One of the first challenges facing expats is finding an abode they can call home. We decided to turn an already challenging situation into an adventure, and we bought a boat instead. This is the story of our decision to live aboard a boat.
We approached the move to Panama differently than most expats would. Instead of visiting the country prior to a final decision, we started our application for residency immediately after our first arrival.
That approach has certain benefits, but it is not something I would recommend to all prospective expats. My advice is to visit Panama for as long as you possibly can, before taking a decision about relocation.
Biding time in Panama City
We used the Friendly Nations Visa for our residency application. To this day we are thankful for the hassle-free process we experienced; we received our temporary residency cards 20 days after arrival.
The last item on the Panama City agenda was getting our temporary driver’s licenses.
Arriving in Bocas
From all the research we did, Bocas del Toro stood out as an attractive destination for our preferred lifestyle – tropical climate, the Caribbean Sea, islands.
And so, it was with great excitement that we boarded our plane at Allbrook International Airport, bound for Colon Island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago.
We spent the first two weeks in a lower-priced, self-catering holiday cottage, while we searched for longer-term accommodation. This period also doubled as our induction into the local culture.
We learned about wooden structures, the volume of music, the speed at which taxis can move, sewer systems and the plumbing that should facilitate it, gringo pricing, chitras at dusk and how a cold beer can save the day.
From there we moved into a very comfortable apartment, a little distance out of town. Even here the induction continued, as we learned even more about the local culture.
Getting to know the place
We realized why the wise words of “rent for at least six months, preferably a year, before buying a property” are indeed wise. It is because there are so many factors to consider.
Some of these factors reveal themselves quickly, within a week or a month. Others remain hidden and only become apparent with the change of season. Some involve annual events while others, like a prolonged drought, are rare.
Apart from the local factors such as culture and infrastructure, the immediate Bocas area offers five different islands to choose from – Colón, Carenero, Bastimentos, Solarte and San Cristobal.
They vary from small and close by, to very large and further away from town. Some of the outlying homes are up to 40 minutes away – by water taxi or private boat that is. Then you want to avoid the late afternoon sun and yet ensure you have the prevailing cool breeze to cool your home.
Searching for property
By the time we actively started searching for a home, we had a handful of criteria:
- We prefer Isla Colón;
- On or over the water;
- Away from the center of town;
- An older home that we can fix up;
- Something with the potential to turn into a business.
The one thing that we knew for sure by this time, is that we would not consider buying an empty lot and building anything.
Given what we have learned about Bocas, our criteria and our budget, we could not find anything worth serious consideration. A few of the options were Rights of Possession (ROP) properties, and we were simply not ready for that.
The idea of living on a boat
The apartment block where we stayed at the time, have a dock over the water with a large deck at its end. Many afternoons we enjoyed the sunsets over Saigon Bay while marveling at the boats on anchor.
And that’s where the idea started. Why not live on a boat?
Finding a boat to call home
From the outset, we searched for a motor vessel. That is partly because we have little interest in a sailing boat, but also because a trawler type vessel is generally a very comfortable liveaboard.
We found one possibility right here in Bocas, but after more than two months of inspections and negotiations, we walked away from the deal.
We realized that we had limited local options and our search turned to Florida in the USA. It was not long before we found our home and we were on our way to Fort Lauderdale, to take possession of our new home.
Our nine-month Caribbean adventure
We arrived in Fort Lauderdale just days before the end of 2017. After a short road trip to Fort Pierce, we arrived at the marina where our new home was docked.
I signed the final paperwork on board and we had a home!
Our US visas allowed a stay of 90 days, and we used this time to get to know the boat and to prepare for the 2,000 nautical miles back to Bocas.
Crossing the Gulf Stream to The Bahamas went smoothly and we were looking forward to fifty shades of turquoise over the following weeks. 45 days later we anchored at Duncan Town, the southernmost tip of the island chain.
Cuba has the most amazing natural harbors, and we entered at one of these, at Puerto de Vita. After a short rest and taking on fuel, we rounded the eastern tip of the island, cruising past the infamous Guantanamo Bay to Santiago. Here we dealt with the mental preparation for our first night passage.
Video caption: The entrance to the bay of Baitiquiri, Cuba, is only 50 feet wide, it feels as though one can touch the marker buoys! Once inside, we anchored in this well-protected bay surrounded by grassy hills. We had the entire bay to ourselves, and departed in the dark, early the next morning.
A full moon made our night passage enjoyable. But getting sight of Jamaica’s mountains made it great! The small harbor of Port Antonio was our host for almost three months while we did some repairs in the surprisingly well-organized boatyard.
By now it was the end of August, well into hurricane season, and we were keen to get home. We watched the weather closely and as we approached the end of our allotted 90 days in Jamaica, a weather window appeared.
Providencia & San Andrés
We left Long Beach, Jamaica, before sunrise. And with mixed feelings. Because ahead of us was an estimated 60-hour, two-night passage to the island of Providencia!
Reaching Providencia was a highlight we will vividly remember, as we were dead tired and very thankful for a safe passage. Since we did not have visas, we took on fuel and were on our way as soon as the weather allowed.
What was supposed to be a nine-hour passage to San Andrés, turned out to be a 14-hour nightmare! For once the weather turned on us and we battled outright dangerous conditions, arriving in the harbor as the sun disappeared below the horizon.
Bocas del Toro
That passage rattled us, but we now faced just one more leg in our journey, and that was the home stretch.
I am convinced that the universe conspired to ensure that we truly appreciate the last passage home. As much as the previous passage was a terrifying ordeal, our cruise home was nothing short of spectacular.
At one point I was sitting on the bow, almost in disbelieve, just absorbing the moment.
It was almost the end of September, the end of our nine-month Caribbean adventure, and the start of our Bocas liveaboard adventure.
The challenges of living aboard
We certainly had our challenges since arriving in Bocas and it has tested our resolve.
Just two days after arriving, the generator was dead. Many days and a load of money later, the required spare part arrived from the USA, just to pack up again after a few weeks. Repeat the many days and chunk of money.
In between we had to replace a water pump with its accumulator tank; the former was available locally while the tank had to be imported. A few other, smaller items had to be replaced, none of them available at the few local stores.
Since we are on anchor, the link between the boat and land is our dinghy. It’s fun to ride to town and back – if it works! Fortunately, we can use water taxis to get to town and back but soon enough the dinghy will have to get a new outboard.
Apart from routine maintenance, we wanted to do some cosmetic improvements. Just spruce up and old boat. However, we quickly learned that specialized parts and materials are not readily available. Some are, but many are not.
Does it make financial sense
Like most budget-related questions, the answer is “it depends.”
If the boat has simple, well-maintained systems, and you can do most of the routine maintenance yourself, you could probably live aboard cheaper than on land.
However, an old boat with complicated, outdated systems that were not well maintained, can become an extremely expensive experience.
The cost of maintenance is, therefore, the single biggest factor that will influence your liveaboard budget.
We don’t pay rent, and the annual registration and permit fees are very low.
The price of insurance is a function of boat value, area of navigation and captain experience. Since Panama is outside the hurricane belt, the insurance is reasonable.
Depending on your location and personal inclination, you can put the boat to work and generate an income. That is something that many prospective liveaboards fail to explore.
Does it make environmental sense
We have a large solar system on the roof of the flybridge and unless it is very cloudy, we don’t need the generator for our daily needs. That includes the powering of two computers, mobile phones and all the boat systems including the refrigerator.
On those cloudy or rainy days, we either run the generator for a few hours, or we go to town where we have found a comfy workspace with wi-fi and good coffee.
I replaced the electric cooktop with a three-burner propane top and now we are cooking on gas. Pun intended.
Once a week we make our own water, which requires only two hours of generator time.
We will soon install composting toilets, which will be the last piece in the puzzle to call our home truly eco-friendly.
Does it make personal sense?
The short answer is, for us, yes. On many levels.
When we arrived in Panama, we have already adopted the minimalist lifestyle. Moving onto a boat was a breeze as we only had two suitcases and two computer bags. In fact, 18 months after moving aboard we still have empty cupboards, albeit small ones.
Living off-grid and in an eco-friendly way, is rewarding. It is not without its share of challenges, but the end result is very satisfying.
We are immersed in our environment. There is not a single minute of any day during which we are not aware of the weather, the birds or a stingray doing its belly-flop.
Potentially, we are mobile. I use the word potentially because we have not made much use of this benefit yet. But as we settle down in our liveaboard lifestyle, we plan to explore the archipelago as our resources allow.
If we can do it over, will we do it again?
Yes, but differently.
With the experience we gained we will easily do it again. We will, however, approach the search and buying process differently. Although we will remain with a trawler type motor vessel, we will prefer a different configuration.
Living aboard a boat, especially as inexperienced first-timers, comes with lots of trials and tribulations. But the joy of it is such that we will work hard to make it work.
Admiring the sunset from the bow, gently swaying with the wind on the calm Caribbean water, is priceless.
As a parting thought, I can only urge prospective expats to keep an open mind. Arriving with rigid ideas could well cause you to miss an adventure or an opportunity of a lifetime.
“The man who rows the boat seldom has time to rock it” – Bill Copeland
I would love to have your thoughts about finding a place to stay in a new country. Or if you are a liveaboard, tell us about your experience.
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