Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude
By Meda Kessler
Photos courtesy of Mike and Cheryl Ogle
A Fort Worth couple jumps off the daily grind into Panama’s warm Caribbean waters. Regrets? Absolutely none.
Family. Friends. High-speed internet. Since making the move to Bocas del Toro, Panama, at the beginning of the year, Cheryl and Mike Ogle have adjusted quickly to island life. They still miss those three things, but the Ogles are having the adventure of a lifetime. They bought beachfront property that backs up to a rainforest and fixed up a house with more modern amenities than most of the locals could dream of (tankless water heater, filtered drinking water, washer and dryer). They also run a bed-and-breakfast dubbed El Pelicano that has been earning rave reviews from guests.
The former Fort Worth residents made their changes Facebook-official on Christmas Eve 2020 and closed on their property in February.
Mike, a former director of operations for Northrop Grumman, lost his job during the pandemic. The couple — she’s 53, he’s 56) — spent the self-isolation period examining their lives and figuring out what they really wanted to do going forward. Mike is a self-admitted workaholic, but the layoff gave him time to look hard at their finances and crunch numbers. “I figured out that we could retire but couldn’t do it in the United States. We had been looking at other options, and Panama was on that list.”
Cheryl says Mike doesn’t like the cold — both are originally from Seattle — and the Caribbean side of Panama offers 82-degree temperatures year-round. They both wanted to be close to the water.
They found a place in the province of Bocas del Toro, already a destination for adventurous tourists thanks to the rainforest, the beaches and prime surfing. What you won’t find are luxury hotels or wild nightlife. It’s neither Cabo nor Cancun. There aren’t direct flights from DFW, either, so it’s a bit more cumbersome to get to their location. Because it’s an island, you walk everywhere or take a water taxi; the Ogles bought a small boat for convenience. And then there’s that whole internet thing.
What it has been is an adventure. A little more than six months into their new life (a half of a year is a milestone for expats), they’re tan, rested and having a ball. And they’re looking forward to the high season, which starts in November, and an increase in bookings.
“We’ve had people from Europe, backpackers, a solo female traveler and lots of teleworkers who were tired of sitting at home and wanted to get out as soon as the world opened up,” says Mike. Some stay a few days; some have booked monthlong stays. One woman from Maryland told them she really didn’t want to return home.
The Ogles understand. Despite major lifestyle changes, they don’t miss the grind of living in the States. “We don’t covet the latest iPhone or worry about a mortgage. We appreciate the simple things more,” says Cheryl. They have an iPad if they want to watch a movie. They savor the sunsets and go to bed early because it’s dark by 7 p.m. Mike’s up early working on continued construction and improvements but knows there’s a hammock nearby if he needs to nap later. “I definitely understand the ‘siesta’ concept now,” says Mike. Cheryl deals with online bookings, greets guests and works to make them feel as welcome as possible.
They’re working but it doesn’t feel like work. They didn’t buy a turnkey operation and definitely wanted to elevate the accommodations for themselves and paying customers. To bring the property up to speed, Mike planned in advance and worked with their real estate agent to do the calculations needed when it came to construction.
“That didn’t quite work out, plus COVID affected availability and price of materials, so the project ended up costing a lot more. In hindsight, we should have just bulldozed the place and started new,” says Mike, who had a 40-foot container shipped over with everything from lumber to appliances. Cheryl has long been a paid product reviewer for Amazon, so she’s put that to good use in Panama to stock the house and B&B with everything from small appliances to snorkeling gear. Guests are amazed — and appreciative — to find niceties such as a blender and a toaster oven.
The town, and everything else of interest, is within walking distance. While the fresh lobsters or shrimp to sell. Restaurants serving local fare are plentiful, and there’s even a spot for what Mike says is “shockingly good” pizza. He does miss his beloved Martin House Brewing Company beer, however. “Fast food means you get empanadas from a food truck,” says Cheryl.
The negatives are what you’d expect from living near the water and a jungle: There are tarantulas, scorpions and tiny bugs that come out after dark and bite. And it’s humid. While Mike hasn’t had a haircut in more than a year, Cheryl has chopped off a lot of hers due to heat.
But the good outweighs the bad. They eat, swim, nap and repeat on many days. Mike fishes; Cheryl watches the sunsets.
“To anyone thinking about changing lifestyles and moving, just do it,” says Mike. “This is the first time in our entire lives that we are doing exactly what we want to do. My worst day here is better than my best day at my job.”