Time drags like a tree-climbing sloth in the so-called “American Zone” of Golfito, where workers from the United Fruit Company once sat on porches of tidy clapboard tropical homes, watching parrots flit back and forth through the fruit trees while swatting mosquitoes and other flying insects.
It still rains a lot in this southern Pacific port city. The pace of life remains slow, the mosquitoes hungry. And the wildlife is as abundant as ever.
Home prices hadn’t changed much, either, local real estate experts say, until recently.
Just two years ago, explains Suanny Moralis, owner of Pacific Tides Realty, a tourist could stroll into Golfito’s rough-and-tumble main street, still this town’s weekend hangout for palm and banana plantation workers and the occasional stray Panamanian, and walk out with a home for $40,000.
Today you’d be lucky to get one for under $300,000, “if you can find one at all,”Moralis says.
“Prices are rising, but you still get more bang for your buck than you might in Dominical, to the north,” she adds.
Most of the old United Fruit Company homes are found in the neighborhood known alternately as the American Zone or Barrio Alamedas. Nearly all have sold in the past year or two, and many are in the process of being remodeled.
The houses are built from wood treated for termites – “It really works,” boasts one real estate agent’s Web site – ceilings are 10 feet high, and the yards are large and festooned with all manner of tropical plants, as well as gulf views in many cases. They are reminiscent, say those in the know, of the classic Canal Zone houses in Panama City, several hours south.
“There are a lot of fixer-uppers,” says Dave Corella, owner of Rainforest Properties in Golfito. “But the homes are stunning. And they’re still available if you look around.”
Corella calls it the “Golfito Renaissance.” Insiders attribute the sudden boom in interest to the recent approval of a 217-slip marina in Golfito, called Bahía Escondida, now under construction within eyeshot of Corella’s office.
“Fishermen like the idea of having their boat here and a house nearby,” he says. The Golfito region is already well known for its world-class sportfishing, Corella says, with numerous fishing lodges and charterboat captains ringing the area’s crown jewel, the Golfo Dulce.
There are no beaches in Golfito. The area’s placid, protected waters lend themselves to jungle and mangrove shorelines, but such gems as Playa Zancudo and Playa Pavones are within striking distance.
The government also recently announced its commitment to a new international airport, the country’s third, in Palmar Sur, to the northwest. It would put the Southern Zone, the remotest region in the country, within a few-hour flight of most major cities in North America.
Hotels are eyeing the region, as well as a sports club that’s looking to invest $1 million in the area, Corella says.
“You can see Golfito changing. It’s growing at its own pace, but it’s going to happen,” Moralis says.
The region’s infrastructure, also left over from the banana era, has helped, she adds.
“We have a hospital, a university, grocery stores, even seven hardware stores – all thanks to the United Fruit Company,” she says.
The abundant wildlife helps, too. Monkeys, sloths, parrots and macaws abound. So do whales and dolphins in the gulf and beyond.
“It’s everywhere you look. The wildlife is incredible. That’s what people come here for. This place isn’t developed like the rest of the country. It’s still a Tico town,” Corella says.
Despite its obvious attractions, Golfito isn’t for everyone, he warns.
“There’s a lot of jungle, a lot of tropics, a lot of rain,” he says.
Most people, he adds, come once in the winter to see it “at its worst,” particularly if they plan to retire here. But these same things are what keep the region pristine, and keep out many who are looking for the gated-community scene so common in the distant northwestern province of Guanacaste.
“If you want to live among the local population, this is a good place to be,” Corella says. “There’s definitely a flavor of the good old days here.”