Pros & Cons of Living in An Expat Community


Jackie Lange, Panama Relocation Tours, discusses things to consider when looking for a place to retire or live outside your home country.

Jackie Lange, Panama Relocation Tours, discusses things to consider when looking for a place to retire or live outside your home country.

I like Jackie Lange and I like her Panama Relocation Tours. Before she decided to leave Texas and move to Panama she had read my book ESCAPE TO PARADISE, now THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING & RETIRING IN PANAMA. When her real estate investor friends in the US, and turns out she’s quite an expert in real estate investing and has a huge following, were fascinated by her decision to move to Panama and wanted to come down and see it for themselves, she kind of backed into doing tours and the result is Panama Relocation Tours. I like the tour because nobody is selling anything! They are boots-on-the-ground tours that let you see some of the places expats like to call home and talk to real expats and learn their unfiltered experiences. Unlike some of the big outfits that promote seminars and materials for folks interested in an international expat lifestyle, Jackie goes out of the way to give an unfiltered view of life in Panama. And she’s checked out Ecuador too, so she can give you her comparison of the two places. Ecuador is another place some of these big outfits are promoting.

Checking out a high rise beach condo complex.

Checking out a high-rise beach condo complex.

Sometimes Jackie has invited me to tag along with the tour which I love doing when I can. Sometimes Jackie gets a little over-enthusiastic and we tend to balance each other. Yes, a lot of local folks in Boquete DO speak English, or a little English. And if you stammer around in your limited Spanish they feel free to try out their limited English and communication takes place. Many of the locals in Boquete are trying to learn English, while the expats try to learn Spanish. I have a Panamanian friend who jokes, “It’s a toss-up which language everyone will speak most in the future.” Sometimes I think Jackie pushes the “less expensive” argument for Panama too much when I think the stronger argument is that Panama offers a BETTER LIFESTYLE albeit still for less than many places in the US, Europe and Canada.

I thought this recent piece by Jackie was excellent … and for more go to her Web page.  She offers a free booklet, HOW TO FUND YOUR LIFE OVERSEAS , which seems maybe at first blush a little over-enthusiastic, except I know that Jackie uses these strategies, and I know others who do as well … and they work!   It helps if, like Jackie, you have unending energy.  When I’m stumped I go to one of our TWO Jackies.  If it’s a computer issue I go to our resident computer whiz Jackie Kuo.  And for almost everything else, I go to Jackie Lange!  One of the neat things about living internationally in a place that HAS an expat community is that you HAVE a community of friends and connections … if they don’t know, they’ll know someone who does know.  Friends can tell you the best place to by pork in David.  It’s an unmarked, unadvertised butcher and  you’d never find his store unless someone told you.  While most of what you need is available in David, finding it can be a challenge, so you ask around.  Someone in the expat community will know.

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So do you just dream and read about Panama, or do you actually do something about it?  I’m happy that 10 years ago we picked up and made the move.  What a marvelous adventure it has been.

Last night we had a couple over for dinner who first came to visit on one of Jackie’s tours.  I was off at sea t the time, so had never met them.  What a neat couple!  Younger than many of the expats moving to Panama, they decided, based in part on what they had seen in their parents lives, that there was more to life than just doing business and making money.  While they were healthy and active they wanted the adventure!  So they are renting a tiny, tiny … did I say tiny? … casita, kind of back and forth … checking out areas in Boquete where they would like to live … then going back to the States to sell off properties and business.  Their primary business can be totally run from Panama.  As it they already deal with their customers by phone and Internet and not face-to-face.  They can do that just as well while living the adventure in Panama, as they would shivering in North America.


Relocating to a Panama will be much easier if you move to a community where there are already many expats. With an established expat community English will be widely spoken at the banks, doctor offices, restaurants and other services like cell phone or internet providers. It will be easier to get things done.

The two main expat communities in Panama are Coronado and Boquete. There are about 2,500 expats in Boquete and most of the expats live there full-time. Boquete has a population of 25,000, so about 10% of the population are expats.

In Coronado, I’m not sure how many expats there are but I see expats often when I’m there. In Coronado, approximately 40% of the expats are Canadian, 30% Americas and the rest are primarily European. My guess would be that there are more total expats in Coronado than Boquete but fewer of them live in Coronado full time.

No one knows for sure how many expats are in Panama because there is no requirement to register with any Embassy.

There are also a lot of expats in Panama City but expats are harder to find because it is such a large city with almost 3 million people.

Other areas like El Valle, Las Tablas, Sante Fe, David, Volcan and Puerto Armuellas certainly have expats living there but not as many as Coronado or Boquete. English is not widely spoken in any of these areas.


The good thing about living in Boquete is that English is widely spoken. The bad thing about living in Boquete is that English is so widely spoken that you don’t need to learn Spanish. It’s much harder to learn Spanish if you live in an expat community. There are language schools readily available if you take the time to participate.

In non-expat communities few locals will speak English. So you will need to learn at least some Spanish before you make the move. A smile and “Buenos” goes a long way!

There are several online Spanish classes. I really like because he also explains the Latin culture and WHY it is important to say or do certain things. Warren’s course is specifically designed for people over 40 and the way we learn.

In non-expat communities, because English is not widely spoken, it will be harder to get anything done and this could cause frustration. The solution, initially, is to hire an interpreter or find a bi-lingual expat to help you get settled.

When I went to get my driver’s license I hired an interpreter to go with me. Much to my surprise, everyone spoke English at the office where you get your driver’s license.

Panama is a Spanish-speaking country so it is good to learn at least some Spanish. The more you learn, the easier your life will be in Panama. Plus you will not be limited to speaking only with other expats or only Panamanians who speak English.

Because there are so many expats living in Panama, some service providers now have English-speaking support. If I have problems with my internet service, I can select #2 for English when I call support. If I need to call my 24/7 information line at either of my banks in Panama I can press #2 for English support. Plus they speak English at the local office too.


When you live in an expat community there will be plenty of weekly activities like music events, theater, poker games, yoga classes, art shows, Zumba, chili cook-offs, and plenty of charities to get involved in. Some restaurants also have trivia or bingo nights.

In expat communities there seems to always be a reason for a party or a get-together. That’s certainly the case in Boquete. This Friday is Halloween. There are 4 parties with live music and dancing.

In non-expat communities you’ll need to create your own expat activities. There may be some activities but they will not happen often. A few months ago one of the restaurants in Volcan featured BBQ and live music for lunch.

Expats who live in expat communities seem to be much more social. They like going to lots of events and hanging out with other expats. Of course, you don’t have to participate but the events will be readily available.

Expats who live in non-expat communities seem to prefer not to be so social. They are perfectly happy enjoying the beautiful scenery in Panama.

If you need social events, you’d do better in an expat community.


Housing will usually be more expensive in an expat community. We’ve certainly see that in Boquete. When the first wave of expats started moving to Boquete 10 years ago they came with wads of cash then built big houses. They drove the prices up. Now, a large percentage of the inventory of houses for sale now is these large houses.

Finding a house for less than $100,000 in an expat community in Panama is not easy to do. They are out there but they are hard to find.

Yet in non-expat communities buying a house for less than $100,000 is much easier to do. I’ve even seen nice houses on large lots priced at less than $50,000 in non-expat communities.

Rentals in expat communities could cost twice as much as a non-expat community. An example is the furnished house I rented when I moved to Boquete was $600 per month for a 2 bedroom, 2 bath house. A similar house in David is only $250- $300. David is hot and you need air conditioning so your utility bill will drive up your monthly costs. In Volcan the same house would cost $350 to $400. In Coronado, the same house would rent for about $800 per month.. even more if it were close to the beach.

In Las Tablas, Panama Relocation Tours meets with a lady who rents a nice furnished 1 bedroom house for $180. Another couple I know there rents a furnished 3 bedroom, 2 bath house for $400 per month. It’s hot in Las Tablas so you’ll have additional expenses for air conditioning.

If you live in an area like Boquete or Volcan, or anywhere above 3000 feet, the weather will be spring like year round so you will have no need for an air conditioner. This saves a lot of money on utility bills. If you live at a lower elevation it will be hotter and more humid so you will have additional utitlity costs.

The quality of homes in expat communities will usually be much better than the quality of homes in non-expat communities (unless you pay more money). Hot water at every faucet is NOT a given in Panama. But in expat communities you are much more likely to have hot water at every faucet in the house.

If you want to live close to an expat community but you’re on a limited budget, you can usually reduce your costs if you move 15 or 30 minutes away. You’re still close enough to participate in all the activities. Caldera is about 20 minutes away from downtown Boquete. Last year an expat bought a 2 bedroom house on a large lot for $35,000 there. You’d never find that price in Boquete.

We strongly recommend that you rent for at least 6-12 months before you even think about buying a property in Panama. In some cases, it makes more sense to just be a renter and not buy. Rents are affordable. Renting gives you the flexibility to try out a variety of different areas in Panama. Buying is easy but selling could take many years.


In expat communities you are more likely to have a wide variety of restaurants with very good food. Some of these will be expat owned. In Boquete we have traditional Panamanian food, fish restaurants, Italian, Mexican, German, Peruvian, French, Spanish, Pizza, Egyptian, sandwich shops, etc.

In non-expat communities your choices for eating out will be very limited unless it is a larger town like David which has a population of about 180,000. David even has a McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Subway plus a plethora of other restaurants. You will not find these “chain” type restaurants in small communities.

David also has many very nice grocery stores, department stores, and hardware stores. David also has a PriceSmart which is like a Sam’s or Costco. Luckily, it’s about a 30 minute drive from Boquete to David on our new 4 lane highway so it is quick and easy to get shopping.

Even in small expat communities like Boquete and Coronado you’ll have a better chance of finding the grocery or pharmacy items you want. In small non-expat communities like Sante Fe, Las Tablas or Volcan there will be less of a selection so you’ll need to make occasional trips to a larger town to get the things you need.


There are always trade-offs.

Moving to a non-expat community will be more affordable and have a bigger upside potential if you buy. As more expats move in to the area it will be converted in to an expat community with more services, more restaurants, and more amenities. Home prices will go up as there is more demand. But you need to learn Spanish.

Moving to an already established expat community will make your transition much easier.. you’ll have more social activities, and you’ll have more conveniences ..but all that comes at a price. You’ll pay more to live in an expat community. English will be spoken at most places.

Where you decide to move to in Panama will depend on your personal preferences and your budget.

No matter what you’ve read about each area in Panama or seen on videos, you can’t really get a “feel” for what it will be like until you go visit the town and visit with expats who live there. You need boots on the ground. will show you a VARIETY of different areas during our 6 day all-inclusive tour. You’ll get the chance to meet with expats every day of the tour. Panama has something for every budget and every preference. Come see what it’s like to live in Panama.

Join us on a Panama Relocation Tour in 2015 to find your paradise!

Panama Relocation Tour Group Photo Sept 2013

Things Change

If there were a mantra for living in Panama it would be “things change!”  In fact, if there were a mantra for life it would be “THINGS CHANGE!”  Living in Panama I’ve learned that you always have to be expecting change and to have a “Plan B” in mind.  In Panama, also  Plans C, D, E, F, etc.  But here, as everywhere else, the secret is to keep plugging and respond as positively as possible to the changes life throws at you, whether they are the gigantic life-altering changes, or the little “that’s interesting” changes.

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since I was at sea, so wanting to get back in the swing of things I agreed to do several “one-off” cruises this fall, one for Celebrity and four for Silversea. While in the Canary Islands on Celebrity I experienced loss of vision in my one eye several times.  Once when attempting to start a talk, while an inexperienced AV guy tried to figure out PowerPoint, I was stalling by telling jokes I’ve used many times and in the middle of the joke I forgot the punch lines.  I ended up in the medical center with the ship’s doctor sending me to an ophthalmologist.  When the eye doc said there was nothing wrong with my eyes, the ship doctor, fearing a stroke, sent me back home to Seattle for a whole string of tests.  Tests which proved … drum roll! … I’m normal, much to the surprise of some of my friends.  But in the meantime, not to leave Silversea hanging at the last minute, I had to cancel my four scheduled cruises.

The silver lining was getting to spend some time with my daughter and her family in Seattle.  I’m now with my other daughter in Sonoma County working my way back to Panama.  And the other day … Princess called.  They want me back at sea, doing my favorite run through the Panama Canal on ISLAND PRINCESS … starting mid-November!

Island Princess in locks

Since 2014 is the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal, and with all the expansion construction going on, this is an exciting time to do the Canal run and be able to introduce a shipload of folks [1,970 passengers, 900 crew] to Panama.  Plus, no long-haul flights!  I start with a Canal transit from Los Angeles to Ft Lauderdale in less than a month, and then do the partial transits round trip from Ft Lauderdale.

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People Hear What They Want to Believe

Several years ago University of Illinois psychology professor Dolores Albarracín, led the study, later published in Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association, that analysed data from 91 studies involving nearly 8,000 participants, focused on seeking a definitive answer to a longstanding debate. “We wanted to see exactly across the board to what extent people are willing to seek out the truth versus just stay comfortable with what they know.” Or one might also say, “what they think they know.”

Not surprisingly the research found that people were in general twice as likely to select information that supported their own point of view as to consider an opposing idea, with two thirds going for supportive views as opposed to a third going the other way. Some people, particularly those with more close-minded personalities, were even more reluctant to expose themselves to differing perspectives, opting for information that corresponded to their views nearly three quarters of the time.

Sante Fe Panama beautiful but ... Panama Relocation TourIt is my opinion that many times people are so anxious to find the “paradise” that they believe Panama to be, that they accept only what they want to hear, what confirms their existing beliefs. Now I am all for Panama as “paradise,” after all it’s been our experience, and I wrote the book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA. But … BIG BUT HERE … some of the organizations who promote expat living in Panama selectively offer information that glosses over the realities of life in Panama. And of course they do a very profitable business.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat I try to do is give the REAL story and encourage people to move ahead cautiously, checking out things as they really are, spending time actually in the real Panama, not just a fancy hotel room somewhere, with boots-on-the-ground. If you do that there is a good chance that your will decide moving to Panama is right for you, but you’ll know what you are getting into. We all know you take a big risk when you leap before you look, yet it amazes me how many people will pick up and move to another country, usually one that’s hyped as the latest, greatest place to retire, without doing their own due diligence. In the end they head back home embittered, frustrated and having lost lots of money in the process.

Those who do the research and carefully check things out are the ones who come to Panama, love it, and thrive on the adventure!

I didn’t say these things, but here’s what others have to say about THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE, and if you doubt it, just check out the comments on Amazon.

The Most Beautiful House in Boquete, Panama FOR SALE 12 A good honest outline of what Panama is Really like. I was very impressed with this book, very well written and very informative. Having lived in Boquete, Panama for almost 6 years, travelled around the country and worked here, I have never seen such an honest, complete and straightforward representation of what it is like to live here. Richard writes the truth about subjects that many won’t, and shows very little bias throughout the book. In all of his chapters explaining life, real estate, services, construction and retirement in Panama, he hits the nail on the head and isn’t afraid to outline the fact that Panama may not be for everybody.” Conner

“5.0 out of 5 stars worth every penny, Well written, and informative.” Big Al

“What a fantastic resource from someone who has been living in Panama and knows the eccentricities and nuance of the culture. Whether considering Panama or anywhere else to retire abroad, Richard provides a lot of food for thought. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Richard!!” khfitz6311

“Great Job Richard!“I could hardly put this book down, even though I’ve lived in Boquete for seven years. Richard tells it exactly like it is … how I wish this wonderful tool were available before we moved here. It would have saved a lot of frustration trying to figure it all out for ourselves. This is an awesome book for those thinking of retiring in Panama.” Kathy Donelson


“5.0 out of 5 stars Must-read for anyone contemplating a move to Panama – Richard once again “nails it” with his straight-shooting comments, 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!” AKD

“Great book! This book is like reading a letter from a good friend who answers the most important questions you would ask if you were thinking of moving to Panama. Like a good friend, he gives you honest answers.” Jubal Atencio

“Reading Richard’s book paralleled the thoughts we were processing trying to determine where to retire and if Panama is a viable option. His book answers the questions about affordability and the mind shift needed for a life outside the USA, and the sacrifices (really just tradeoff’s, good/bad) we’d need to make if we chose to live in Panama. I don’t think there’s anything he missed in his book! From obtaining a Visa, to moving with a pet, to finding the best for an Expat place to fit in and live in Panama. It’s a big book but a fast read. I couldn’t put it down. A must read if retirement in Central America is on your mind.” Margie Casey

“I have to say that what and how you laid out the details is outstanding. You covered the reality of pros and cons. It is by far the best book out there for folks that want to relocate to Panama. We will arrive in April and rent for a year or so.” John & Susan Pazera

018The New Escape to Paradise is an updating of one of the best books about moving to and living in Panama. Detrich has lived in Panama for a decade and he still thinks of it as paradise. The New Escape to Paradise is a pragmatic and thought-provoking guide if you seriously contemplate moving to a new land. After researching living in Central and South American for more than fifteen years, including some tourist visits, I thought that I knew a great deal of things. As it turns out, my impressions were superficial. If you have plans to live in Panama you certainly should be prepared with this book!” James Fletcher

“This is a comprehensive, boots on the ground book about what it is like to live in Panama. The only way to learn more is to come here and stay awhile. I can’t think of anything Richard didn’t cover.” Judy Sacco

“A must read: great book, especially helpful if you are considering moving or retiring to Panama. I loved all the insight to their experiences and can’t wait to experience the country myself.” Joan Egizili

“I gave this book 5 stars because it answers all the questions about living and retiring in Panama with the pros and cons.” Gillberto Smith

“Excellent. 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.” Daniel Bridges

“I enjoyed reading your book! It’s very illuminating and entertaining. You have an ability to communicate and have an enjoyable writing style.” Doug Tyler

“Richard really knows what he’s talking about. Down to earth, no sugar coating. The book lays out both the good and not so good of living in Panama. I highly recommend it.” Steve McVicar


“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.” Ida Freer

The New Escape to Paradise is a must read for anyone thinking/dreaming about retiring to Panama. We’ve been researching for two years and will be retiring to Panama in six months. The information in this book is highly informative, current, and down to earth. Richard tells it like it is about Panama and retirement in Panama, and, I enjoyed reading about his life and his family.” Allison Guinn

“Part philosopher, part psychologist, part historian, part travel guide, and part economist, all describe Richard Detrich as he weaves his tale of life in Panama. He tells it ‘like it is’ without the hype. The New Escape to Paradise is a must read for anyone who is considering relocating to another country whether it’s Panama or somewhere else. Interactive exercises will give you insight into what you want out of your life and your next adventure.” Kristin Stillman

“Extremely helpful. 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.” Dorothy

“What a wealth of information. This is the perfect book to read if you are considering a move to Panama or just want to know all about Panama from an insider. After living in Panama for just a few months, this book addressed aspects of life here that I am experiencing or will experience as times goes on, giving me insight as to what to expect. For my friends who live in Panama vicariously through me, I have highly recommended they read this book.” Lorelei

“This book has everything and more than original book had. It is so current, that you will think you are reading the morning newspaper. If you have the original book, now is the time to upgrade. The book itself is also much improved over the original book with very few typos left for us nitpickers to pounce upon. Once you start reading this book, it is extremely hard to put down until you have finished it. If the book wasn’t so entertaining to read, I would say that it should be considered as the text book for Relocating to Panama 101. Panama is not for everyone, this book may save you thousands and thousands of dollars down the road. Get it! Read it!” Larry H

“Besides almost living in Panama for ten years, building a home in Panama and owning a business in Panama, Richard has traveled extensively lecturing about Panama on cruise ships. His second book, an updated version of the original, has more insight into the good, bad and sometimes even ugly about expats living and retiring in Panama as well as wonderful stories about his life along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it very useful in regards to my future retirement to Panama. Highly informative, entertaining and a great read!” Allison W. Gunn

“Thinking of moving to Panama? Read this book first! It could save you a lot of time, money, trouble, and worry. Not only is the book entertaining, it’s full of really important information for people considering making a move of this magnitude.” E. Bolton

Mr and Mrs Claus Come To VisitTHE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE is an updating of one of the best books about moving to and living in Panama. Richard Detrich has lived in Panama for a decade and he still thinks of it as paradise. His book is a pragmatic and thought-provoking guide if you seriously contemplate moving to a new land. My wife and I researched living in Central and South America for more than fifteen years. Once we chose Panama as our future home this was the book, more than any other, that we relied upon for both its information and its anecdotes. (The Ambulance Ride Story could almost have come from the Canterbury Tales, but it drives home the point of the differences in medical care between our countries.) If you have plans to live in Panama you certainly should be forearmed with this book!” Jim Fletcher

“Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask regarding the Panama experience. RichApr 3013 Panama Relocation Tourard has endured the trials and tribulations, the discovery and the rewards of life in Panama, and candidly lays it all out for you.” J. Sacco

“He’s amusing and informative. He doesn’t write seriously, yet covers all necessary ground to give us an accurate picture of life in Panama without blinders. All pertinent questions are covered informatively and accurately, giving you a clear understanding of the reality you would experience.I strongly recommend The NEW Escape to Paradise. It’s a great read!”Doug Tyler


At Last! Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo Opening Today

When Frank Gehry’s new Panama Biomuseum was under construction, and nothing more than still girders sticking up into the sky, I was working a Canal cruise. The Biomuseum is located on Amador Peninsula and one of the best views is from the deck of a ship transiting the Canal. A passenger asked me, “What is that over there? Did a bomb go off?” And she was serious, and yes, that’s exactly what it looked like!

It’s been a long time coming, but now it is officially here, another iconic building in Panama City and a new, major tourist attraction.

The vibrantly colored building boasts views of the Bay of Panama to the north and the Panama Canal to the south. Gehry conceived the museum to house a sequence of permanent exhibitions by Bruce Mau Design, but proper usage of outdoor space was also a priority to him. A public outdoor atrium, which is covered by an assemblage of metal canopies in different shapes and strong colors: blue, red, yellow, green, is the museum’s heart. The canopies reflect local Panamanian tin roofs, while offering protection from the area’s frequent wind-driven rains. The $100 million project is reminiscent of Gehry’s Bilboa Guggenheim Museum design with its bold use of free-flowing shapes, but it marks a departure from the architect’s tendency toward silver-colored metallic facades.

In addition to Gehry’s atrium, the Biomuseo utilizes outdoor space with its 6-acre Biodiversity Park, which the architect also had a hand in designing. Full of exotic plant varieties, shady refuges, and observation areas, the park is an open-air extension of the museum itself …

Due to funding issues over the span of four presidential administrations, construction has been on and off since 2005, when shovel first hit ground. Government changes led to multiple funding freezes, and the region’s blistering heat didn’t make construction any quicker. In fact, this official opening–the soft opening was in June–is almost three years overdue. Although the mastermind [Gehry] himself can’t be there on October 2, he and his Panamanian wife will undoubtedly be celebrating, wherever they may be in the world. [FORBESLIFE]

Newbies and Old Farts

One of the things to do once you are newly arrived in Panama is to become an expert on life in Panama. Newbies seem in a rush to create a Web site, start blogging, sit at Sugar & Spice and dish out their newly discovered expert advice to visitors considering moving to Panama, become an opinionated curmudgeon on, or write a book … or two, or three. [In self-defense I waited three years before I started blogging about my experiences in Panama, and six years before I wrote a book about our experiences, a book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA which I just rewrote, updated and greatly expanded.]

Not so all the newly minted experts. There’s the couple that moved down her to escape the cold and dark nights of the far North, started a blog, stayed four months and escaped back to ice and snow and darkness because they didn’t like the bugs, the roosters, lots of children and pretty much the whole enchilada that is Panama. There’s the gal who came on one of Jackie Lange’s Panama Relocation Tours and then went home to the Southwestern US to start-up her own tour business to Panama sharing the wealth of her vast knowledge, a lot of it copied directly from Jackie. There are folks spewing out advice who’ve only actually lived here for a few months and then high tailed it back to the States, but are now experts.

I happened to sit near a newbie who was expounding on this fantastic builder who had such great recommendations. After dinner I asked him for the builder’s name and I almost choked when he told me … it was MY building … the guy who screwed me out of all kinds of money! And the guy who has played the same trick on half a dozen other gringos.

If you just want to know what Panama is like NOW, and forget all the stories about what went on before and how things got this way, you do so at your own peril. The local health “insurance” scheme may sound good, but you need to know that it almost went under, sold out to another company which has kept changing what it promised initially to the extent that what many of us purchased is no longer what we are getting even although the cost has increased dramatically. Yes, you may have had a good medical experience, but what are the overall experiences of those who have lived here for a while? Some good, some bad, some great doctors and some … But you’ve got to know and that means you’ve got to talk to some of the folks who’ve been around a while.

There are folks who want to believe all the surface hype and just want to hear the fluff. They accept everything at face value. It has always interested me that companies rate consumer satisfaction based on the consumers initial impressions after purchasing their products. What they really need to find out is what people think after they’ve used the product for several years … if indeed it lasted that long. Of course Panama is different now than it was ten, seven, or four years ago! Just look at the price of everything! You certainly need to know what Panama is like now, but you also need to know how it got here.

Like many retirees we are on a fixed income. Yes there are a myriad of ways that we could make more money if we wanted to work all the time at basically low-paying jobs. But we also came here to retire … to do what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it. We didn’t come to struggle to get by. Panama uses the US dollar and as the US dollar has become worth less in the US, it has also become worth less in Panama. Oil costs about the same here as in the US, and we don’t refine it, so that, along with everything but a few local food items, needs to be imported. And Panama’s economy has been booming. All that adds up to many things being more expensive now than they were when we came here, but we’re still making about the same pensions and social security. You’d better understand that … and understand some of the history.

Sure, you can come and open a business, start a restaurant, buy a bed and breakfast. There are great business opportunities in Panama! But you’d better have some experience, know what you are doing, understand the business laws and policies, carefully identify your market, understand the competitive landscape, and do a business plan that would make an MBA proud. For the first year don’t plan to make a cent, just plan to shell out money. And whatever your estimates … double your expense estimate and cut your anticipate revenue at least in half. If you’re willing to work and don’t plan to just sit back and watch the money flow in, you have a chance to succeed!

You come as a Pensionado to celebrate and take advantage of Panama’s Pensionado discount program which was aimed not to attract expats but at Panamanian retirees who are living … living! … on pensions of $150 to $300 a month for husband and wife.

Many things can and do change overnight in Panama. The President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli not withstanding, has the power to do most things except make war, and since we don’t have an army that’s a non-issue. When the government changes, the government changes. The old powers that be update their resumes and start looking for jobs or just go back to running the family businesses, and the new folks move in. For a few months its pretty confusing as to who is who and what is what. Then things start to fall out and you get an idea of what life is going to be like for the next five years. Many, some might say most, of the old governments programs get dumped. New programs are initiated. There are new laws, new policies … projects that were half completed under the old government are abandoned. Contracts are dumped, the idea being I suspect that its cheaper to just pay the penalty or tie everything up in the courts until the next election cycle five years hence. You’d better understand some of the history. Yes, understand what is now, but also understand that it may all change tomorrow.

In the ten years that we’ve lived in Panama of course things have changed. On the surface we’ve become more like the US. You can get most US products in the grocery stores if you know where to look. In Chiriqui we have nice furniture stores and even a store that uses a Target-like logo … but has no relationship to US Target. You can live in Valle Escondido, hang out with gringos, speak only English, and live pretty much like you would in any upscale gated community in the US. On the surface that may make things “better” for expats now than it was when we arrived ten years ago, or so it may appear. But to understand the character, the values, the struggle of real Panamanians in a country that has been conquered, oppressed, and more-or-less occupied for much of it’s history, that’s endured a dictatorship, and struggles to adapt to it’s growing role as  “crossroads of the world” and “hub of the Americas” … to begin to understand that, you need to be here a while.

And, yes, you DO need to speak Spanish. The voice of experience speaking here … even if you can get by in polite greetings and giving instructions to your maid and gardener … when you make Panamanian friends and want to discuss the meaning of life, the fears and anxieties and challenges of living we all face, Panamanian politics and religion … you need to communicate in Spanish. And once you hit the “golden years” you DON’T just “pick up” a language!  The “mañana,” disregard for time as defined by gringos, laid-back work ethics as defined by gringos, and even the Panamanian national “game of life” philosophy … where everyone is always trying to get over on every one else …All of this doesn’t compare with the frustration of not being able to communicate fluently. How do I tell the kid next door, whom I’ve watched grow up from 8 to 18, who has no idea who his father is, and is struggling with his own identity, already has a woman and child … how do I explain to him what it means to be a responsible man who respects himself and others?

Sure, you can come down here, float on the gringo surface of things, just look out for yourself and what you can get.  You may actually discover that you can outwit a few local folks in the “game of life” …good luck with that.  You can ignore the poverty, inequality, and public education that sucks … just live in your gringo world, look down on your Panamanian neighbors, write a blog, even a book, and become an expert … but does that really give you the meaning in life you are seeking and a rewarding retirement?

Notes from Panama

Changing Hands at Tourism Board

Panama Relocation Tour Sheraton Bijao End of Day 1A new President in Panama pretty much means that everyone in any position of government authority in the old administration is out and looking for a job. The new head of tourism is a coffee farmer from Volcan!  And he also owns is a major shareholder in a 22 room hotel in Chiriqu. Tourist interests in Chiriqui have always felt the Tourism Board was almost solely focused on Panama City and in the pocket of the big hotels and casinos in Panama City. The new minister, Jesus Sierra, also has a visa that allows him to enter and travel in the US, unlike the previous minister who was barred by the US from entering. Being able to visit the US sounds important for Panama’s Minister of Tourism. [NEWSROOM PANAMA}

One immediate change, the free 30-day medical insurance program provided to foreign visitors to Panama is no more. Although much-hyped the program really wasn’t that great and seldom utilized.

For many countries in the world, tourism is a major income earner. In Panama it is 10% of GDP … the new tourism chief, Jesus Sierra , seems set to boost income from visitors and create new jobs. In the wind are a 10 kilometer cable car in Volcan Baru and two theme parks, (with adequate parking, one near Panama City and the other in the interior, largely ignored by the previous administrator. Funds spent on Panama City Carnival will be slashed, and more emphasis placed on traditional entertainment instead of imported talent. There will be an emphasis on training bi-lingual workers in the tourism and hotel industry which could help increase visits from Canada and the U.S. which have been declining. The new Convention Center at Amador is under way, and soon the Bio Museo will be ready to fully spread its wings. Perhaps Panama is finally on its way to realizing its full tourism potential.

Invasion of Panama

Panama’s film industry is growing and is the largest in Central America. Panama’s entry into this year’s Oscar competition for Best Foreign Film is “Invasion of Panama” by Abner Benaim, an up and coming Panama film maker.”Invasion of Panama” has opened in movie theaters across Panama and marks 25 years since the US invaded and captured Manuel Noriega, who now sits in the Renacer Prison beside the Panama Canal.

The film, which won the audience awards at this year’s Panama International Film Festival as the “Best Documentary” and “Best Film in Central America and the Caribbean”, shares the experiences of many Panamanians who lived through the 1989 events still fresh in their memories, but largely unknown to younger generations.. “The film is an exercise in historical memory, I wanted to explore, the invasion as remembered by characters who were deeply impacted by the invasion, from politicians, members of the extinct Defense Forces, Civil Society, and from ordinary people, to celebrities like Ruben Blades, Roberto Duran, and General Noriega “- said Benaim, who directed of the “Chance” comedy movie released in 2010 with a record attendance at local theaters.

The U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 is unprecedented in the history of the country, that has not previously been addressed in-depth says a press release. In the 25 years since the events, this is the first documentary film ​​by a Panamanian about it. The film will be particularly shocking to those who lived in Panama since 1989 as it collects testimonies that have not previously been made public

On the night of December 20, 1989 the United States invaded the once peaceful Republic of Panama. U.S. President George Bush made ​​it clear he wanted General Noriega, a former CIA ally out of power.

The Panama Canal, a strategic point for the U.S., seemed to be in danger. For two weeks Panama became a testing ground for new weapons of the U.S. Army. Noriega surrendered and was convicted in the United States for drug trafficking and later in for other crimes. He spent 24 years in prison.

Discussion of the invasion. described by some commentators as “genocidal” and aided and abetted by some local citizens like Bosco Vallarino who were described as “traitors” was shelved for various reasons. The ruling party had to live with the guilt and shame of being put in power by the U.S., and the cost in lives of Panamanian civilians had been high. The government that followed the invasion consisted of people who were part of the political arm of Noriega so they preferred silence. Most of the common people of Panama seemed to think there was no need to remember so much tragedy, loss and violence. The horrible images seemed hit the self-perception of atropical paradise where nothing bad ever happens.

But the invasion was still very present in the minds of those who experienced it. The documentary seeks to capture the memories of the people who lived through it and to bring together the collective memory. The narrative of the documentary focuses on characters whose lives were deeply shaken by the invasion; civilians who suffered attacks Panamanian defense corps who fought isolated, symbolic battles, paramilitary personnel who wanted to fight but could not, politicians justifying their actions, church figures who played the roles of negotiators between Noriega and the U.S., to those who participated in the looting that followed.

22,000 Expats in Chiriqui, 12,000 in Boquete … Really!?!

You wonder what some newbie Panama expat experts are smoking! One article, which hopefully will never make it into print, for an outfit that specializes in promoting Panama claims these numbers.  Interesting. Panama’s attempt at doing a census a few years ago was a colossal screw up.  Truth is nobody knows for sure how many people are in Panama, let alone Chiriqui or Boquete, and how many expats … and how many are living here full-time vs part-time … nobody knows. But what happens is that when one of these made up numbers gets out there, and promoted by one of these outfits, and starts getting repeated over and over, folks come to accept it as fact.

Yes, there are expats living here, some full-time and some part-time. And yes we spend money, and hire workers, and contribute to the economy, but only marginally. I’m always amazed at people who think that the arrival of expat gringos is responsible for Panama’s outstanding economic success. It’s amazing how we expats love to inflate our importance.

We used to sell our coffee cherries to a big coffee producer and a lot of that coffee ultimately ended up in Starbucks. So I’d tell my friends in the States who’d ask where we sold our coffee that if “you get a cup of coffee in Starbucks, every billionth bean is mine!” It’s a little like that with the expat contribution to Panama’s economic success. We can take credit for every “billionth bean” in the pot.


Fireworks are big in Panama, legal and easy to get and they are a big part of celebrations. Christmas and New Year’s the sky explodes with fireworks. Big wedding … bigger firework display than many towns in the US offer for July 4th. But our biggest flash bang display comes around this time of year when we are moving into the heaviest rains of the rainy season. The other night was a good example: probably the wildest electrical storm I’ve ever experienced.

This time of year there is often a “monsoon trough” that hangs over the Isthmus of Panama … lots of moisture in the air. When the mid morning breeze moves in off the ocean it blows the hot air from David and the lowlands up and it collides mid-afternoon with the cool, moisture-laden air on Volcan Baru and by late afternoon the fireworks have begun! Electrical storms like you can’t imagine! Lights flickering on and off, and sometimes going out for a few hours. The other day there was lightning striking all around us. Fortunately the foliage is so soaked that we don’t have to worry about wild fires. I was scared to use my computer so just holed up on the bed to watch the storm out the windows. Our Dalmatian “Baru” is under our feet or beside us, touching us, whenever the first crash of thunder sounds, but the other day even our Rottweiler “Monkey” had jumped onto the bed and curled up beside me.

We lived in California for almost 20 years. If there was a slight earthquake the next day people would start predicting … “2.0”, “No, at least a 3,” “I’ll go with 2.7.” Really no big deal. But if there were an electrical storm and thunder it was all people could talk about. You’d think the world had almost come to an end!

Update: Assisted Living In Panama

I have a younger brother, Ed, who has had many physical and psychological difficulties throughout his life. In his early 20s he had a serious car accident driving home from a job as a night watchman while he was putting himself through a local college. Although only a few credits from graduation he was never able to finish. He survived driving his car head on into a tree and the cause of the accident was determined to have been that Ed had an epileptic seizure, an illness no one knew he had before the accident. Although controlled by medication, in New York State Ed was never able to get a driver’s license. Unable to drive, having experienced some brain damage in the accident, and with what we now know is Asperger Syndrome, Ed ended up mainly mowing lawns, doing odd jobs, and living with my parents. By the time both of my parents had died, Ed also developed diabetes. He tried living alone in Pennsylvania where my parents had lived and thankfully I we had some wonderful cousins who looked after him. Eventually we concluded he could no longer live a lone and four years ago brought him to Panama. We bought a nice little Panamanian house for him in town outside Valle Escondido which worked well when we lived in Valle Escondido. But getting him to live on a schedule, take his medication and insulin on schedule, and eat regularly was always a challenge.

When we moved from Valle Escondido to Palmira we converted a caretaker cottage on our farm into a cute little cottage for Ed. It was right at the entrance to our farm so we could keep closer watch on him. Our Indian farm worker woke him up every morning, tried to make sure he ate and took his medicine, and we tried to have him improve his diet. Things went fairly well for about two years, but Ed would suffer from bouts of dementia. He would forget to take his medication or not eat, or just take medication at random. We came up with a monthly calendar with little plastic bags of morning and evening pills, which worked for a while, but then Ed started to forget what day it was, so he’d just grab a couple of bags of pills at random to consume. He was always pretty good with his insulin, until he started forgetting if he’d taken it, so would give himself a second injection. Then we noticed instead of 30 cc he would sometimes give himself 20 cc or 60 cc. Several times our Indian worker who lived next door to Ed would find him going into a diabetic coma. We knew we were getting to the point where we had to do something.

On this past contract, when I was gone for three months on RUBY PRINCESS, Ed really crashed and burned. The first month Nikki was on the ship with me and our Indian worker Sabino came and got Stan, a friend who was house sitting for us. Ed was on the floor and couldn’t move. Stan managed to get him to our local doctor where they kept him overnight and managed to bring him around. Nikki came back and Ed seemed OK, if very forgetful. Then he really did crash and burn and for several weeks was totally out of it. He couldn’t stand up, control himself, or at one point even lift his arms to eat. It now turns out that he had a type of stroke and epilepsy as well. So it was definitely time.

At one time I had written about a couple who were attempting to start an assisted care facility in Boquete called Angels Wings. They made a valiant effort but in the end were done in by all the local red tape and regulations. It is not unusual in Panama to find that there are often more regulations and enforcement for Gringos than for locals. We knew of nothing in or close to Boquete. For a while it looked like we might have to return Ed to the States.

We found what we thought would be a good home for Ed about an hour from Boquete.  It was run by a church group.  There was a little hurch next to the home. The administrator and pastor has been a missionary all over the world.. Ed had a nice little apartment with a living area and leeping room and private bath. It seemed like an ideal situation for him and he was very happy to be moving . . . probably to escape our nagging to eat and take his medicine on schedule.

So we thought things were good. They had a care giver for every two patients. We were paying $750 a month which we thought was very good. Later we would find out that this was the “gringo” rate and Ed’s doctor told us that for Panama it really was excessive. But we were happy to have what we thought was a good situation. The care giver was excellent, very caring and saw this as her Christian mission. Ed complained a lot about the food … and it was Panamanian food and no way did we expect anything different just because he was agringo. Everyone spoke Spanish and Ed knew only a smattering of Spanish, but this is Panama. Ed could be very critical, as is typical of someAsberger patients, and he complained a lot, mostly about food. I tended to dismiss these complaints, or his statements that they were doing everything “cheap.” Then Ed started dramatically losing weight … down 70 pounds in ten months. We bought him a new wardrobe and put him through a lot of tests at the hospital to figure out the problem. The doctor couldn’t find any reason for the weight loss. Then I started arriving unexpectedly around meal times. Typical Panama food is chicken, rice and beans, only the chicken on his plate were parts of the chicken I never knew existed. And I would see the overweight administrator of the home chowing down on fried chicken breasts. In the evening they served pretty much the same thing ever night. A small bread roll with a slice of cheese or a single slice of cheap luncheon meat. Never any fruit or juices or vegetables, all of which are available in abundance in Panama. I started doing a calorie count and discovered that evening meals were generally 300 to 350 calories. We were bringing him cereal for breakfast and aheavy duty nutritional drink which the doctor ordered before bed. When they were putting in a new water pipe in front of the home, a process which took weeks, I discovered that frequently there was no water … NO water! No back up supply. Nothing. And this was a home where some of the residents wore diapers. No water!

Ed & my grandson Rian at an impromptu park picnic,

Ed & my grandson Rian at an impromptu park picnic,

So we decided to bite the bullet and take him back to the States. With the help of the good people of Washington we found him a wonderful assisted living home with only four residents. It happens to be in an exclusive, gated community of huge houses. The mother of the guy who owns it, and is a builder, had diabetes so they had remodeled the bottom floor for her. When she died they decided mostly as a Christian mission to run an assisted living home. When we took Ed to Washington his sugar numbers were fluctuating wildly, sometimes dropping to 31 and Ed was confused and almost going into a diabetic comma. He has been taking insulin for almost ten years. New doctors. US medicine. Another viewpoint. He is now totally OFF insulin, eating well, walking daily, and his numbers are staying on target. Everyone speaks English. He can watch US TV and best of all for him, NFL football. His roommate is a nice guy, also in his 60s who had a slight stroke and he is a football fan. Ed is still a Dallas Cowboy fan but his roommate is working hard to convert him to being a Seahawk fan.

There may, may be something similar to a US-style assisted living center in Panama City, but there is nothing in Chriqui where we live.  I know that uniformed logic says that it must be just as cheap in Panama to hire a full-time care giver, but finding someone qualified, capable and dependable isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I recently received this email, from Steve …

Richard, I am coming to Panama this November to begin my research into opening what would be called in the States an “Adult Foster/Family Home”, in Panama! I have long believed that there are ex-pats in Panama that have no desire to return to the States and would prefer to spend their final days in Panama. My hope is to offer “American care infrastructure” for ex-pats in Panama. My model is to purchase a home and have up to 6 residents that need 24 hour care, whether the care is limited to dementia or they are bed bound. I have the experience and ability to do this. Am I an idiot to think of this, or is there a real need? Do you have any insights or comments? Anxiously awaiting your reply, Steve B

And here’s my response …

Steve, there is a HUGE NEED for this type of assisted living in Panama! Many of us come down to Panama to enjoy retirement in paradise, but … things change. Life grows on, which means we are all getting older. Our bodies change and although we all see ourselves as “forty something” the fact is that bodies start to wear out. Growing older and needing assisted living is not something that we find appealing, especially for folks who are active and adventurous enough to move to Panama and experience a new and different culture. Family is ALL important in Panama. Multi-generations live in the same town, and often under the same roof. When you get older and need assistance your family takes care of you. Most North Americans and Europeans come from cultures where the family is strung out across states and countries, the so-called “nuclear” family. So, as we discovered with my younger brother whom we had to take back to the States for care, there is no North American style assisted living concept in Panama. And it is definitely one of those things that you need to keep in mind when you move to Panama. It’s the reason why I included a chapter in the NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE entitled “Exit Strategy.” My wife, Nikki, is involved in the Hospice program in Boquete, created in part to assist folks who come to Panama and end up terminally ill, alone and without a support structure. Just this week she met with folks who are forming a support group for care givers … people struggling with incredible challenges of caring for infirm spouses, alone, in a foreign country without local family support. So, yes, there is a need.

Are you crazy? Well … We knew some folks who tried to do this. Mom had Alzheimer’s and needed round-the-clock care and so they bought a little house, hired a staff, and set up an “Adult Foster/Family Home” intended for Mom and four others. It was a great idea and these folks came with experience doing the same thing in the States. Then they ran into Panama and a different way of doing everything, a host of red tape and regulations … and gave up. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but you’ll need incredible patience and deep pockets. I’d suggest that you work with a local partner, maybe a Panamanian church or existing non-profit care group who understand the Panamanian way of doing things. I know from a distance it seems like you could easily hire care givers and hire them more cheaply than in the US. But wages, like everything else, have gone up in Panama, and finding people who are qualified and willing to work as care givers is a challenge and if you hire anyone in Panama you immediately have the Labor Board as a partner and tons of regulations and red tape, to say nothing of the regulations and red tape of the Health Department. There is a crying need, but Panama doesn’t make it easy to meet the need.

We’re all getting older … and it’s something to think about when you’re considering moving outside the comfort zone of where you live right now. But then, if you need to and if you don’t wait too long, you can always move back to wherever you call home. Is it better to sit in the rocking chair, stay put, just in case … or knowing and anticipating that the time will come …? Or is it better to go off to a new adventure and enjoy your life to the fullest while you may?

Good luck Mr. President

No, not that one.

Although I do love this picture that Jim Wasson, creator of Panama Red overproof rum, posted of Obama …

There’s even a Panama Red poster on the Oval Office wall!

No, it’s this Preident, Jaun Carlos Varela, Panama’s new President.  I liked this post by Westanna Carleton, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs that apeared on EURASIA.

For the record, Varela has his own brand of rum and owns the biggest rum distillery in Panama.  Varela Brothers Abuelo [‘Grandpa”] rum is the best mass market rum available.  Good stuff!


The period of near ecstasy over the electoral victory by partisans of Panama’s new elected President, Juan Carlos Varela (who was inaugurated this past July 1) is rapidly coming to an end. After jubilant partisans celebrated his victory Varela declared to his supporters “today democracy won, today Panama won, we will not tolerate corruption in any way,” in addition to guarantees of a more transparent government,growth of social programs and less inequality.
What is being substituted for the enchantment ofthe new president is an attitude of skepticism has taken over. This relates to the change Varela promised his audiences during his presidential campaign.
Varela clearly was not former president Ricardo Martinelli’s (2009-2014) chosen successor. In fact, Varela worked diligently towards the end of his term as Martinelli’s vice president to distance himself from the former president’s most fundamental positioning. Since 2011, when Varela resisted Martinelli’s attempts to extract greater executive power from the legislative and judicial branches, the two have been called the worst of enemies by the country’s media. Yet, the similarities between these two individuals are too numerous to ignore, as they are analogous not only in their belief systems but also in their backgrounds. Much of the media have noted that in terms of their politics, both men are center-right, members of Panama’s elite, and originally come from the business sector. Even the natures of their personal businesses are connected: Varela’s liquors are sold in Martinelli’s Super 99 supermarkets.
Varela may deceptively appear to welcome a fresh start for the country. While he clearly signified during his campaign that he was against the various discredited initiatives left over from the Martinelli era to expand the array of executive sanctions he hoped to continue in effort, he handily exposed that he focused on the absence of anything approaching a radical break-through. At first glance, his resistance to the latter also makes it seem as though Varela’s goals are in opposition to the heart of Martinelli’s platform while he was in power. After proposing his 100 por 70 plan, that allows Panamanians older than 70 to receive a monthly stipend of $100 USD, Varela successfully developed a clear image for himself as a politician with social coordinating abilities in the area of social initiatives.
Informed journalist Eric Jackson of Panama News comments that turmoil in rural Panama are huge issues and Varela’s promise to give every rural household running water and indoor plumbing may have been unrealistic or may be the public works program that saves rural society from total dissolution.”
Hence, it comes as little surprise that Panamanians have a hopeful outlook for what may come, but are by no means certain that it will actually help.
Panama has enjoyed an enviable rate of economic growth under Martinelli, as the country’s building boom has made the capital “a new Miami” or the “mini-Dubai on the Pacific” Panama City also lays claim to Central America’s first metro and Latin America’s tallest building. The country’s building boom, in addition to his ability to carry out economic projects with both panache and a rare rate of success made him a very popular president. Yet his authoritarian streak generated considerable resentment in a large Panamanian populace who want to forget the country’s history of dictatorship, particularly under the Manuel Noriega regime in the 1980s. Accusations of corruption had routinely plagued the former Panamanian administration, and many from the country had good reason to believe that Martinelli’s economic program was not at all that it was originally made out to be. It is hard to ignore the stark difference between the glitz of Panama City and the grim living conditions to be encountered in almost every other locale in Panama. The nearby region of Colon provides a ready contrast that should illustrate this point. This can be seen in the festering environment that describes the vast area that vividly contrasts with the economic growth described above. The World Bank notes that Panama is responsible for providing evidence some of the severest disparities of wealth in Latin America. Obviously not all of Panama is “booming” with wealth. Most notably is the fact that last month was the Panama Canal’s 100th anniversary. What was supposed to be a joyous and memorable moment for the country was tainted by huge over run costs, strikes, and the fear of competition.

Looming on the horizon are plans, backed by a Chinese billionaire, to build 173-mile canal to be built across Nicaragua. For Nicaragua this is good news and “the government says it is critical to lifting the nation out of dire poverty,” to Panama it is direct competition that could drain away profits in addition to being an instigator for future country generated debt if the government chooses to attempt to out build the Nicaraguan project. The Panama Canal, which was built in 1914 and was returned to Panama near the end of the Cater administration, has significantly boosted Panama’s economy, in addition to promoting global international trade and effectively reducing transportation costs. The canal is currently being renovated to allow changes that will reduce transit delays and allow larger trans-isthmus voyages to travel through the locks. Ironically the construction that is supposed to reduce delays in the future, has managed to produce them today. In February, there was a work stoppage due to a dispute between the canal administration and contractors working on the Canal expansion project that involved a $1.6 billion USD in additional cost overrun regarding the planned construction. Moreover,in May, a strike of 5,000 laborers slowed work again. Due to these occurrences the October completion date has been pushed back 14 months. Juan Zamorano of the Durango Herald writes about the benefits that was suppose to accompany canal renovations, “its completion was envisioned as a coming out party for Panama, a chance to showcase the country’s pro-business credentials and role as a linchpin of global commerce…backers portrayed the vote as a bet on the future of Panama’s children” . However, now many disenchanted Panamanians are now seeing the problems besetting

the Canal expansion as a metaphor for the future course of the country.
With the country at the mid-expansion stage, giddy hopes clearly have been dashed and more somber sentiments have evolved that will now have to be replaced. The country as a whole will not be able to generate or sustain the economic expansion symbolized by the Panama City construction boom and the opportunities provided by the Canal Zone. Panama had a tremendous 8.5% economic growth in 2013, well above most developed and developing countries, yet over 25% of the population remains at or below the poverty level. These figures are reflective of the concentration of wealth in Panama’s urban centers, which like many other Latin American countries have become national show
cases in the shadows of what lies as stark economic disparity. Like it’s Latin American sister countries, the challenge in Panama remains in defining economic and social policies which will enable the economy and population’s abilities to move toward a more balanced profile. Part of this definition is recognition of the government’s responsibility to its “social contract” with the population. In this respect, Varela’s 100 por 70 plan may be a step in the right direction. However, the “fuel” that will support this and other social programs must come from the economy itself; simple redistribution of wealth via taxation or other means without expanding the populations and by extension the country’s potential productive capacity ignores the valuable potential of the Panamanian people.
“The First 100 Days” is a term coined during the Roosevelt Administration during the 1930’s when his New Deal attempted to bring the economy out of deep depression. Since that time, the first 100 days has been period after which the national populations and the world have taken a close look at countries’ leaders in order to determine in what direction the country might move. President Varela is just beyond his first hundred days in office and as noted, there are some positive indications for the future.
It remains to be seen whether Varela’s social justice platform will be sufficiently robust to counter balance-anticipated fallout from possible economic policy setbacks.