Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Historic Panama - for Less than $1,600 a Month


Historic Panama - for Less than $1,600 a Month
By Susanna Perkins
Perhaps best known for its extravagant Carnaval celebration, Las Tablas is the center of Panama's folkloric culture. Though not well known to North Americans, Panamanians flock here regularly, particularly to the two annual festivals that are held each year to honor the pollera, the national dress.
But folklore is just the start of what this friendly little town has to offer. In-the-know expats have been coming here for several years. They come from all over—we've met residents from Europe, South America, the U.S., and Canada.
To get to Las Tablas on Panama's Azuero Peninsula, you follow a new road past ranches, rolling hills, and low mountains, and past the city of Chitre.
That's how my husband and I found it in the spring of 2012. Back then, we needed a place to live and regroup after the financial meltdown in the U.S. We had made only one exploratory trip to the country, and weren't attracted to Panama City, David, or Boquete...but when we arrived in Las Tablas in the early evening, we sensed a vibrancy about the town that appealed to us.
The heart of the town is the parque, or town square. Anchored by the Iglesia de Santa Librada at one corner, with a museum, stores, and offices all around, it's where 100,000 people jam in to party and watch the parades during Carnaval, where women from all over the country show off their beautiful polleras during the Mil Polleras festival in January, and where the Christmas parade and the New Year's Eve celebration happen.
On a regular day, you'll see people sitting in the park with their laptops using the free municipal WiFi, or hanging out with their friends in the gazebo. Shoppers wander through carrying bags and parcels.
Las Tablas is an affordable place to live. We found a furnished house to rent in an upscale subdivision on the edge of town. It comprised three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and front and back porches. Price: $400 a month. We didn't own a car for the first eight months, and our total expenses, including transportation, entertainment and eating out a couple times each week, totaled $1533.50. After we bought a car, expenses increased by a few dollars per month.
There's plenty to do in Las Tablas: cycling, aqua aerobics at one of several area swimming pools, or beaches to walk or swim. From the center of town, a 12 to 15 minute drive takes you to two very different beaches. Las Comadres—our favorite—is usually deserted except on Sundays. Uverito provides more parking, restaurants, and bars.
If you're not in the mood for the beach, head west into the mountains for spectacular views and a respite from the heat. There you'll find rivers, streams, waterfalls, and swimming holes.
The town also boasts good dining, from the open-air fondas to more upscale establishments. A meal for two, with a couple of beers, at a mid-value restaurant like El Caseron will set you back less than $20. If you're looking for lunch, almost every eatery in town offers a menu del dia which includes soup, a main course, and often a beverage or dessert, for $2 or $2.50 a head. If you're in the mood for more American-style fare, stop in at Ponchalo's for a giant cheeseburger, pizza, or quesadilla.