Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

FARALLÓN, Panama — In this quiet coastal town, where the Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega once owned a beach villa, residents are preparing for a wave of international homebuyers.

A former U.S. air base in neighboring Río Hato is set to reopen as an international airport, capable of handling direct flights from Canada and the United States. And the increased traffic is expected to bring more vacation home development in Farallón, best known for its white sandy beach, a rarity along Panama’s coast.

“There is no doubt there are going to be more developments,” said Gordon Pineo, an Argentine who first started visiting Farallón in 1992.

In 2009, Pineo and Antonio Enríquez opened a bed-and-breakfast in Farallón on land that Enríquez’s family has owned since 1970. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” Pineo said.

The stretch between Farallón and the resort town Coronado to the east, which runs almost 20 miles, is already popular with second-home buyers from North America, Venezuela and Colombia. With the Pan-American Highway, which opened in the late 1990s and has four lanes, beaches in the area are only about a two-hour drive west of Panama City, depending on traffic on the Bridge of the Americas across the Panama Canal.

But travelers must now land at Tocumen International Airport, a few miles east of Panama City, and drive through the congested capital to reach the beach resorts. The new airport, Scarlett Martínez International Airport at Río Hato, will allow them to avoid that traffic.

“The drive through Panama City is a nightmare for some people,” said Michael Vuytowecz, who owns Inside Panama Real Estate, an agency in Coronado.

Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, officially opened the new airport in a ceremony on Nov. 13, but there has been no word on when commercial flights will begin.


The landing strip was used by the U.S. military during World War II and later by the Air Force, before it was turned over to Panamanian control. But the site has been little used since 1989, when it was attacked by American forces during the invasion that removed Noriega from power.

Airports are often connected to the growth of vacation home markets, industry experts say. In Costa Rica, for example, the airport in Liberia has been credited with opening up Guanacaste Province and the northwest coast to international tourists and homebuyers.


The industry estimates that more than 30 projects are in the planning or early construction stages along the Farallón to Coronado corridor, a good part of them related to the new airport.

“Anything within one hour of an international airport is very valuable,” said José Manuel Bern, president of Empresas Bern, one of the largest builders in Panama, which is behind several of the new projects. “It’s going to increase the radius of attractiveness for the area.”

Developers like Bern are moving cautiously. They note that there is no guarantee that the airport will increase interest in the region, which has been popular with Panamanians for decades. And, at least in the beginning, the airport will handle only charters and domestic flights.

“We’re waiting to see the impact of the airport,” said Joseph Malca, chief executive of Immobiliare, a local developer that owns 25 acres of developable land in Coronado. “It takes time to create a destination.”

Home prices in the area went through a lull after the recession but have been steadily rising in the past year, Vuytowecz said. Homes that sold for about $1,800 a square meter, or $168.22 a square foot, are now selling for closer to $2,300 a square meter, because of interest from Panama’s fast growing middle class, as well as international buyers, he said. (The dollar and the balboa are the official currencies of Panama.)

A 112-square-meter condominium on the 15th floor of a tower overlooking Playa Coronado is listed on Vuytowecz’s site for $250,000; a 181-square-meter bungalow in a gated community in Coronado is priced at $319,000.

Most of the construction in recent years has focused on Coronado, which is popular with buyers from Canada and the United States. Several supermarkets, American fast-food restaurants, international schools and a respected wine store have opened in the town in recent years, catering to the fast-growing expatriate community.

There is also a vibrant social scene for expatriates in the area, said Jill Womack, who moved to Coronado with her husband, Don, in 2010. “We have something to do every night,” she said.

The couple, both from the United States, rent a 1,800-square-foot apartment on the 14th floor of a tower next to the Coronado Country Club, with a wide balcony offering expansive views of the Pacific. Their rent is about $1,700 a month, although rents can be as much as $1,900 a month in the high season, typically mid-December to mid-April. Similar apartments for sale in the building are priced at about $365,000.

Many foreigners are taking advantage of Panama’s welcoming policies toward expatriates, including the “pensionado” program, which offers residence visas and discounts to retirees, Womack said.

“I think we will see more and more foreigners coming here as the world tightens up,” he added.


Farallón remains relatively untouched by the construction boom. The beach area is lined with small homes and a few open-air restaurants serving fresh ceviche.

But there are signs of change. The Royal Decameron, part of a chain of all-inclusive resorts, opened in 2000 on land once used for the beach town’s small police station. And in 2012, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts took over management of the nearby Bristol Buenaventura, a 1,000-acre hotel and golf complex, becoming one of the first international brands to plant a flag in the area.

Local laws prohibit large projects in Farallón, but Enríquez, the bed-and-breakfast co-owner, is skeptical that they will prevent new developments.

“There are regulations,” he said, “but they are not necessarily followed.”