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Isla Solarte in the News

Bocas Del Toro - California Family of Four Follows Its Rainbow To a Remote Island in Panama 
From the Sacramento Bee Newspaper, Sacramento, California 
By Terry Hennessy, Bee Staff Writer

Shephard Johnson is no ordinary, developer of dreams. The Roseville man is taking 25 years of California real estate experience and using it to build his dream development in Panama on an island called Solarte. Johnson, 48, and family – wife Monte, an Encina High School teacher, and young daughters Robin, 13, and Halley, 9 – got their feet wet in Costa Rica, where they lived from 1992 to 1995. The idea in Costa Rica – to use his California experience to build a residential community – fizzled when that country hit a recession. But it’s blossoming one Central American country to the south, on Isla Solarte. 
Solarte is one of the islands of Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the northeast corner of Panama, the strip of a country that scientists have called a geologic wonder for the richness of its flora and fauna. Johnson’s quest began several thousand miles north, in his Sacramento commercial real estate office, when a colleague returned from a trip to Costa Rica in 1992. 

“He was in a daze for three months after, all he could do was talk about it,” said Johnson.

The Johnsons began talking about the increasingly hectic pace faced by two working parents and two growing daughters, ages 5 and 9 at the time. They visited Costa Rica in 1992 and decided to take a gamble. “We wanted a break from the pace,” said Johnson, “And Costa Rica seemed to offer a pace something like California in the ‘50’s.” They settled on a 10-acre hilltop ranch with a 180-degree view of San Jose, the Costa Rica capital. The University of California, Berkeley-trained architect planned to put his 20 years of commercial real estate experience to work building homes and a development overlooking the city. But recession hit, and as the 1993 holiday season approached, they decided to sell their land and have an adventure. 
“We had heard about Bocas del Toro, but there were no maps to show us how to get there,” said Johnson, “It was a forgotten corner of Panama.” 

The family took a long, two-day drive from San Jose into Panama, traversed the continental divide and went to Chiriqui Grande to catch a ferry to Almirante and then a boat that zipped them over glassy seas to Bocas. “Trained in architecture at Berkeley, I was always interested in the concept for a planned pedestrian community,” said Johnson, “When we stepped off the boat in Bocas, we saw first-hand a fantastic pedestrian community. The main street was a block from the airport. All the services were in easy walking distances. There was a park and a grandstand, and the provincial government seat was in a classic Spanish building.” 

“We fell in love with it.” 

These American girls are on Isla Solarte. You'll meet people from around the world in Bocas Del Toro, some of whom had come to Bocas on their own as travelers, and others who were part of an expatriate family. These two loved Bocas Del Toro and Isla Solarte. The area also has a large international surfer community, with young people from around the world. 


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The tribe from Isla Solarte on a beer drinking mission to one of the other islands. The entire community of Isla Solarte goes island hopping in mass, diving, beach combing and enjoying the good life.There is internet access on the island, telephone, electricity and frequent Isla Solarte water taxis to Bocas Town and other nearby locations.

They loved it so much that they bought a lot in town on their first visit. Actually, it was a lot in the water. All of the beachfront buildings were built on stilts over the water because of the calm seas and small, 2-foot tides. The Johnsons spent 10 days in Bocas and made a decision. This was a place they could live. The question, of course, was how. 

Over the course of the next two years, Johnson kept returning to Bocas and got to know the caretaker of nearby Isla Solarte, a smaller island a few miles closer to the mainland. On one of the trips back, they met a Florida businessman known as The Colonel, who had bought about half of Isla Solarte years before and needed help surveying the island. As Johnson helped map the land, snorkeled in the pristine water and observed the indigenous peoples’ peaceful life, his attachment to the island grew. 
The Colonel offered to sell Johnson half of Solarte, about 400 acres, in 1994. It was then that Johnson’s search in the hilltops of Costa Rica, through the jungles of Panama and onto the shores of Bocas crystallized into a vision of a development that captured the spirit of Bocas del Toro. 

“I didn’t want to build houses,” he said, “I want to build a community.” 

The community, as Johnson envisions it, is an extension of the existing stilt construction of the area. Only he is taking the building a step farther, intending to build the largest over-water, pole construction community this side of Bora Bora. The houses, connected by a string of walkways, will be clustered in a 500-acre planned development and will range in size from 500 to 3,000 square feet. Prices will range from $40,000 to $180,000. A portion of the island is planned for Sausalito-style houseboats, while another section will be set aside for stilted land huts. 
  The overall attractions that Johnson wants to retain are the pleasant character of the community, the interaction of the island communities – and the diverse activities. 
“There is amazing diversity there; everything is possible. There is surfing, white-sand beaches, snorkeling, fishing, scuba diving.” 

The character of the indigenous people who live on the islands of Bocas, says Johnson emerges in small ways. 

“Every day, you see Indian children, some no more than 5 years old, paddling to school in Bocas from different islands, dressed in freshly starched white shirts and spotless blue pants and dresses. These kids are coming from thatched huts and their parents are struggling to survive.  But it is important to them that their children be presentable and clean.” 

The Johnsons have been back in Granite Bay since the summer of 1995, working on permits and plans for developing their dream on Isla Solarte. They are now selling lots for the 300-home development, and will soon begin cutting access roads. Johnson is planning a mostly pedestrian community with a few small hotels and grocery stores included in the overall architectural plan.

The indigenous people living on the island have their own land and thatch-roof homes on neighboring property. “We’ve been working closely with them to maintain the character of the island,” Johnson says. Solarte is also spitting distance from a huge national sea park that draws snorkelers and scuba divers from both hemispheres. Recent improvements to the small airport on Bocas has made it much easier for visitors to get here than when Johnson first arrived. 

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