Panama Living on $2,133 A Month

This couple lives the good life in Panama for $25,600 a year!

Versions of the story of Peg Fairbairn and April Hess have been making the rounds online, as these things often do, but it’s a good story and worth repeating. This CNN MONEY version is by Katie Lobosco

Peg Fairbairn and April Hess weren’t able to live the retirement they dreamed of before moving to Panama.

Live by the ocean? Check. Retire early? Check. Don’t go broke doing it? Check.
Peg Fairbairn and April Hess will tell you they’re living the dream. They moved from Austin, Texas, last year to retire in Panama, at ages 58 and 53, respectively.

They live by the beach, say they have all the comforts that they were used to at home (mostly), and do it all on a budget of $2,133 a month. Moving abroad in retirement isn’t for everyone, but for this couple it was ideal.

“We couldn’t afford this in the States,” Hess said. “Even if we didn’t move near a beach and stayed in Austin, we’d still have to be working.”

They can see the ocean from their house and spend their time going to the beach, practicing Spanish with their neighbors and making good friends with other expats from the U.S.

“It’s fabulous. We don’t know what we do all day, but we’re not bored,” Hess said.

Moving abroad was always in the back of their minds. They finally made the move last year after selling their home and most of their belongings. Fairbairn was a teacher for 30 years. She taught eighth grade earth science when she retired in 2008 with a monthly pension check of $2,935 (after taxes). When the couple still lived in Austin, she had to substitute teach to make ends meet while Hess was still working as a bookkeeper.

Now that pension check is all the couple needs to live on. Rent, groceries, utilities, phone bills, TV, Internet and even their international health insurance is all cheaper than what they paid in Texas.

Their savings go toward a house they’re building. Thanks to a tax break, they won’t have to pay property taxes on that home for the next 10 years.

Besides the financial benefit, the couple chose Panama because it’s close enough to the U.S. that they could get home quickly to visit family and friends. They can also use the U.S. dollar there, so their retirement income wouldn’t fluctuate with the currency.
Panama and other Latin American countries actively recruit American retirees with easy-to-obtain visas and other perks. Fairbairn got a “pensionado visa,” which is granted to anyone who has a steady stream of at least $1,000 coming in each month. That could be a pension, or even Social Security from the U.S. government. With it comes discounts on hotel stays, movie tickets, prescriptions and at restaurants.

Hess was granted a “friendly nations visa” by depositing at least $5,000 into a Panama bank account and opening a Panama corporation, which cost a fee of $650. It’s a business in name only.

There are more than 21,000 U.S. retirees receiving Social Security in Central America and the Caribbean, according to the government. Retiring abroad makes sense for people with a modest amount of savings, looking to live on between $2,000 and $5,000 a month, said Kathleen Peddicord, the publisher of the e-letter “Live and Invest Overseas” who is also an expat living in Panama.

Still, the couple found out that the move itself was more expensive than they had expected, topping about $14,000. They had to hire an attorney to help them through the visa process, which cost about $5,400 altogether. They paid $6,000 to move their two dogs and two cats with them and $500 for their eight suitcases.

There are some things they miss. “We enjoy the country, the beauty and the beaches, but we miss the occasional happy hour and going out to eat,” Fairbairn said.

They settled in Panama’s “interior,” which is fairly rural. It’s a 10-minute drive to the nearest town, which has a small market, bank and gas station. For anything else, they have to drive an hour to Santiago.

Panama doesn’t have a home mail delivery system, so ordering something from Amazon is out of the question. And then there’s the language barrier. Neither of them knew any Spanish before they moved. Although they spent a few months studying at a school when they first arrived, they still struggle sometimes.

[Richard: I take issue with “ordering something from Amazon is out of the question” since people do it all the time. In Boquete Amazon may be the busiest “store” for expats!]

“The biggest problem is when you want to be part of the community and express your personality to establish relationships, it’s impossible without Spanish,” Fairbairn said.
But they’ve still made a lot of good friends in the expat community, which they say consist of a lot of “like-minded” people.

“We were pretty brave. But it’s been everything we expected. In the States we’d still be working and not being able to enjoy our two passions: travel and the beach,” Hess said.

“That was the best experience of my life!”

Almost 14 years ago when I first set foot in Panama it was off a cruise on the old Holland America ROTTERDAM, and that is when I met for the first time the people of Embera Puru, never realizing that this chance encounter would lead to an enduring friendship and be the reason that we discovered the benefits of living and retiring in Panama.

Over the years on different ships, and scores of cruises into the Panama Canal, I’ve always touted the Authentic Embera Village Tour offered by Holland America, Princess, and sometimes other cruise lines, as “the best tour in Panama, something right out of National Geographic.”  I’ve personally traveled with cruise guests in the dug out canoes across Alajuela Lake and up the Rio San Juan de Pequeni to Embera Puru. I’ve been on tours where it rained most of the day and I came back to the ship with 90 soaking wet and muddy passengers, all raving about the tour as the “best shore excursion ever.”

I had one lady who came back to the ship and choking up with emotion said, “Richard, that was the best experience of my life!”

It’s the whole thing … the dug out canoes, cruising up a jungle river, experiencing a totally different culture … but the most enduring memory is always the warmth and genuineness of the people of the Embera Puru village.

This video is the best I’ve seen that captures the true spirit of the Embera Puru experience.

With the ships different tour operators use about six different villages, some more “touristy” than others, but Embera Puru [not Duru, that’s a different, more touristy village] is the most authentic. The trip is an all-day tour to get to the real village and it will usually be called the “Authentic” village in the tour description.

If you want to visit independently the best operator is which is owned and operated by a gringa and her Embera husband, and their home village IS Embera Puru so it is a much more informative and genuine experience.

Snakes Under The Rock … And in The Mail!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s amazing what you discover when you are gong through old stuff.  Cleaning out a pile of old rotten logs and wood, throwing out old cinder blocks … and there nicely curled up was this little boa.

He was so comfy in his little house I hated to disrupt his life to clean up.

I was also going through the mail, the comments you folks nicely make about my blogs, and guess what …?  Now I have to tell you that I read all the comments, but when I’m at sea dealing with lousy satellite Internet I sometimes miss things, as was the case here.  Looking through old comments and I found a whole pile of snakes!!  Well, sorta, in a digital kind of way.

Teaching Panamanian forces about jungle survival.

I’d written a blog about Poisonous Snakes in Panama and a reader made the interesting and thorough comment below.  So I decided to find out who this snake guy was and it turns out he really is an expert and knows of which he speaks.  His name is Eric A. Nicolaisen and, among other things he has some cabanas he rents out at his home on the edge of the Chagres National Park and is involved in various educational programs.  I found this very informative and i’m sure that you will as well.

Difference Between Poisonous and Venomous: Poison is a broad term for any substance that irritates or kills. It is also used in a restricted sense for any harmful substance that enters the body by absorption through the skin or through eating or breathing. Poison ivy, for instance, irritates the skin; poison dart frogs kill predators that swallow them. Such plants and animals are called poisonous. Venom is a poison that one animan-whether a spider, a snake, or a bee injects into another animal. Thus a snake or scorpion that injects a poison by biting or stinging is called venomous.

Panama in comparison: Panama for its small size 29,208 square miles (75,517 square kilometers); a country smaller than the state of South Carolina or slightly bigger than Ireland or Austria, has more venomous snakes than the entire United States, in the United States only 10% of the snake species are venomous. Panama has 130 species of snakes, 25 species or approximately 19% are highly venomous. The United States has only 17 venomous snakes (12 species of rattle snakes, cotton mouth, 2 species of copperhead, 3 species of coral snakes) and three states do not even have one poisonous snake (Alaska, Maine and Hawaii). There are approximately 3,000 known species of snakes in the world, with the vast majority of species being non-venomous. Only 13.3% or 410 species inject venom and are considered venomous, some highly venomous and some are mildly venomous and only 250 are able to kill a human with one bite.
Nearly three-quarters of the world’s venomous snakes (148 species) are native to Latin America. Central America has 34 species of highly venomous snakes; Panama has the most (25 species), followed by Guatemala (19 species), Costa Rica (17 species), Honduras (14 species), Nicaragua (14 species), Belize (9 species) and El Salvador the least (7 species). Tropical and subtropical regions have more venomous snakes than temperate regions. Snake bites are more common in tropical regions and in areas that are primary agricultural, due to the fact that large numbers of people coexist with numerous snakes. The West Indies in the Caribbean consists of hundreds of islands but venomous snakes are only found on a few of the islands; while endemic venomous snakes are only found on five islands. (Islands that have venomous snakes: St. Lucia, Martinique, Tobago, Trinidad, Margarita and Los Testigos).

Panama also has 21 rear fanged mildly-venomous snakes.

Panama has the largest incidence of snake bites registered in Central America; approximately 1,500 snake bites per year, with approximatley 18-20 deaths. A mortality rate of 1.25%. Over a 22 year period (1991-2012) 33,016 snake bites were reported with a yearly average of 1,500.7 bites per year.

Snake bites by comparison: Panama 54-62 cases per 100,00, Brazil1 2-14 cases per 100,000, Costa Rica 16 cases per 100,000, Colombia 6 cases per 100,000.

The provinces in Panama with the largest incidence of snake bite are: Veraguas 450, Coclé 258, Chiriquí 200, Panama west 175, Panama Metro 167;
according to statistics from the Minister of Health (MINSA) Department of Epidemiology. In Veraguas province 95% of venomous snake bites are from the fer-de-lance. (Statistics 2010).

Fer-de-lance’s inflict more than 90% of the snake bites in Panama that result in an amputation or death.

Most snake bites in Panama occur during June – October during the height of the rainy season. Most of those bitten are agricultural workers; snake bite is a major occupational hazard for rural people.

In Panama 50% of snake bites are located on the feet.

Panama purchases between 10-13 thousand vials of polyvalent antivenin a year, from the Clodomiro Picado Institute in San Jose, Costa Rica. Each vial cost the Minister of Health approximately $20 per vial. A venomous snake bite victim may need as many as 6-10 vials for treatment.

Nicolaisen with porcupine

I find this photo interesting because I didn’t know we had porcupines in Panama … until one of my dogs arrived home one night with a mouth full of porcupine quills! We took him to the home of a vet in David that night and it took the vet two hours to remove 75 quills from Bobbi’s mouth and throat. Vet bill … hand on to your seats all you folks in North America … $45 including medication.

This article shouldn’t dissuade you from thinking Panama is paradise.  Nothing is perfect.  The key with snakes is to watch where you are walking, but since I have three dogs, four including our bastard, illegitimate, loving former street dog Bobbi, with four dogs on the farm you’d better watch where you step!  This article … the 50% of snake bites located in the feet … is gong to make me go out and buy a pair of rubber boots like our Indigenous workers have been urging me to do for years, and give up on farming in my comfortable Keens.