Theme Song: “Still Haven’t Found What I’m looking For,” U2
Max and Emma Van de Berg are a striking Dutch couple in their early sixties. They moved from the Netherlands to Costa Rica seven years ago to start an Indonesian restaurant called Ylang Ylang (pronounced ee-long ee-long). The restaurant, which features distant views of the Pacific Ocean, is named after the tree that Chanel No. 5 perfume comes from. At dinner time the scent from their Ylang Ylang tree drifts into the restaurant. Heavenly.
Life is good for Max and Emma Van de Berg, but they are not your usual pair. They have become anxious for a new adventure.
Scott the Texan and Max the Dutchman have been friends for years. Scott introduced me to Max and Emma on my first visit to El Castillo, and I gradually came to know them during my frequent visits to Costa Rica from my home in Michigan.
Scott eventually sold Alma and thankfully stayed on at El Castillo full time. With all of Scott’s focus on El Castillo, the hotel flourished, but Scott had bigger dreams and so did I. One day we talked about how cool it would be to open a second hotel. We were having so much fun with El Castillo, why not try a second hotel. I didn’t think much about it after that, but apparently Scott had casually mentioned the idea to Max.
The Dinner That Changed Everything
On one of my visits to Costa Rica, Max and Emma invited me to dinner. I didn’t think anything of it as they had become good friends, but that dinner would change my life forever.
Apparently Max had been thinking about a conversation he had with Scott. I was shocked when Max and Emma told me that they would like to partner with me to build and operate a resort in Central America. I asked them where in Central America. “Anywhere,” they said. I loved that answer! The fact that they were willing to close Ylang Ylang, move to a different country, and start a new life was enough for me. I said yes on the spot, so long as we could work out the details.
Maybe we are crazy, but it wasn’t long before we were on the same page and full steam ahead with the project. The first step would be to find the best location for the resort. Max and I discovered we had something else in common (besides our love for Central America and ability to make quick decisions). We both love to research property over the internet. After hundreds of hours we zeroed in on five locations as our top picks for building a resort.
- Roatan, Honduras. A prominent scuba diving destination and cruise ship port-of-call, Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, off the east coast of Honduras. Surrounded by the second-largest barrier reef in the world, Roatan is a prime spot for diving and snorkeling.
- The Corn Islands, Nicaragua. Located off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the Corn Islands are a gorgeous place for a vacation retreat. There are two islands: Little Corn and Big Corn. Little Corn is the quieter, more backpacker-oriented island with cheaper guesthouses and fewer resorts. Big Corn is more developed with larger resorts and more restaurants, pricier too.
- Lake Atitlan, Atitlan is a destination for the curious traveler. The local Mayan women wear colorful traditional clothing, and the culture is still intact. The views of the mountains, lake, and volcanoes are spectacular.
- Ambergris Caye, The largest of Belize’s several hundred islands, Ambergris Caye is a dreamy, tropical place where shorts and flip-flops are the dress code and golf carts are the mode of transportation. A short plane flight or ferry ride from Belize City, Ambergris Caye is one of Belize’s top travel destinations.
- Bocas Del Toro, An archipelago of over fifty islands in the Caribbean ocean. Isla Colón, the main island, is home to Bocas Town, a quaint central hub with many over-the-water restaurants, hotels, and bars.
Every one of these places held great possibilities. This was not going to be an easy choice!
After six months of research, debate, and dreaming we settled on the ultimate Central American paradise. Drum roll, please! Bocas Del Toro, Panama!
Tourism is booming in Panama. It is stable, offers foreign real estate investors the same property rights as Panamanians, has established the U.S. dollar as its official currency, and it’s safe. The U.S. government rates Costa Rica and Panama as the safest countries in Central America. To top it off, Panama is hurricane free.
Seven larger islands and hundreds of smaller ones comprise the Bocas Del Toro archipelago, all in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean. The area is loaded with character and charm. And the best part, from a resort perspective, is you can build over the water!
The crown jewel of Bocas Del Toro is Bocas Town. Imagine what Key West might have been like in the 60’s only on its own island. Now picture the allure of hundred-year-old wooden buildings filled with restaurants, hotels, and bars extended beautifully over the ocean. As you gaze over the water sipping a margarita, you are taken back in time as the multi-colored water taxis flit from island to island.
A Text That Got My Heart Rate Up
The resort area selected, Max and Emma were eager to find land for us to build on. Midway through a week-long search trip, Max texted a video of a spectacular property located on an island a short 10-minute water taxi from Bocas town.
It had everything: a white sand beach lined with palm trees, a quiet bay to build over-the-water villas, and a narrow strip of land jutting into the ocean adding character.
I was mesmerized by the property. I must have watched the video fifty times. The cost was more than I could afford, but I decided to find a way to make it work.
Peter Kent, the land owner, is an interesting character. He was born in the UK, raised on an island off the coast of Spain, and moved to Bocas Del Toro in 1993 where he purchased lots of land. This was before anyone was even talking about Panama. Over the years Peter has been involved in over seventy land transactions in the area.
I made multiple creative proposals to Peter to acquire the land. One was to split the land to make it more affordable and another to form a partnership with Peter on the resort. I was formulating a third offer when another buyer offered to purchase several of Peter’s properties including this one. The deal moved along quickly and closed within weeks.
I was crushed. The ideal property had slipped through my fingers. It felt like my dream was over, but I knew I just needed to give it some time. I have never given up easily.
After the a few months Max texted me again. Max and Emma wanted to spend another week in Bocas Del Toro to start looking again with a local realtor. I was still stinging from the loss and didn’t want to set myself up for another painful experience. After some thought I hesitantly agreed. It was time to move on.
Thankfully the story does not end here. I am so tempted to tell you what happens next, but you will have to wait for my next post.
Question: Have you ever had one door close only to see a new one open?