Life in Bocas del Toro: To Build or Not to Build

One of the questions most frequently asked me takes some form of, “Can I, or Should I consider building a home in the islands of Bocas del Toro?” I have been promising to address this question for some time now so here is the simple answer to a complicated question…

“It depends on your relationship with and the skills of your therapist.”

I know how that sounds, but really, my point is that you need to enter into the process with an open mind and a good sense of humor. Building in a foreign environment can be challenging but hopefully a few tips here will guide you in a positive direction from the start.

Many people are attracted by the lower average living cost in Panama and translate that to mean that everything in the region is less expensive. Although in many ways, that is true, it does not necessarily apply to construction in Bocas del Toro. In addition, the techniques and requirements for construction in the tropics and in a foreign country are much different than anything you may have experienced or are familiar with in the USA. With the help of several good friends who have built in these Panama islands and some real life adventures of my helpmate, who is a former contractor/builder, and has done construction on the islands, I will try to illustrate some of the challenges they have faced (and overcome). I don’t want to give the impression that it is impossible or impractical to build in the Bocas area. People are doing it all the time. There are many beautiful and modern homes and buildings throughout the islands. I only want to point out some of the distinctions and realities of tropical island building that will perhaps let you enter into your project with a new mindset and general awareness of what you will be dealing with as you build.


Let’s start with the basics and proceed step by step through the process. Obviously, the first step is property purchase. What and where you buy has a very definite influence on your building process. The island of Colon is the only island with roads and the ability to have materials and goods shipped directly. Everywhere else throughout the Bocas del Toro Archipelago is accessible by boat only. This means that every rock, bag of cement, piece of lumber, hardware and utility part will have to be transported to your island of choice by watercraft of some type. Don’t forget to factor that into the total cost of your project.

Then, once it is on the island, it has to be carried to the building site by some method. If you have chosen to live on a ridgeline or tucked into the forest away from the shoreline, all of those materials will need to be transported either inland, or up, or both. In most cases, unless you factor in the construction of a road, (and entirely different project in a tropical rainforest) you will carry everything in by hand. Not impossible and some amazing homes have been built here on some beautiful, “overlooking the Caribbean” view-lots where everything involved was hand-carried to the building site. Again, even though general labor costs are amazingly low, this is another consideration in time and money that will affect building costs.

Building permits in the Bocas del Toro Islands are generally pretty straight-forward. You will need a land survey, a plan stamped by an architect and an estimated building cost. The process can take a few weeks to several months depending on the complexity of the project and how the circles of bureaucracy are moving at the time. A good attorney is a valuable resource in this step.

Building set-backs vary from place to place but a good rule of thumb is at least one meter from lot lines and 10 meters from the medium high-tide line for any permanent structure. It is possible to build over the water if you apply for what is called a “concession”. This gives you permission to use a designated space (generally in front of your “land property”) to build on. You do not own that seafloor space, only the right to use and prevent anyone else from building on the frontage that you describe in your concession permit. It is not necessarily tied to the land title but generally the concession right of usage is sold along with the land. If you only want to build a dock to access your property, that usually is covered by a simple permit. There are restrictions on building within a certain distance of any living coral and how much you are allowed to trim mangroves. Every property will be unique in that respect but it is certainly something to be aware of as you plan your project.

Ok, so now you have the land and all the permits secured. You are ready to start getting materials and transporting to the site of your new home. Oops! What materials? What are you building with? Concrete? Wood? Steel? How much do you need and where are you staging for the project? The answers to these questions lie a great deal in the type and size of the building/s you are constructing. Many new arrivals expect to build something that is analogous to what they are used to in the US. But let’s take a look at that. For the most part, what we are leaving behind is a much different life-style than what we expect to lead in the laid-back environment of a tropical island paradise like the Bocas del Toro Islands. Do you really need a three or four bedroom 2600 square foot house for two people? Probably not. So think small. Not so small that it can affect the sale of the property in the future, but small enough to be practical and efficient for your needs. Adding on is a lot easier than subtracting if you start building a mansion and suddenly realize that you are so far over budget and time that your dream-life in the tropics is threatened.

Also consider that the climate here is unique. The temperatures are very stable and comfortable year-around. Double-sided walls (meaning that the framework is completely enclosed) and insulation are not necessary. I am not aware of any homes that are heated in any way. Air conditioning is a personal choice and is nice if you are located in a place where the breezes are restricted, but you will almost never run it more than a few hours a day, if at all. Lots of window space for views and airflow are a good idea. Open walls, both interior and exterior save costs. In addition, this helps prevent moisture buildup and insect problems inside closed walls where you almost never detect problems until it is too late. Some insulation on the roof structure makes sense to deaden the sound of rain (remember tropical rain forest) and mitigate solar heating in the interior of the home.

So think “air-flow”, “light”, “minimizing the effects of moisture and insects” and “space efficiency” when you are planning your home.

Goodness, I’m running way over my word-length-budget already and we haven’t driven the first nail yet. Ouch! So I’m going to have to continue this discussion later in at least one more article. Stay tuned to hear about “creating access”, “site storage and staging ideas”, “security issues”, “labor”, “types of building materials” and “availability of materials and tools”. And, oh yes, some real-life cost numbers as they relate to building in the island of Bocas del Toro. Remember, building can becomes part of your adventure and is a totally rewarding and inspiring thing when you see your vision become reality. Hopefully some of what I pass on will help make that adventure in this Panama tropical paradise more enjoyable.

Article by: Anne Michelle Wand, United Country Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro Travel News Living in Bocas del Toro

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