchase property in Panama. However, I think that those things are important anytime you are considering a real estate transaction regardless of country, province or state.
I live in and have invested in Bocas. I consider myself as living proof that you can safely buy titled or ROP property here. Let me tell you my story as an example of a “happy” experience in Bocas del Toro.
I came here 12 years ago when I was “wander-lusting” though Central America looking for my “place in the sun”. Being an adventurous entrepreneur and real-estate investor in the States, I wasn’t afraid to venture outside of the U.S. borders, although, at the time, I knew very little about international property investments. For the most part, I was armed only with enthusiasm and common sense. As soon as my traveling companion and I landed in Bocas town, we knew it had potential. Known mostly for backpackers and surfers, the new airport was just beginning to encourage tourism and investment. The signs of growth were very evident. The town was quaint and picturesque. Everywhere we went, there was new construction or remodeling. Local residents were fixing up their homes, new restaurants and businesses were opening and the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming.
Our first investment opportunity came within a few days of our arrival. My friend and I were walking down the main street of town enjoying the ocean breeze and absorbing the local flavor of the tropical community. My friend decided she wanted one of the beautiful mangoes she saw in a grocery store we were passing. Not wanting to go inside where the air conditioning might remind me of the winter I had left behind in the states, I waited outside. While I was there, soaking up the warm sunshine, a man, who for all appearances seemed to be a local resident, came ambling down the street. In the way that is still typical today, he stopped and began a friendly conversation with me.
At some point, he casually asked, “Do you know anywhere I can sell a house in this town?” and began describing his property to me.
I could not believe what I was hearing and the hair stood up on my neck as he described his property and gestured toward the ocean. As calmly as possible, I said I might know someone who would be interested and if he would wait for my friend, we would go look at it right then. In a few minutes when she did join us, we all walked together eating fresh mangoes and talking as we made our way to a small property about three blocks away. Two tall palm trees swayed at the front of a small lot right on the bay with a ramshackle house behind them. The view across the bay was phenomenal and we had our own private little beach. Notice I said “we”… “We” were totally smitten. In our imagination, we had already moved in. As we continued to explore the property we were again taken by surprise when he told us his asking price. We could hardly believe our ears and had trouble containing our shared excitement. Of course we tried to negotiate down a little but it was obvious that this was a bargain. At that point, we told him that we would like to have the title reviewed and complete paperwork done by the proper authorities but that if it all checked out we would buy the property for cash. It did. We did, and the rest is history. It had a clear title, plus we got the concession to build over the water (another type of ROP that is an important part of any beachfront ownership).
In the 12 years since, there has never been an inkling of a dispute or problem. During that time, we built a boat house, a dock with a palapa at the end, three little guest houses and a small spa (Little Spa Shop by the Sea). Every day as we relax in our hammocks at the end of the dock, we give thanks for such a great blessing and good fortune.
Through the years we have come to know many others who have successfully bought both titled and ROP property in Bocas del Toro. This list includes Stephen Crabtree and Joan Sessler who own the Careening Cay and were featured in May 2012 issue of International Living.
Another good friend sells titled lots on the neighboring Island of Bastimentos in the $35K to $40K range and has never encountered a problem for any of his clients or buyers. One of my lady-friends bought a property on the main street of Bocas town where she has developed an amazing specialty grocery store appropriately called, “Super Gourmet”; again with nary a hitch. I could go on and on.
I’m not saying that scandalous ROP land doesn’t exist or that there are never any disputes. I just think it’s worthwhile to note that successful real-estate purchases of titled and ROP land can be done in Bocas. If Bocas is your cup of tea, approach any potential purchase with the same common sense as you would in any other area. Get help and support from some of the many of us who have untaken the process and would love to share with others. We want everyone to have an equally successful conclusion so that you can join us in paradise.