Embracing Central American Culture in 3 Very Different Homes

My partner, Ian, and I get to peep inside beautiful homes and lose ourselves in fascinating cultures all over the world. We stay long enough to fall in love, but not so long that we get bored.

Panama is special for us and we were drawn to return last year. The island archipelago of Bocas del Toro, is home for a small (mainly retired) expat community, with a diverse mix of nationalities. Not just gringos, but adventurous types from all over Europe. On our recent visit we joined a weekly philosophy class hosted by a Parisian teacher.

Although off-grid and nestled in the dense jungle, the house we stayed in was well equipped, comfortable, and with uninterrupted views across the bay. Dolphins often played in the calm protected waters. Through a thick wall of vines and jungle plants, a family of indigenous Indians would regularly visit to charge their phones.

Off-grid living in Panama meant that our water came from the sky, electricity and hot water were generated by sunlight, and shopping involved a 40-minute boat ride into Bocas Town (weather permitting). Still, a well managed system and four huge water tanks meant we had flushing toilets and a washing machine—pure luxury.

The challenges of remote, off-grid, water-based living draws people together in ways I’ve not experienced elsewhere. There was plenty to get involved with, but pot-luck lunches and parties are what bind the people of Bocas del Toro together, providing much needed social interaction in an otherwise isolated environment.

By contrast, the bustling tourist city of Granada, Nicaragua provided a glimpse into living an expat lifestyle in a middle-class Nicaraguan suburb. Unlike most neighbors, we had a swimming pool. It filled most of the small courtyard, but was welcome in the intense summer heat.

This house met most expat requirements, with high speed WiFi, Netflix on two large flat screen TVs, and a wide selection of modern kitchen appliances.

While expats met downtown over cocktails, we engaged with locals, relaxing in rocking chairs outside their small homes. We embraced local living, encouraging visits from our mobile grocery lady with her basket of fruits and vegetables. We accepted 6 a.m.breakfast deliveries of nacatomales (steamed corncakes), and weekly drop-offs of fresh coconuts.

The amplified sound of gospel hymns regularly reverberated through the open windows of the house. Mild annoyance turned to amusement when neighboring dogs howled in unison as the enthusiastic singing began. Local culture surrounded us.

Our third Central American home is in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Recently we’ve been living in an upscale gated community at the top end of town, with beautifully landscaped grounds, a house keeper, and a gardener to help maintain the property. We have everything we need for luxury living. The area is home to some of the largest, most expensive properties and, as well as Americans, there are many wealthy Mexicans.

The city is stunning, and we’ve escaped the tourist crowds by frequenting local Mexican markets and wandering streets away from the busy center.

Every place we’ve stayed in has had its own special magic, but sometimes we’ve needed to step out of our expat safe havens to find this.

Story by By Vanessa Anderson