Beaches, Barbecues, and e-Bikes: A Dream Retirement Business in Panama
A new mode of transportation is taking off in Boquete, in Panama’s Chiriquí province, introduced by a semi-retired American expat who has made his home there since 2005.
Vincent Spagnoli is the owner of Soul Planet Cycles, an electric bicycle company based in the small mountain town, a popular tourist destination. In addition to renting and selling electric bikes imported from the U.S., the company uses the vehicles to offer self-guided tours of the beautiful surrounding landscape, enabling visitors to explore the jungle paths, volcanic views, and coffee plantations with relative comfort and ease.
A mechanical engineer by training, Vincent was born in Roslindale, Massachusetts to Italian immigrant parents. During a successful professional career, he worked for several major companies, eventually becoming a consultant to Sun Microsystems. When Sun Micro was acquired by Oracle, Vincent had the option to work remotely and opted for a part-time role from Panama.
Making the decision to semi-retire to Panama was easy. He loved the temperate climate, the people, and the slower pace of life. Spanish also came easy to him, since he spoke Italian growing up, so he settled in quickly.
Vincent was never one for sitting around, so after arriving in Panama he decided to construct not only a home for himself but, with a partner, high-end spec houses in the prestigious Lucero development. The scenic site just outside Boquete is an expat haven. After completing three houses, one of which he now lives in, he began searching for another project.
While visiting his daughter in San Francisco, he discovered a new craze in the city—electric bikes. What better way to beat the dense rush-hour traffic and scale the formidable hills? The seed of an idea began to germinate in his mind—an electric bicycle business serving the expat retirees and tourists in Boquete.
So began Vincent’s new endeavor. Soul Planet Cycles provides online electric bike sales, rentals, and tours. The bikes are sturdy, with 750-watt motors and a cut-out maximum speed of 20 miles per hour. They are purchased online from Rad Power Bikes in Seattle, Washington. The cost is $1,500 per bike or $2,600 for two. Free shipping is provided to Miami but from there, Vincent has to cover the rest.
At present, tours are the company’s primary focus. Soul Planet Cycles offers 14-mile self-guided tours beginning at the firm’s premises in the same yard as the Boquete Brewing Company. The route takes tourists through a variety of scenic locations within the Boquete valley, providing views of Volcán Barú. The cost for a two-hour self-guided tour is $40 per person (7% tax excluded). Customers also have the option of simply renting a bike for $25 plus tax for 45 minutes.
Eager to expand the company’s offerings, Vincent recently added a tour of Las Lajas Beach, which is located approximately two hours from Boquete. Clients are transported in a passenger van to Las Lajas, where they can rent three-wheeled Rungu electric bikes to explore the 7-mile beach, enjoy a barbecue, and soak in the sea.
The Rungu e-bikes are similar to ATVs, with 1,000-watt motors and sturdy, rough-and-tumble frames. Vincent holds the distributorship rights for the vehicles in Panama and Costa Rica.
Obtaining a tour operator license is typically a requirement for starting a business such as this. One way around this, as Vincent has discovered, is to partner with an existing tour agency and use their license.
“There were definitely ups and downs to starting this kind of business,” says Vincent. “Get to know a local contact who can provide initial assistance with the pertinent rules and customs, as well as to assist with the language barrier. A reputable lawyer is another necessity. Do your due diligence.”
During his time in Panama, Vincent has gained a deep affection for local culture and history as well as the temperate climate and the friendly, accommodating people. “Learn the area, the traditions and customs, and get acclimated thoroughly prior to jumping in. Immerse yourself in the area. Learn to adapt to the local ways and do not try to change them. This is their country,” he says.
Currently, his business is a daily endeavor, but during his rare downtime, he loves to golf, play billiards with a few of his fellow retirees, and explore other parts of the country. He is fortunate in having many good friends, both expat and Panamanian, and is definitely here to stay, he says. “The e-bike business has provided the outlet for my entrepreneurial desire, and the exercise is a great added benefit.”
Written by Larke Newell