Telling It Like It Is vs. Hype

There is a lot of hype about moving to Panama.

Yes, Panama is a great country for expats and retirees, depending on where you are coming from and what you are seeking.  But it’s not for everyone.  How do you know if it is right for you?  Well you have to invest the time, effort, and money in studying, reading everything you can get your hands on but taking it all with a grain of salt, and talking to as many people as possible seeking out folks who will tell it like it is and give you the straight scoop.

That’s what I try to do on this blog and in my book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA.  First, it’s our experience.  Talk to a dozen different retirees and/or expats living in Panama and you will likely get a dozen different stories.  Some of those who “package” Panama and make a living off selling the expat lifestyle have a tendency to gloss over some of the realities in order to paint a rosy picture.  Panama hasn’t been perfect for us, but it has been fantastic.  Nikki and I are both mature enough to realize that there is no “perfect” place, but for us Panama, with all of its frustrations, has been wonderful.

When I get comments on Amazon, like this from Keith Dick, I’m delighted!

“No rose-colored glasses here – Panama is not for everyone. If you’ve never lived outside the US before, particularly in a developing country like Panama – don’t even think about making a move without thorough research. Richard’s book is one of the best. Extremely valuable advice – take it to heart!”

Or this from Daniel Bridges …

“An outstanding, insightful book about the author’s experiences in Panama. It is a very sobering look at his and his family’s experiences, both the good and the not so good. The reader can tell they’ve landed in their paradise. My wife and I are considering relocating to Panama and we’re using Richards book as one of our primary sources of information for an anticipated visit to the country next year. Because Richard does not sugar coat life in Panama, rather he tells it like it is, we feel like we have a more realistic expectation of what life is like in Panama. He most definitely has us studying up on the many aspects to be considered.”

Or this from Dorothy …

“No bunnies and rainbows here, both sides of the coin are exposed. Like any country, Panama has it’s issues and beauty and Richard gives insight to the reader/expat on both so we don’t arrive and end up shocked to find bugs in our paradise. Good job.”

I’m even happy when I get a comment like this one from Ida Freer, a writer who actually helped edit the book …

“You provide a lot of useful information. Overall it led me to decide against Panama, except maybe as a tourist for a month or two. Too bad! I had high hopes.”

Just think, I saved Ida several hundred thousand dollars plus a whole lot of hassle! What if she had moved to Panama and THEN discovered it wasn’t for her?

So in that vein, I want to respond to this comment from Ophelia Robinson …

I am so confused??? I just happened across this blog and I was really shocked to hear that the pensionada program is NOT what I thought it to be. I have been dreaming about relocating to Panama and primarily because of all the positive things I have read via Kathleen Pedicore’s (excuse misspelled last name) newsletters. This is the first time I have read that the Pesionada program may not be all that Kathleen taut it to be. I’m sure you know about the expensive seminars she regularly holds around the country, and even in some of the Latin American countries. I have planned on going to at least one of them, but now I am not sure whether I would be wasting my money. Do you think it is best that I just visit Panama and see for myself what it is like, then schedule one of the these seminars with Kathleen afterwards if I am still interested? After all, she brings in all the experts—in banking, attorneys, relocation, currency, language, those that actually live or who have lived there, etc., etc., etc…. Supposedly, she introduces you to all of the experts who can answer all the questions you have about relocating…what do you think???

First, about Panama’s much-touted Pensionado program.

“Pensionado” refers to a retired person living on a pension. There are many retired folks in Panama, Panamanians, who live as Panamanians on pensions of $150-300 a month. With the inflation in Panama it is a struggle, but they do it. However they have a lifestyle that’s considerably different than most expats would appreciate. The Pensionado discount program was supposedly created to benefit these folks, although I doubt that those at the lower end stay in fancy hotels or take international flights. Panama has generously extended this concept to foreigners who have pensions and want to move to Panama.

The Pensionado visa is a very attractive option for expats who don’t want to work or expect to work in Panama.

I think it is important to realize that the Pensionado discount program was created for Panamanian retirees, not for gringos, but Panama has generously extended these benefits to expats. I sometimes encounter expats who think that the whole world revolves around them, or at least it should, and the Pensionado program was created for them and it is their right. The Pensionado discounts are a wonderful thing, particularly when it comes to drugs, and sometimes restaurants. Hotels like to play games with the discounts, often setting up an artificial “rack” rate (which nobody pays) and then taking the discount off the rack rate. Of course hotels have always done this all over the world. Whether the airline discount helps you or not depends on your age. If you are 65 the airline senior discount, when offered, is the same as the Pensionado discount. If you are under 65 and are a Panamanian resident you can get the airline senior rate so its a good deal for you. In restaurants I used the Pensionado discount judiciously. If it’s a local, small, typical Panamanian restaurant, often family run, with fair prices, I’d never ask for the discount. If it’s a large, expensive restaurant, then I’ll ask for the discount. If I see they’ve jacked up the prices anticipating folks using the discount, I’ll ask for it. Interestingly many of the gringo-owned and operated restaurants flout the law by listing prices “with the discount already included” or “offering the discount to everyone.”

Yes, the banks often have two lines and a special line for Pensionados. If there is a line of ordinary, working Panamanians, I’m not going to go stand in the Pensionado line where there may not be anyone. Why? Just good manners and realizing I’m a guest. But if there are two lines, each with a good number of folks, and the Pensionado line has Panamanian retirees in it already, I’ll go stand in the Pensionado line. OK, it’s me. I know some gringos who take the attitude, “I’m here. I’m entitled. I deserve it.” Different folks, different strokes.

OK, now Kathleen Peddicord, Live And Invest Overseas …

I don’t know Kathleen, have never met her but I’d like to since I am familiar with her news releases and admire her advertising and promotional efforts. As I understand it, she was much of the original force behind International Living before leaving and launching her own brand, Live and Invest Overseas. I’ve never been to her seminars or those of International Living. I suspect that Kathleen would be the first to tell you that she does not “answer all the questions you have about relocating” nor does International Living or Jackie Lange’s Panama Relocation Tours. In my opinion there is nothing better than getting out and into the real Panama and experiencing and seeing for yourself what life here is all about. You can’t experience that in a fancy hotel room in Panama City. These companies are in the business of selling Panama. And that’s OK, as long as you realize what it is. We know many folks who’ve ended up in Panama because of International Living and are delighted to be here. 37% of the folks who’ve taken Jackie Lange’s Panama Relocation Tours over the past four years are already living in Panama.

So here’s my advice …

1. Get my book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA. Read it. I’ll show you how to decide what it is you’re looking for and how to evaluate and compare different countries. I don’t sugar coat it. Panama is not for everyone, but it may be the perfect place for you.

2. Scour the Internet and get all the information you can, but take what you read with a grain of salt. Sort through and try to separate hype from fact. Start following the various Internet boards that gringos in Panama post on. You’ll find almost as many opinions about everything as there are expats in Panama. No one, including me, has a lock on everything!

3. Carefully study the offerings and promises of the companies offering tours and seminars. Study the recommendations. Search out the company names on line and see what folks have to say. Weigh the cost and benefits. Anyone who promises to tell you “everything you need to know” is clearly blowing smoke.  You want to meet as many expats along the way as possible and have opportunity to learn from them and listen to their unfiltered comments.  Tour organizers tend to feature expats whose stories are in tune with the story the tour company is trying to tell.  Take everything with a grain of salt.  Some tours are built around selling one thing or another, which is not always made clear up front.  There are real estate tours, carefully designed to allow time for you to see only the developments and properties where they’re getting a commission.  For those of my readers who’ve taken any of these tours, I’d welcome your comments and recommendations for others.

Avoid ones where you are just going to sit and listen.  You need to have your boots on the ground.  If you’re unfamiliar with a place, these may be the way to get started and feel comfortable exploring on your own. Whatever seminar or tour you choose, come early to experience and explore Panama City doing some of the tourist things like seeing the Canal or taking the Hop On Hop Off bus. And set up your return flight so you have time, a week if possible, to visit and explore in depth areas that you think might be possibilities for you. In Panama we pretty much have everything in a tiny country. Big city life, small town living, or life in the country. Mountains or beaches Lowland hot or mountain cool.

4. Once you go back home and sort through your experiences and impressions plan to come back to Panama for an extended stay of several weeks to explore further both as a tourist but also as someone considering living here.  Again talk to as many expats as possible.  You are the visitor so take the initiative: “Pardon me, we’re just visiting here and thinking of maybe moving to Panama.  It sounds like you’ve been here a while.  Can I buy you another cup of coffee (or drink!) and ask you a few questions?”   Most expats are going to be happy to share.

5. If you then still are excited about an expat lifestyle in Panama, arrange to come down for 3 to 6 months, rent a place, and actually experience day-to-day life in the area you like best.

Then, when you are convinced this is the right move, pack up and move here, either renting or buying the home of your dreams.

 

157 New Cars Every Day in Panama City

If you think traffic in Panama City is a zoo now, just you wait.  A part of the price of a booming economy is more cars and more traffic.

If you are a Panama City driver facing increasing frustration as the traffic jams worsen, as the city rushes towards First World Status with round the year clogged roadways and rush hour gridlock, learn to hold your breath. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, with experts predicting a long haul of at least a decade before there is an adequate public transit system, and the culture changes from showing off the latest SUV acquisition to actually sharing the system with those who don’t own a car.

Meanwhile, according to figures provided by Panama’s Automobile Dealers Association (ADAP), the path to total gridlock is being fueled with ever increasing vehicle sales. Between January and June this year sales increased by 5.6% compared to the same period in 2013. If is compared with 2012, the increase was 21%; with 2011, 28%; and 2010, 61.6%.

In terms of annual sales in just three years the segment grew by almost 50%. 37,458 vehicles sold in 2010 rose to 56,147 in 2013.

The average monthly vehicle sales figure in 2013 was 4679. So far in 2014 the monthly average is 4,730, putting sales on the road 60,000 thousand shiny new road blockers by year end

This, according to economist Raul Moreira, goes hand in hand with sustained economic growth that the country has registered in the last seven years.

“There is a situation of economic welfare for a large sector of the population, and that translates into a higher level of purchase, in this case cars,” he told La Prensa.

In the first six months of the year, 28,381 new cars have been added to the streets of the capital city. With average monthly sales of 4,730 vehicles, that means 157 new cars appearing on the streets every day,helping to guarantee rush our crawls, late appointments and the other joys shard by major cities across the world.
In the race to get rubber on the road, Toyota, 7,003 overtook Hyundai, 4,984 as the preferred purchase in the first six months.

Toyota sales increased 24% compared to 2013; Hyundai , fell by 13%.
Kia, came in third with 4,383 a 25% jump over last year’s3,509
Nissan and Suzuki were the other two brands that lost customers. The first sold 13% less, and the second 8%.

Lack of urban planning, and parking facilities add to the traffic chaos.

Urban planner Alvaro Uribe says it is “an inherited problem of an urban structure based on isolated sets of housing, which only work with a car.”

He warns that the Panama city model is obsolete and needs new road easements and a planned network of streets to give “alternative access to everywhere via different routes,” plus extended public transit reaching hard to get-to places. [LA PRENSA PANAMA]

Of course THAT is Panama City. It’s not like that everywhere in Panama, although even now in Boquete you have to often look for a parking space in town. But there are many places in Panama outside Panama City where the only traffic jam you might encounter looks like this …

cropped-panama-traffic-jam.jpg

Check Your Expectations

“Soup” Campbell looks just like you’d expect any Alaskan frontiersman to look, only he now lives in Volcan, Panama.  Volcan is on the opposite side of Volcan Baru from Boquete.  Soup gave up winters in the North Pole [Really!  It's a little town north of Fairbanks, Alaska just in case you thought there was no place colder in the US than Fairbanks.] to move to Panama and he and his wife love it!  Soup’s advice to folks considering moving to Panama is “Check your expectations at the border.”   This is not the US, UK, Canada or wherever else you presently call home.  This is particularly true when it comes to the legal system and the way in which it operates in Panama.

This is often a rude awakening to folks who come from countries where the legal system is based on English common law and case precedent.  That is why when I updated my book, THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA, I included a new chapter called “The Devil You Know.”  Many of us like to grouse around about the inequities of the legal systems in our home countries, but sometimes “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”

It would be hard to top this anywhere in the world …  How The Brawl Over A Florida Millionaire’s Will Taints Panama’s Image: How Panama Cut Poor Kids Out Of A Florida Millionaire’s Will.  You gotta read it and you will be shaking your head!  Anyone in “the industry” looking for a series to pitch which would be better than “House of Cards”?  Take a look!

And a special word of thanks to Squirrelmom for this great review of THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA …

Once again, Richard, thank you for your sage advice. i read your book two years ago (need to get the new one!) and came to Panama to check it our ourselves. We have been to Panama twice and spent extended time there actually house sitting. We love Boquete and there was much about Panama we liked but other than Panama City (which was not much to our liking), we decide we were too young to settle down there for now. We might revisit it again in 5-10 years from now, though mindful that there will probably be major changes between now and then. But as you say only with ‘boots on the ground” and visiting actual areas and trying to “live” and not just be tourist for while, do you learn whether you really could and would live there. Until you try grocery shopping, getting parts for a car, doing laundry, getting your hair cut, trying to find good coffee (not a problem in Boquete or Panama City but a bit of a struggle elsewhere – at least for now), and visiting a doctor and a hospital for treatment (all things we did!) you really don’t know what it’s like. To all of your skeptics out there LISTEN TO RICHARD!

On The Road Again

If you’re thinking about moving or retiring abroad, nothing beats the first-hand experience of boots on the ground and actually experiencing the country. Sitting in a ballroom in an expensive Panama City hotel, or reading newsletters and publications of outfits who make their money spinning dreams, or hearing carefully prepped stories from expats, can’t come near the value of actually experiencing things for yourself and talking to real expats who share their unfiltered experiences of life in a foreign country.

Whenever I can I tag along on the Panama Relocation Tours to share first-hand some of the things I talk about in my book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA. It’s fun to meet people from all over, to make knew friends and to share. This time my wife, Nikki, also came along.

Due to an acute water problem in one of the areas the tour usually visits, this time we went to Sante Fe, a VERY tiny and remote town about 1 hour 45 minutes by bus from the Pan American Highway and major shopping and services. I had never been to this town and was very curious since International Living and some of the other businesses that promote expat living have hyped this town. In November of last year International Living called it one of “the top five places to live in Panama.” International Living has continually pushed Sante Fe and dubbed it “Panama’s Most Beautiful Town” and also anointed it one of “the five best-value retirement destinations outside the U.S.” saying “The secluded getaway of Santa Fe de Veraguas, 200 miles from Panama City, Panama also made it into the top five. The low-cost of accommodation, food and high-end health care meant its budget for a retired couple was estimated at $800 per month.”

So of course I was interested! Although sometimes compared to Boquete, other than being in the mountains … at a much lower and warmer elevation … Boquete it is not. Undeniably Sante Fe is beautiful. But there isn’t much of a “town” that could be considered “Panama’s Most Beautiful Town”. It’s about 1 hour 45 minutes from the Pan American Highway and even farther to Santiago which would be the nearest place for a hospital, physicians, grocery shopping, etc. Sure, you can buy a very simple, inexpensive style Panamanian house for $45,000 if you looked hard enough, but a gringo family of two living on $800 a month … I don’t think so. Sure, of course you COULD do so … but would you WANT to?

Kathleen Peddicord [Live and Invest Overseas] is a little bit more realistic … “A couple could retire to Santa Fe, for example, in the highlands of Panama, on as little as $1,000 per month.” Of course she also says, “You could rent a house in Santa Fe for just $200 a month and live on a budget of $800 a month or less. One important reason why you don’t need much money to live in Santa Fe is because there’s not much in Santa Fe to spend your money on. Life here could best be described as back to basics, simple, and safe.” $800 … $1,000?  But there not being much in Sante Fe to spend your money on is absolutely accurate.

It makes great copy … and great dreaming material!

I loved Sante Fe but it’s not as cool as I like and it’s too far … from everything. The expat community here numbers around 50 people that, depending on what you want, can be seen as either an advantage or disadvantage.

I’m not particularly picking on Sante Fe, International Living, or Kathleen Peddicord, but I do want to make the point that you shouldn’t set your dreams based only on what you read. You need to actually visit the places you read about, have a boots on the ground experience, and talk to as many real expats as possible.

Expat living can be wonderful as it has been for us. If you’re just looking for cheap there are many places in Panama and the rest of the world where you can find cheap. But is that what you really want? If cheap is all you can afford, fine. But I sometimes see people who can certainly afford a better quality of life and all they are concerned about is cheap, cheap, cheap. If you’re considering an expat life style for retiring, remember, you’ve worked all your life for this. Why not enjoy it? Sure, you may be able to live cheaper in Panama, depending on where you are coming from, but, more importantly you can live BETTER for less.

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Cruise Ships to Panama Up and New Hope for Colon

According to the Panama Tourism Authority, cruise ship arrivals in Panama increased 5.7% in the first five months of the year with 215,581 cruise passenger tourists, generating $27 million in revenue.  An average of 45,000 monthly cruise passengers disembarked at the port at the edge of the city of Colon and in the port in Amador on the Pacific entrance to the Canal. [Ships on the Pacific side anchor out and tender guests into Amador, sometimes called "Fuerte Amador" by the cruise lines.]

Unfortunately, cruise passengers calling in Colon have to be warned that neither the city, nor the area around the two cruise terminals [Colon 2000 and Home Port] are safe areas for tourists.  This is too bad because there are some beautiful old buildings in Colon, some dating back to the French era of attempting to build a canal.

One of the first things Panama’s new President,Juan Carlos Varela, did after his inauguration was to helicopter Colón, where in front of thousands of people he promised to improve the economy of Colon. One of the promises that drew the most attention was the idea to transform the entire city of Colon into a free trade zone.

Marissa Krienert, executive director of the Panama Freedom Foundation, told PanAm Post she believes this is very good news, because it will bring prosperity to a city that for decades has suffered severe neglect, insecurity, and unemployment.

“Turning Colón into a free trade zone will allow the country to take full advantage of its resources to attract more foreign investment into a legally autonomous jurisdiction. This autonomy will allow for considerable fiscal flexibility, and will directly benefit the people of Colón, generating high-quality, well-paying jobs, along with deeper specialization of the labor force and enhanced technology transfers,” said Krienert.

Panama occupies the 71st place of 177 countries in the latest edition of the Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation, and is classified as a moderately free economy. According to this index, its economy is less free than that of Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, and El Salvador, but freer than those of Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela. [PANAM POST]

 

Varela in Colon with one of those architectural gems in the background.

Refloating COSTA CONCORDIA

The best technical explanation of the process I’ve found is on a Website GCaptain.com.  This is a fascinating process whether you are a ship buff or not.  It is estimated that the whole CONCORDIA episode will cost parent company Carnival Corp $1.5 to 2 BILLION.  The is a live link on this site so you can watch the process.  Apparently the ship is floating and will be slowly towed to the wrecking yard.

I’m in Santiago on the Panama Relocation Tour and I will report in about the tour later in the week.

This Could Get Interesting!

Most of the time when a few guys get together to watch a BIG, BIG game … well it’s a little different if you are Pope and Pope Emeritus and the two teams from you home countries are going to battle it out.

CNN saw it as “Pope V Pope” and questioned if it would become a “holy war” with both guys invoking the Power of the Divine.

At the very least, Sunday’s match could put millions of Catholics – not to mention Vatican employees – in a bit of a bind.

Will they root for Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis, who is known to be an ardent soccer aficionado? Or will they back Germany, the native country of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, also a big football fan?

And what about the Big Referee Upstairs? Whose prayers will he heed when the game is on the line?

 

Germany reached the final match on Tuesday by blowing out Brazil, the host country. Argentina beat the Netherlands on Wednesday afternoon.

Of course, both Popes (not to mention God) have more important things on their minds. But the pontiffs have also said that sports can be more than fun and games.

“The sport of football can be a vehicle of education for the values of honesty, solidarity and fraternity, especially for the younger generation,” Benedict told Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper back in 2008.

His successor, Francis has echoed those remarks, and even promised not to pray for Argentina.

But a Catholic who met Pope Francis this week to discuss more serious matters said that the pontiff seemed to be secretly pulling for his home team.

“He absolutely wants for Argentina to win,” Peter Saunders, a victim of sexual abuse from England who met Francis on Monday, told the Boston Globe. “He didn’t say it out loud, but you could see it in his eyes, he’s a closet fan.”

And earlier this month, before Argentina played Switzerland, Francis jokingly told his Swiss Guards, “It’s going to be war!”

It will be interesting to see what the Vatican says about the Argentina-Germany matchup. The men are known to be close, with Francis saying he and Benedict “are brothers.”

Maybe the “brothers” will put a little wager on the high-stakes soccer match, or maybe this just means that God has a really good sense of humor.

On Thursday, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the popes didn’t have plans to watch Sunday’s final together, but left often the possibility that something could be, ah, afoot. [CNN]