Cavet Emptor consider this lesson before buying or building

There is no way to sugar coat the disastrous events at Montanas de Caldera in Boquete Panama; but we can learn from what happened. This post is about the geology not only of Montanas de Caldera, but of many areas around Boquete Panama.

One house in Montanas de Caldera needed to be destroyed after it’s swimming pool plunged into Caldera river.

Contrary to what I had thought the pool was quite small and many meters back from the cliff edge, not even close to the edge.

View after the collapse from the canyon

After this event and subsequent investigation, the Civil Defense authority, SINAPROC,  ordered the other houses on the rim be evacuated until a soil study could be done.  Link to information about the order.

The owners of the sub division did commission a study.  I have made the English version of the study available for download at this link.  LINK . It is a 20 meg PDF file that will download if you click the link.

The engineering study suggested that nothing should be built closer than eighty meters from the edge of the cliff. A subsequent amendment changed that line to exclude some lots along the rim. The amendment is part of the same download and appeared to me to be questionable, at best.

I disclaim expertise, I am neither am engineer nor a geologist. I did however submit the report to a engineer in Boquete and an architect in the US who sent it off to an engineer in the US. I did this because I wanted to know what I and others might learn from the disaster in Montanas de Caldera.

The summary is that both engineers believed the original report was well done and thought the eighty meter rule was minimum. The US based engineer said, “run away as fat as you can”.  Do not build, not even as close as the recommended “stay back eighty meters”. He said eighty meters is a safety margin of one, he likes a margin of three,  two hundred forty meters back. He said, the river will most likely flood off and on, run into the banks, undermine them again, change directions, undercut and ‘eventually’ the area will cave in. It is not a matter of if, but when, it just time related. The engineer also said that the rock down deep will let water in and undermine the stability of the entire ridge.

After this disaster and the prior slides into Valle Escondido (link),  we, the buyers, must beware.

The lesson we can learn is about living on beautiful view or hillside property anyplace. It has special import in Boquete which has many mountains that are really piles of rock and not solid rock. Before investing in property or in building your dream house, have the land checked for geologic issues. The investment in the required studies can allow informed decisions. I am sure if these studies were done and presented to perspective buyers they would never have bought or built on these lots, learn from their experience.

Montanas de Caldera Boquete Panama

Updated August 8, 2012: This article was then, much has changed, today I would not write the same thing. See this Post for more current information http://www.boqueteguide.com/?p=8262

Almost two years ago I visited a dusty, windy site proposing to be a major new development in Boquete Panama. When I drove into the gates of Montañas de Caldera I saw little that would suggest hundreds of houses in a planned North American styled community. On that first trip I met Jane, who along with her father John, are the developers of the project. Jane was located in a ramshackle building filled with plots, maps, drawings and promises. Even two years ago I knew many local projects never happen, many start then stop and only one, Valle Escondido seemed to be completed. As Jane waved her arms and painted a vision of the future, I smiled and thought, another pipe dream.

As serendipity would have it, Heather and I are currently residing in Montanas de Caldera. As our house is being renovated we are staying with our friends Geoff and Caroline who live in a three bedroom house surrounded by a lawn, trees and construction. Montanas de Caldera is taking shape, the visions of two years ago are the concrete forms of today.boquetepanama035.jpg

Being an opportunist and currently very focused on construction I have used my vantage point to learn a bit more about the project. My friend Geoff is managing the project and at my request has taken the time to orient me to something unlike any other development project I have seen in Panama. In summary, Montanas is more like a planned community in the US than a project in Panama.

Two years ago Jane described the massive planned investment into infrastructure. Today you can see it or more correctly, you cannot. The water, sewage and electrical systems are all underground. The internal roads are laid out, many are paved, others close to completion. Instead of the traditional V drains, known as car traps, along the roads there is a real underground storm sewer system. It does not look like Panama.
Unlike other Boquete projects I have seen, water is not an issue and not dependent on the Municipo or a local Junta. Montanas has multiple springs on their property, they harvest water, pump it into storage tanks and are adding three more 330,000 liter tanks. In addition they are planning their own development wide filtering and UV treatment, so each house will not need to do filtration.

Equally impressive from the infrastructure perspective is the sewage treatment concept, actually the reality. Instead of septic tanks each house has it’s own mini active sewage treatment plant. The condos share a massive plant being installed. These are active bacterial processors that take raw sewage and produce water ready for UV treatment and drinking, not grey water. The cleaned water is being discharged into the alluvial drainage after treatment. I have never seen this type of practical environmental effort in any other project. There is a video of the system at this link. boquetepanama0221.jpg
The image above is the underground chamber for the FAST sewage treatment plant being installed for the condominiums.

Unlike so many driveways I have seen in Panama the concrete being poured here has rebar in it, not just 3/16 wire or worse, nothing at all.

We have been living in one of the first houses completed in the project and had the opportunity to witness the construction in various phases of many others. After seeing disastrous projects around town and monitoring my own remodeling I am a curious observer.

Perhaps the most interesting observation is that few owners are on site. The construction is being managed by Geoff and his staff, which includes two on site architects, Wladimir and Giovanna. I have known Geoff for about two years and know he is a perfectionist. The process of implementing US standards into the construction has been an education for many of the local contractors and employees but Geoff will not accept less. Although occasionally frustrated by having things removed and replaced to his standards, he says the workforce is learning.
This is Giovanna in a condo kitchen checking on the tile installation. Unlike most other projects, Montanas has hired specialists to work on each house. They have plumbers, electricians, tile layers, roofing people on staff doing the trades in which they have been trained, instead of block layers installing pipe and wire.

Instead of adhering to the Panama electrical code which is the US electrical code of 1978 they have fought a battle to use the latest US code. Doors, cabinets, water pipe and more are being imported directly from the US, Australia and other points of origin. After watching local plumbers gluing PVC together at most projects I was impressed by the newer PEX plumbing system being used in the houses here, no glue joints to break. In general the project quality is to North American expectations.

After years of hearing horror stories it has been refreshing to find a project where the developers have the will and resources to actually follow through. Maybe that is why Montanas is continuing to sell lots and continuing to build houses while other projects in the area have come to a screeching halt.

If you are looking for property in Boquete Panama and want a North American style subdivision I suggest looking at all of those being constructed and then go to Montanas de Caldera and compare the vision and the reality of what is here.

In re-reading this I realized it reads like a marketing piece written for Montanas, it is not. I would not live in a planned community. However if I was looking for this lifestyle, Montanas is head and shoulders above the other projects I see being built in Boquete today, both in concept and execution.

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