What’s Good, and What’s Bad, About Living in Panama?

Chuck Bolton who has a Web site Best Places In The World To Retire that we’ve talked about before has summarize the findings of his survey of expats living in Panama.

The Web site now has more than 4,000 answers to the most commonly asked questions about Panama and 11 regions within it, all provided for the most part by people who actually live there, most of whom moved from the U.S. or Canada. There’s also a book about Panama and a survey of expatriates

Following is the good and the bad about living as an expat in Panama, as told by more than 300 contributors and the expat respondents to our study.

Cost of Living Pros: Compared with North American standards, the cost for labor will be extremely low in Panama: For example, you’ll pay about $20 a day for a gardener or housekeeper. The cost for locally made items, including food, will also be very low. For example, pineapples typically cost 75 cents to $1.00, and a dozen eggs will cost $1.50 or less. In any fair comparison, the cost to build, purchase, or rent a house or condo will be substantially less, although proportionally not as cheap as local help and food (buildings still need some materials that has to be purchased elsewhere). Property taxes are extremely low, and many times don’t exist at all due to government incentives. Your cost for utilities other than electricity will be very low (example: water for $10 – $20 per month). If you live in the famous mountain expat town of Boquete, you won’t even have air conditioning or heating at all, because the temperature is so comfortable all year round. Compared with North America, if you choose to, you can definitely live in Panama for substantially less, while at the same time enjoying a higher standard of living.

Cost of Living Cons: The cost for goods imported into Panama (for example, American brands) can be as much or more than you would pay for them in the U.S. Just have to have Breyers Ice Cream? Don’t expect it to cost less. In fact, expect it to cost a bit more. Also, electricity costs more than in the U.S.

Health Care Pros: If you live anywhere near Panama City, for all but the most unusual medical conditions, you have access to U.S.-standard medical and dental care at a 50% to 75% discount (or even more) to what you would pay in the U.S.Hospital Punta Pacifica is affiliated with Johns Hopkins, and there are at least two other very good hospitals in Panama City. If you live in one of the beachfront communities in the Coronado area (very popular with expats), you would have very good local health care, and you would be within an hour to 90 minutes or so of the large hospitals in Panama City. If you live in Boquete and want to go to a hospital, you need to travel to David, about 40 minutes away, where the hospitals are good but not up to the standards of Panama City.

Health Care Cons: If you have a very unusual medical condition, you may not find the specialists you need in Panama. (After all, there are fewer than 4 million people in the entire country, which is about the same as the population Oklahoma.) Also, if you live in one of the more remote areas and have a serious situation, a good hospital can be several hours away, at best.

Weather Pros: Within a range, you can choose your perfect temperature in Panama. Panama is a small and narrow country, with a pretty good-sized mountain range running down the middle. All other things being equal, for each 1,000 feet in elevation, the temperature drops 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if it’s 88 degrees at sea level in Panama (not an uncommon occurrence), it will be about 75 degrees in Boquete. Not cool enough for you? In Volcan<, it can be another 5 degrees or so cooler.

Mar 15 Relocation Tour 1 - Copy

Weather Cons: If you don’t like a high temperature between 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and don’t want to live at a higher elevation than sea level, Panama is not for you. Also, you can get a good amount of rain in many areas of the country, and, when you get to higher elevations, in some microclimates, wind can be an issue.

Safety Pros: While not unheard of in Panama, from what we are told, in general, our expats are less concerned about violent crimes than they were where they lived in the U.S. or Canada.

Safety Cons: Crimes of opportunity (for example, stealing your cell phone if you leave it on your car seat) are more prevalent in Panama than in the U.S., especially in the tourist areas.

Potpourri: Like all the countries we cover, Panama is not “just like the U.S., only cheaper.” Panama has its own culture, and ways of doing things. For example, in general, people are not as prompt and things don’t get done as quickly or as efficiently. There are other differences as well. Some people celebrate and enjoy these differences, while it drives others crazy.

On the other hand, Panama has many good features in addition to what’s mentioned above, which is why it’s so popular with expats. Panama has fabulous diversity in many different ways. It has jungles, cosmopolitan areas, colonial cities, and modern skyscrapers, all easily accessible and close to each other. You can swim in the Pacific and in the Caribbean on the same day, and at some places in the mountains, you can even see both oceans from the same place.

Want to go shopping at high-end malls and eat at fancy restaurants? Panama has that. Want to buy hand-made jewelry from Guna Indians or “go native” in a sparsely inhabited area? No problem. Care to be around North American expats? There are places where you can speak English to pretty much everyone you see and go to happy hours with your North American friends every day. Don’t want to be around expats at all? Panama can accommodate you, too. Want to be part of a close-knit community that can provide support and also greater meaning through helping others? The expats in Panama are brilliant at that.

What I Miss Most Living In Panama

The day before I left to visit my daughter and her family in Seattle I was on a panel with Nikki, Jackie Lange of Panama Relocation Tours, and some other folks who’ve been in Panama a long time. It was for the weekly Tuesday Meeting at the Boquete Community Center. It was primarily for folks who were new to the Boquete Community and interestingly about a third of those present had originally “discovered” Boquete through the Panama Relocation Tours.

In the question and answer session someone asked, “What have you missed most living in Boquete?”

I was first up.

corn on cobOther than my kids and grand kids … the first thing that came to mind, it being August, was corn on the cob! And the audience erupted with yeses and applause. As I write this I’m leaving Seattle and heading back home to Panama, but while I’ve been here I’ve had some fantastic sweet corn on the cob. Maybe the best I’ve ever tasted!  

And the peaches!! Like you’ve died and gone to peach heaven!


The second thing I’ve missed … Trader Joe’s. More applause!

Trader Joes

Even although “Two Buck Chuck” is now “Three Buck Chuck.”  And Trader Joe’s isn’t cheap.

To the above I would have to add Home Depot, Costco and or Sam’s Club.

And there is a certain convenience to things, in part because of the familiarity of knowing where to find what and that for the most part the language of business and commerce is my language.  Interestingly though my daughter has to go to certain parts of her house to get a cell phone signal the same way I need to in Boquete, but they have great Internet and Cable TV which some areas of Panama also enjoy.

And what I don’t miss about living in the States …

OK, I have the “Bougainvillea Standard” of living … meaning if Bougainvillea grows there (meaning no killing frost) I can grow there.  It is August and the nights and early mornings have that end of August, school-is-starting, Halloween-stores-are-opening, Christmas-decorations-are-appearing-in-stores feel.  And while I enjoy deciduous trees in vivid color, pumpkins, fresh apple cider, I know at the end it means winter.  I admit snow is beautiful … in pictures, but … I don’t want to live with frigid winters anymore.

I don’t miss the traffic.  Of course if I lived in Panama City I’d have far worse traffic than Seattle, but I like my small-town, country living outside of Boquete.

I don’t miss that everything seems to be about money.  It’s not just that my daughter is delighted to have found a place to get her hair cut that only costs around $50 … compared to $8 in Boquete.  Items in the grocery store are pretty much a wash price-wise, but in the States you do have an entire aisle of salad dressings from which to choose.  Chicken, which you’d think would be much cheaper in Panama, costs about the same.  I’ve actually seen bananas on sale for less than what they cost in Panama!  Trader Joe’s $3 wines really aren’t  bad.  I don’t give Seattle high marks for bagels, but for $1.50 you can get a bagel four times the size of Mort’s $1.50 bagel, even generously loaded with asiago cheese.

But in the States there is an undertone that money is the most important thing in life, for everything.  You don’t move without spending money.  The car you drive, the brands you wear, the size and location of your house.





Crack Threatens New Canal Locks

A huge crack has opened up in the base of the new Pacific Lock complex threatening the proposed 1 Q 2016 opening of the Panama Canal Expansion.

The testing period was intended to … test, but nobody expected something like this. The crack formed in the sill of the new Pacific Lock complex. Water is seeping through the concrete across the width of the sill, just beneath the giant rolling gates.

The new Pacific Locks are now officially known as the Cocoli Locks on the Panama Canal’s Pacific side. Cocoli is the name of a river in the area.

Over the weekend teams from the Canal de Panama met with the contractor. The Canal authority said that they will not accept anything less than perfect for the project, as it was agreed in the contract. “The ACP will not accept the work of (the expanded canal) flawed,” the ACP tweeted Friday after learning of the issues. “The contractor must repair to the satisfaction imperfections and defects detected in the testing period we are conducting,” the ACP said in another tweet.

The issue could delay the opening of the expanded Canal, and depending on the cause, could create additional havoc for the project. Flawed concrete mix could present huge problems, as could seismic conditions. One of the reasons the Canal has encountered cost overruns is the early on a previously unknown fault was discovered under the Canal. Seismologists feared the additional weight of all the water in the new locks could create seismic problems, so additional concrete and steel was put into the footings.

The Canal recently dodged the bullet of a threatened strike, and one of the directors of the Canal was forced to resign because of alleged involvement in the graft schemes of Panama’s former President Ricardo Martinelli.