Adventures in Renting 2: Life in a Quincha House

Look at All the Fruit Trees!  Look at the Space!

Look at All the Fruit Trees!
Look at the Space!

This is the second installment of six posts about renting in the Azuero.


“Ooo,” my Panamanian friends said with envy, “a quincha house!  Is it as cool as they say?”  In a  word, yes.  It was a LOT cooler than than the concrete block buildings I had been in.

The rosy-peach lenses I wear brightened considerably when I first viewed the house.  Sort of Spanish-hacienda style, it was set on a large lot covered with fruit trees.  I was thrilled to learn it was one of the quincha houses I had heard so much about.  Quincha houses, you see, are genuine ‘old Panama.’  They are made from native mud and straw blocks, then covered with cement, and open at the roof line for ventilation.

I loved the neighborhood, too.  Las Tablas Abajo is a pueblecita (a tiny village) a few miles outside Las Tablas on the way to Playa Comadres, another of the local beaches.  The people who live there are delightful, friendly and helpful.  They greet each other with a chorus of “Buenas” when they get on the creaky, minivan bus, which trundles out and back six or seven times a day.  It makes a circle, so you have to first head further toward the beach before heading back towards Las Tablas.  The driver is a charmer, and the school children who regularly ride it are polite and well-mannered.  A taxi to or from town is only $2.75, easing some of the grocery/shopping burden and, just off the parque next to the church there is a tiny convenience store where you can buy a soda or a couple of rolls for your breakfast.  It’s bucolically charming there, lots of cows and chickens and dogs and bugs and so forth.

The Enormous Kitchen

The Enormous Kitchen –
Imagine the Delicious Possibilities

My quincha house was far too big for me, but I figured I didn’t have to use – or furnish – all seven rooms.  The price was right.  The previous tenants had left some furniture behind, and the landlord agreed to leave it.  He also agreed to paint, put up a fence for my dogs, fix the plumbing and wiring, provide a seat for the toilet, install a satellite dish for TV and put some shelves in the kitchen.

What potential the place had!  I love projects, so the fact that the floors were rough concrete didn’t faze me.  I had always wanted an opportunity to try some of the concrete finishes I had read about on the internet.  The fact that there was no glass in the windows was no problem.  I bought some screen and covered the windows against small flying and crawly things, including mice and other rodents.  The landlord put up bars and I replaced the hardware on the shutters, so I felt quite secure.  It was always so hot that if the shutters were open, I wanted the air currents.  I didn’t need glass.

The yard was enormous.  I had a mangosteen, two bearing papayas, a limon tree, passion fruit, various spices, a couple of avocado trees and a small forest of plantains.  I loved it!  I would plant a garden and grow my own vegetables.  I already had the fruits.

The Horrible Bathroom

The Horrible Bathroom – yes, the plaster fell off the shower wall.

The bathroom was a horror show of long-term neglect, but I figured some muriatic acid and a bit of elbow grease would set it to rights for the most part.  The kitchen held only a sink set into a crooked, concrete, partially tiled counter.  I looked forward to putting some colorful stencils around the tops of the walls, re-tiling the counter, finishing the floors and building myself some cabinets with bricks and boards and the like.  It didn’t have to cost a lot, either.  This was going to be FUN.

Well, it could have been.  I turned out to be allergic to something there and broke out in spots.  Said spots were different from the spots I acquired each time I stepped outdoors where the Central American chigger-equivalents cried “Yum!” and went for me.  I will save a full, rhapsodic description of this experience for another post.  Suffice to say that a ‘chigger’ bite takes a day or so to ripen into a round spot that itches so deep in your nerves that all you can do is scratch yourself bloody, even though you swear to yourself that you won’t.

The Spanish word for bugs is bichos.  And little bichos is what they are.  Not just the chiggers.  Ticks, too.  I had big black ticks there, and two sizes of brown, in medium and large.  I also had seed ticks in three colors – black, red and green.  In spite of dosing both my dogs with Fronil, the local equivalent of Frontline, I had to tick-pick them daily.  My elderly, tiny toy Chihuahua contracted erlichiosis and had to do the 28 day medical regime.  Her immune system was compromised and she now seems more susceptible to whatever is around than previously.  More on ticks and prevention in another post, another time.  Suffice it to say, we had a rough winter that year.

Other bichos that came to visit included large black scorpions, ants in sizes varying from pretty darn big to so small I mistook them for fibers until they moved, poisonous caterpillars, roaches in several styles including huge trilobite-like ones apparently left over from the Pleistocene, beetles of all sorts, wasps in four flavors, at least two kinds of termites, etc., etc., etc..

Nor was this the end of the wildlife that visited.  The neighbors’ free range chickens were welcome visitors, because they ate bichos.  I had a bat who would have been welcome (bats eat 1000 bichos per hour) except that he swooped the dining table every evening at dusk and slept in the suspended ceiling above my bed.  At sunset my walls came alive with tiny, pale green iguanitas (small lizards) looking for a meal and pooping on the curtains.  I had termites that periodically emptied a pound or so of their ‘pre-digested’ celulose pellets into my hair or laptop from the ceiling beams.  I had other termites (or perhaps the same ones) who built monstrous, black, lumpy excrescences of tunnels up the walls in science fiction, horror movie fashion.  And yet other termites busy devouring the furniture the previous tenants had abandoned.

I mentioned the screens I put up?  Ah, but this was a quincha house.  The top of the walls enjoyed about six inches of open space, for ventilation.  It was impossible for me to screen off.  I began to understand why quincha homes were no longer so popular, now that air conditioning was fairly cheap.

DUH point for rental check list:   Am I willing to deal with the level of Bug Patrol required for this living space?  Am I willing and capable of putting preventive measures (screening the windows and other ventilation openings, “weatherstripping” the doors, spraying the yard, scraping off the termite tunnels, etc., etc.?

And then there was the zorraEl zorro is, of course, the fox.  However, this was not a fox.  It was a zarigüeya, an oppossum-like creature.  I was amazed to be told by one man that it was dangerous and would attack my tiny dog.  (Not true.)  I was appalled when he said I should poison it.  I was alarmed in the night when it scratched and struggled its way into the suspended ceiling and ran around.  I took a broom and beat noisily on whatever would clang to try to scare it off, but was unsuccessful.  I was amused the day it came into the main part of the living area and forced its lean little body between the roof tiles and the tar paper, not too stealthily crawling uphill until its progress was blocked by the joined beams.  Then it  crawled back down and emerged, sheep-faced, on the famous quincha ledge topping the wall.  Spotting my toothy smile, the now terrified zorra scuttled along the ledge until it could hide in the area above the suspended ceilings in the rest of the building.

The Deal Breaker

You might think all of this would be quite enough to drive me off, but it wasn’t.  No, I am a writer, thank you, and this kind of thing is in my job description. (Uh-huh.  Yes, it is, too.)  No, what did it for me was the plumbing.  The kitchen sink leaked, the bathroom shower had issues and the bathroom sink faucet handle turned itself rather than adjusting the water flow.  Although the landlord had promised to fix it, nothing happened and nothing happened and yet more nothing happened.  So I called a plumber and got an estimate, which I thought was really low.  And the plumber told me things were even worse than I had realized.  Although the weeds were so high the day I took the place that I didn’t notice the kitchen gray-water drained into the yard, I figured a little more pipe would move it further away from the house and that would be something I could tolerate.  What I didn’t know was that the big concrete thingie (a technical term) off the inside back corner of the house was actually a partially unburied septic tank.  And that it was filling up.  And that very shortly there would be Hell-To-Pay.

I told the landlord.  His response?  “JK, just because you do not like something does not mean it should be fixed.”  My counter?  My allergic spots and my insect bites and my tiny dog and I packed up and moved.  Again.

DUH point for rental check list:  Check the plumbing.  ALL the plumbing.  Duh.


Next Monday I will tell you all about the wonderful, enormous place with fabulous water that  I next found in Las Tablas.  It was on the sewer system, too!

If you missed the first post on renting in the Azuero, you can read it at Adventures in Renting: A House at the Beach.  Stay tuned!