Brit View: Panama is Unrivalled

By Dr Ian Collard, British Ambassador to Panama

In recent years, while Europe has been struggling with the impact of an economic downturn, the economies of Latin America have bucked global trends and exceeded expectations.

High rates of economic growth, substantial infrastructure development and the emergence of the Pacific Alliance are evidence of Latin America’s new role in a changing world economy.

Panama – tagged by many as the Central American Tiger – has led the region’s economic performance for the last decade, with an extraordinary annual growth rate averaging around 8%.

Panama is the region’s emerging logistics hub with an unrivalled distribution network and connectivity, representing an easy and business-friendly entry point into wider regional markets.

With World Economic Forum indicators ranking Panama fourth in the world for the quality of its port facilities, first in Latin America for its air transport facilities, and first in the western hemisphere for the availability of its financial services, it is difficult to argue against its self-declared moniker as a gateway to the Americas.

Panama also has the largest public infrastructure programme in Central America. Mega projects include the expansion of the Panama Canal, development of Panama City’s Metro system, and development over several years of new logistics and port facilities.

Construction of an additional container port on the Pacific coast, a logistics park at the Pacific end of the Canal, container-on-barge services across the Canal, and a LNG bunkering station are some of the additional projects mooted.

It is little wonder that UKTI has added such projects to its list of global High Value Opportunities for British businesses.

Many of these endeavours will strengthen Panama’s logistics capacity, reinforcing its important geostrategic position in world trade and regional distribution, and enhancing its offer as a one-stop location for value-adding services.

Panama has a key role facilitating trade across the region, connecting north and south, providing a natural hub for commerce, and acting as a magnet for investment. Panama’s banking centre is home to 65 Latin American institutions, competing with Miami to be the regional financial centre of the Americas.

More than 100 multinational companies have established their regional and logistical headquarters in Panama, taking advantage of its communications, maritime and air links, and the tax incentives on offer.

In Colon, Panama has the second largest free trade zone in the world after Hong Kong, providing a home to more than 2,500 companies and handling more than $30bn in imports and re-exports from all corners of the world each year. As an increasingly popular regional distribution base, Panama has also become the shopping capital of the region for tourists and business visitors. In its highly diversified economy, retail accounted for as much as 14% of GDP in 2012.

The indicators are already positive. With Panama’s ambition to join forces with the other Pacific

Alliance countries, Panama’s economic and commercial future looks even brighter.

The signing of a Free Trade Agreement with Mexico earlier this year was the last technical hurdle to Alliance membership. As a bloc, Alliance countries represent the second largest user of the Panama Canal, reinforcing the importance of Panama at the centre of the group’s trade strategy with Europe, the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of the United States.


Panama is booming and it is open for business. I am confident that this country and the wider region will continue to grow, and will provide exciting new opportunities for UK businesses. I encourage you to read on and discover more about this fascinating and vibrant region.  [GlobalTrader]

Dear Richard

Homework First

Hi, I am a retired American considering moving to Panama with my partner who is near retiring. We have read that the best thing to do is to rent for a while until you get your bearings, then buy if that is what you want. I was reading your blog and saw this property, it looks like paradise to us. We are both ‘Senior Citizen’ eligible, have 3 dogs and are looking for a good place to live, preferably a bit larger than this house. However this place looks perfect to get the feel of Panama. Is it still available? We have a house in the US to sell, but we can do that from Panama! Any information you can give us about the transition, the life style there, and how to manage living there would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Pat and Rob

Pat, FIRST, BUY MY BOOK! You are asking VERY basic questions, stuff you need to know, think about, and talk about BEFORE even considering moving to Panama. I can’t tell you the people I meet who move down here, on what I would consider a whim. They’re tired of snow. God spoke to them. [I have nothing against discussing this with God, in fact I recommend it, but, remember, God gave you a mind with which to think, explore, and reason. The Biblical parallel of the house built on sand ... God saying, "Do your due diligence! Do your homework! Count the cost! Go in with eyes wide open!"] They have problems in their relationship, or with themselves, and think changing countries will make everything right! They are Republicans who think the US is going to hell because of the Democrats, or vice versa, Democrats who are sure the Republicans are destroying the Union. People come down here without a clue!

So start with my book. The Panama Relocation Tour is the second thing you need to do. Yes, you’ll spend a few thousand dollars, but do you have any idea how many tens and hundreds of thousands you can spend before discovering Panama is not for you. It’s not for everyone! It’s been great for us and a whole lot of folks. How do you know? Doing the research, and a boots-on-the ground tour, like Panama Relocation Tours, and not just a seminar sitting on your butt in a fancy hotel room in Panama City, is a good way to start.

Now, our little casita, three dogs are fine (which of course is another area you need to research: bringing your animals to Panama) is rented right now until October 1st, but then it’s available. It’s small, but most folks have used it as a base while shopping for a permanent place to rent or buy.

If you want to “experience” Boquete, stay in Boquete, not David

Good evening Richard. My name is Linda, and we communicated some weeks back about my forthcoming trip to Panama. My gentleman friend, Mr. Robert and I expressed an interest in renting your casita beginning January 2015.
I shall arrive in David on July 17 at 7:35 a.m. How does one get from the David airport to my hotel in Boquete which is Hotel Alcala? I’ll stay at Hotel Alcala for five nights. Is the hotel in a safe area?
My objective is personally experience Boquete. Is it reasonable to rent a car for several days? Is it reasonable to think that I could get around the area by myself? I want to see your casita also. How far away is the closest beach? I would like to see some tourist ares as well as know some good restaurants.
Are there any nearby fitness centers as Mr. Ryan and myself do frequent the gym? I hope to meet you and your wife. I don”t regard Americans living abroad as unpatriotic in any regard. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Sincerely, Linda [Las Vegas]

Hi Linda! We will pass on July 17th in the airport since I’m flying to Panama City on the return of your flight to David. The casita is rented now, but is still available starting in January. I assume you’ve already read my book and are doing a lot of research. You can either rent a car at David Airport, almost all the rental agencies are there, or take a cab to your hotel. The only Hotel Alcala Hotel I know is in David, and I’m not sure why you would stay in David if your “objective is personally [to] experience Boquete.” Most of David is quite safe. but Boquete is certainly nicer and safer. David is not “tourist center.” There are two small gyms in Boquete … the one in San Francisco Plaza down from my house has nice machines, Zumba, free weights, etc. These are not what we called when I worked for 24 Hour Fitness “wet gyms.” No pools, showers or changing rooms. The closest beach is Las Olas about 45 minutes from David. Black sand but really dangerous with rip tides, etc. Boca Chica is about 1 hour from David, 1 hour 45 minutes from Boquete. The real nice, white sand, picture postcard beaches are on the islands. You hire a boat at the dock in Boca Chica, a sleepy, tiny, fishing town, to take you out to the islands and beaches. My favorite is Isla Bolanos. About $70 for the boat. Take a lunch since there are no facilities. There are four beaches, and probably one will be deserted. Like Vegas, where you live, “what happens on Isla Bolanos stays on Isla Bolanos!” Have fun! Regards, Richard


Curiosity mostly, but is Panama an environment, where folks with any allergies like “Hay Fever” still suffer through seasonally or constantly in Panama; or does that more-less disappear in the tropics for typical N. American allergy sufferers? When I spent a 10 days VA time in Costa Rica 3 years ago, I had no problems there. I can always get through May and June’s up here by very early, keeping on a daily regiment of 24 hr. OTC product, at my age now. Is the environment too much different there?
If one chose the Pensionado route for Visa, in what practical time frame do you think is generally best to begin working with a local lawyer and gather a lot of the required documentation that can be done from the states?
Can/where are motorcycles and/or decent sized scooters available as light exploration transportation? New and used options readily available in any decent sized city or town in Panama? Realize could be dangerous mode there.
I anticipate living in the Panama interior, away from PC.
Thanks, & look forward to your wisdom on these points. Mike

Mike, I take a 24 hour over the counter allergy pill daily, and when my eyes itch never the less (as this time of year) I take it ever 12 hours. Works for me, but allergies are different. Regarding Pensionado, takes 2-3 months to get a temporary card, and around 10 months more to get permanent. Definitely start working NOW with a lawyer who specializes in immigration. Find out what you need, exactly, when you get it, scan and email to your lawyer who can check it over. Much, much easier to do before you leave wherever you are now. Lots of motorcycles, scooters not so many. There is even a guy in Boquete selling new tuk tuks! [Like everyone uses in India.]

Medical Evacuation Insurance

Medical evacuation insurance is an excellent point for anyone who travels. We have been members of a program called Medjet Assist for almost 10 years now. It covers you 24/7/365 anywhere you travel in the world you travel. It will bring you anywhere in the world for your care which is very different from the package plans offered in conjunction with cruises or trips that are time specific. Most of those will get you to the closes appropriate hospital and then you are on your own for getting home or wherever from there. It is worth looking into for anyone who is planning on traveling. Best of all it covers you 24/7/365 anywhere in the world. Check it out!!

Unfortunately they do NOT include medical evacuation from cruise ships.

GPS left on dashboard in the sun

Forwarded to me from a friend …

This is a good lesson to learn. I bet this also applies to Cell phones, tablets, digital cameras, and other devices that use lithium batteries.
You think this may be a reason why the US Postal Service will not ship electronic devices that contain lithium batteries any longer?

GPS was placed in its bracket in the windshield and left in the sun.
The battery overheated and exploded ! Look at the damage !

You may like to share with others. It may save someone!

55 pounds of rice – a month!

According to the Panama government the shopping list for an average family [3.8 persons] is 55 pounds of rice, 13 loaves of bread, two dozen eggs, 23 pounds of chicken two and a half pounds of yellow cheese, seven pounds of cheap meat, etc.

The booming Panama economy, plus the high cost of fuel oil and the devaluing of the US dollar [the currency in Panama] has created inflation. Pretty much for us the cost of things like food, construction materials has doubled in the past ten years. One of the key factors that helped Varela come from behind to win the Presidency was a promised to instigate temporary price controls on the most common food items.

Ater “extensive meetings with suppliers, producers, representatives of supermarket chains, retailers, among other business players” the new government has issued …

Executive Decree No. 165 of 1 July 2014, [which] fixes maximum prices of 22 basic food products, and also creates a “Price Revue Committee” made up of the Ministers of Trade and Industry, Agriculture and Finance, who will evaluate requests to submit price revues by individual companies, producer associations or business associations.

One of the determining factors in establishing control was choosing brands that were in a more economical range, because if it was considered the most well to do consumers would not notice the savings in their pockets. A rule stated in Article 2 says that business establishments must offer at least one brand with price controls. Maximum marketing margins to other brands, cannot be more than 10% or 15% on the price of the retail cost price.

Obviously a tricky move and “Some entrepreneurs and producers argue that this measure will bring shortages because of high demand that will be generated. Others say that traders will be affected in profits after the rise in production costs caused by raising the minimum wage and electricity prices.”  [NEWSROOM PANAMA]

Traditional Panamanian cuisine is rice and beans, chicken, and bananas or plantains, and salad.  You can get this lunch at many local restaurants for $3.50 to $4.  For variation there is salad, bananas or plantains, chicken, rice and beans.  The only folks on earth that I have seen consume more rice are the Philippine crew members on ships!  Panamanians like rice with a fried egg on top for breakfast, rice and beans for lunch, and rice with chicken or fish at night.  Rice is a major crop in Panama grown, not in rice paddies as in much of Asia, but in huge low-lying fields.

The best rice we have EVER eaten was grown by our Gnobe Bugle worker’s dad on the Comarca and hand threshed.  Flavorful, a little more brownish than the processed white rice, and a lot more nutrition.

It’s Been A While

It’s been a while since we’ve talked!

I appreciate your comments and emails and I do try to respond although not always as quickly as you or I would like.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlanting Coffee Trees & Wondering “Where’s the rain?”

This is weird weather … we’re into the rainy season which should mean glorious sunny mornings, followed by cloud build up, and predictable rain in the afternoon.  What do we get?  Seattle-like cloudy mornings!  OK, Ventura-summer overcast mornings.  In the afternoon we get some flash and bang and a little drizzle, but not the tropical rain we expect.  And this is the time to plant coffee trees, so we need the rain!

We’ve been planting, Nikki and I in the dirt, coffee trees.  600 little black bags with two year-old trees in a bag, each about a foot tall.  When we have over 4,000 trees why would we plant more?  Although coffee trees last a long, long time, after about 15 years their production declines and you need to pull out the older trees and replace them.  With a little extra care and babying, the new trees will start producing in three to four years.

My coffee guy has been convinced by the local curandera that he has a brown thumb and that whatever he plants will die … this makes a lot of sense since he works on a coffee farm! … and there either appears to be an element of truth in this, or he just doesn’t like to plant.  So, like most things in Panama, we adjust … and get down on our hands and arthritic knees and plant.

This is also the time when the baby fer de lance snakes are born, and yesterday I said to Nikki, as we were on the ground in the leaves digging and planting, “Be careful of snakes!” She replied, “Listen, if I get bit just leave me here to relax and die in peace!”

I told her not to worry about dying since the local Indians haven’t heard the birds singing at night recently.  When the birds sing at night someone is going to die … and it happens!

Panama Relocation Tour

One of the folks on the June tour send me this great photo of the whole group!  Nice bunch of folks!  Folks always ask, “Do you know how many people who take the tour actually end up in Panama?”  According to Jackie Lange, who runs Panama Relocation Tours, 37% of the tour participants from the past four years are actually now living in Panama.

june 2014 tour

Thank you for your comments about THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA!

“Just finished your book, THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE and having been meaning to write you. 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. Thank you for all the great advice and saving us some mistakes and money! Cheers, John & Susan Pazera”

“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”

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

“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”

“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”

“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 Mc Vicar”

ReadersThank you all so very much! I appreciate your comments and I REALLY appreciate it when you review the book on Amazon. The number of reviews helps push a book higher … so if you do a search on “living in Panama” or similar, the number of reviews, good or bad (!), helps push a book to the top of the list. And now that I have two grandsons to send to college … it helps!

The Big Finish & The New Start

The big finish … as usual in Panama the outgoing President pardons everyone and his brother who had anything to do with his administration.

IN HIS LAST last public act as president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli On his last day as president, Ricardo Martinelli yesterday pardoned or gave sentence reductions to 660 people.
368 were pardoned , conditional sentences were awarded to 276 prisoners and sentences of 16 inmates were reduced..
The Government Gazette published the pardons in five digital editions, some of which were released after 8 p.m. The majority of the pardons bear the signatures of Martinelli and acting Minister of Government Alma Cortés. Minister of Government Jorge Ricardo Fábrega signed two of the decrees, including the one that granted pardons to the defendants of the 2004 case involving the flooding of Prados del Este.
The pardons include those given to political allies of Martinelli who have been accused of using state resources for political means. They include Small Business Authority Director Giselle Burillo, Secretary of State Communication Luis Eduardo Camacho, Molirena Party President Sergio González Ruiz, Molirena official Janón Gabriel and National Council for Sustainable Development Director Danna Harrick.
Also pardoned were former Municipal Engineer Jaime Salas, former presidential candidate Gerardo Barroso, former PRD presidential hopeful Honorio Vega, former Deputy Francisco “Toto” Ameglio, lawyer Sidney Sitton, and several journalists, such as Rafael Berrocal, Julio Miller, Alfonso Zamora, Carlos Zavala and Alfredo Prieto, who was also the former Secretary of State Communication under Martinelli.
Last week, Martinelli awarded 15 pardons. The beneficiaries include Tribunal Electoral President Erasmo Pinilla and former Director of Civil Aviation Eustacio Fábrega. The two publicly rejected the presidential pardons, saying they had done nothing wrong to be pardoned for. [NEWSROOM PANAMA]

And the new President Juan Carlos Varela promised … a chicken in every pot, or at least price controls on chicken, and the favorite words in Panama politics … “honesty and transparency.” Hmmm.

Conservative Juan Carlos Varela took office as Panama’s president Tuesday pledging to finish a troublesome canal expansion, stamp out corruption and get more people out of poverty.

The 50-year-old rum maker donned the presidential sash in a massive ceremony at Rommel Fernandez stadium in the capital attended by a handful of world figures including US Secretary of State John Kerry, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

“We’ve got plenty of laws. What we need are men and women who respect them; that’s what I am here for,” Varela said to large cheers, warning: “Corruption will not be tolerated in our government.”

Varela, who was elected to a five-year mandate in May 4 polls, replaced Ricardo Martinelli, a supermarket magnate who leaves office with high popularity despite corruption allegations.

Panama’s vice-president and a former Martinelli supporter, Varela was the surprise winner in a three-way race. Final results put him seven percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Martinelli loyalist Jose Domingo Arias.

Varela has called for a national unity government to sustain economic growth, reduce inflation, combat violent crime and strengthen democracy.

Venezuela broke ties with Panama in March, when President Nicolas Maduro slammed Martinelli as a corrupt US lackey. But Varela has set dialogue with Caracas as a priority.

And just as Varela was sworn in, Venezuela announced it was restoring bilateral ties. These had been severed when Martinelli sought a meeting at the Organization of American States in Washington to discuss the death of 43 anti-government protesters in Venezuela.

Canal priority
Topping Varela’s weighty agenda is finishing an expansion of the Panama Canal, a massive project which is a year behind schedule and has been mired in controversy.

The vast construction project was to have been completed this year, but delays and cost overruns have pushed back the schedule to early 2016.

“We are blessed to have the canal, a major piece of infrastructure which serves our nation, and world trade. As president, I will make sure the expansion is completed successfully, while protecting the state’s interest,” Varela pledged in his address.

The construction to add wider locks and channels capable of handling much larger container ships is one of the world’s most ambitious civil engineering projects.

The 80-kilometer (50-mile) long canal was completed by US interests in 1914 to provide a shorter, safer route between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Work to expand it was interrupted earlier this year over a dispute about who would pay for an estimated $1.6 billion in cost overruns. It was also hit by a strike by workers demanding higher wages.

The stakes are high for the project, with five percent of the world’s maritime trade already passing through the canal. The expanded waterway will be able to process 12,000 container ships in its first year of use, triple the current capacity.

‘Empty coffers’
Analysts warn Varela has his work cut out. “There are empty coffers, there are pending disputes between different unions and the canal work is overdue, such that the money that was counted upon is not coming in, and this will affect how he governs,” market analyst Jaime Porcell told AFP.

“Varela has to clean up the mess Martinelli left behind and keep the broken promises of other administrations” to lower the prices of basic goods, control crime and punish corruption, lawyer and political analyst Mario Rognoni told AFP.

Varela though takes office amid a huge economic boom in Panama, a small Central American nation of 3.8 million people focused economically on trade, tourism and services.

Panama saw breakneck 8.4 percent growth in 2013 but 26 percent of people live in poverty, according to the government.

Varela has said that his first act as president will be to sign an executive order to control prices of 22 products to lower inflation, his main campaign promise. Price controls are not often on a conservative’s policy plan.

He also pledged drinking water for the entire country.

Varela on Monday reached an agreement with the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) guaranteeing him a majority in Congress, which will make it possible for him to pass laws and nominations.

Varela’s Panamenista Party holds only 13 of the 71 seats in Congress, but the agreement with PRD creates a 38-seat majority. [Associated Press]

Varela also held out an olive branch and a promise of a new life to members of Panama’s estimated 200 gangs: amnesty if gang members turn in their weapons by August 1st and choose to lead a “normal life.”

As Varela well knows, given the alliance he had with Martinelli as Vice President, “things change” in Panama.  Alliances can be made … and broken.

The Biggest Challenge for The New President

The Most Important Person In Panama

Well the most powerful may be the President of the Republic, which, starting today is Juan Carlos Varela, but the most important person in Panama may not be the President, but the Administrator of the Canal de Panama, Jorge Luis Quijano.

While readily admitting that he is an engineer, not a politician, Quijano says, “Panama has to strengthen its education,” which is rated among the world’s worst.“There’s so much investment coming into Panama now, but if we don’t have [trained] people, those investments will go elsewhere.”

And it is this that is the biggest challenge for Juan Carlos Quijano!

Panama education sucks!

In my humble opinion, from the top down, Panama public education sucks.

Like many things in Panama, the education system seems to focus on externals, going through the motions, without understanding or focusing on a goal.

Take our tiny town and the school up the street.  The important things seem to be pretty bulletin boards, morning flag raising (not that there is anything wrong with patriotism), children neatly dressed in white shirts and uniforms (never mind that almost nobody has washing machines or clothes driers and that putting your kid in a $150 uniform when your take home pay, after required social security deductions, is only $54 a week!), and … most importantly, playing drums or cheap glockenspiels and rag-tag marching in preparation for the national holidays and parades in November.

That’s what school is all about!  Forget books!  Panama schools have never had books.  Usually the teacher has, illegally, made copies of printed books and materials.  Usually the teacher has one or two ragged copies which are loaned to students so that they, or their parents, can pay $2 to go to Boquete to make, again illegal, copies of the materials at 10 cents a page.  Martinelli was going to skip the “book phase” entirely and give students the world library of books and resources by giving kids computers.  Great idea.  Except some of the kids don’t have electricity at home, to say nothing of Internet access, and our little town has no wi-fi Internet, despite the past government’s hype of Internet access for all.  Plus, how many parents understand how to help their kids unscramble lap top problems?

Yesterday the kids practiced drumming at school for two hours!  This in preparation for parades in November!  This is much more important than math, reading or writing.  The teachers get to visit and chat and don’t have to worry about lesson plans.  ["What's a 'lesson plan'?"]

One of our local kids came asking for help with an assignment.  Seems the teacher assigned the kids to go online – OK, this is a tiny town where hardly anyone has Internet access, let alone a computer!  Yes, there are a few computers at the public library in Boquete a $2 bus ride away, but how many of these kids know the first thing about using a computer, let alone finding anything?  So the kids are supposed to go on-line and research the World Cup.  The World Cup!  OK, great possibilities for teaching geography here, so that’s not such a bad idea.  Anyhow, being the helpful neighbor, I sit down at my laptop with the kid and show him how to get to the FIFA site, in Spanish.  So what is the assignment?

The teacher wants them to print out information on ALL the teams and countries in the World Cup, a list of all the players on each team, AND biographies of all the players!  By my quick count you’re talking about printing out 750-1000 pages!  Insane!  And this is typical of the crazy assignments these kids are given.  It’s nuts!

Kids always want help with their English assignments.  Panama, to its credit, wants all students to learn English starting in primary school.  The only problem is that the teachers don’t know English and the government has no plan to teach them or give them the time and money to learn.

Setting kids up to fail

We have a Gnabe Bugle neighbor kid who finished secondary school, what we would call high school and wanted to go to university to become a lawyer.  Wow!  A lot of these Gnabe Bugle kids who finish high school do so without any encouragement from their parents, who in many cases are just asking, “Why?”   He walked from the campo housing supplied by a neighboring coffee farm, 2 hours down the mountain to our little town, then another 45 minutes walk down the hill to catch a bus for $2 to the university in David.  Thanks to the government, tuition was almost free.  After a few semesters of D-F grades, the “system” managed to beat the lawyer idea out of him, and he decided to learn to become an English teacher at the local branch of the university which meets at the secondary school in Alto Boquete.

He would stop by our farm after hiking up the mountain, with 2 hours more to go after leaving our house, for help with his English.  Nikki and I would both read over the assignments, written in English, by the English professor, and just shake our heads.  Neither of us could understand what she had written!  He stuck with it for a full semester.  It’s really hard to beat these kids down!  When he went back to register for the second semester, they got him.  He could only register online.  He had to “go home and register on the Internet.”  No electricity.  No Internet.  And he didn’t know the first thing about using a computer although he graduated from the local high school.

So they beat it out of him.  Not quite.  He heard an ad on an Evangelical radio station for someone who wanted a gardener in Panama City.  This kid, who’d never been further in Panama than Boquete and the Comarca, called the people on the phone, took the job, and headed to Panama City!  His employers are a couple of physicians, who helped him enroll in the university in Panama City and are helping him with his education.

“Just Indians”

Another Gnabe kid … well, in his twenties, but a kid to me … finished high school despite his parents protests and wanted to be an English teacher.  When that didn’t work, decided to go into tourism.  A couple of semesters in they were going to do a field trip to an eco lodge near David.  $120.  The guy works full-time, hikes down the hill to school to save bus money, takes home $48 a week to support himself and his family.  So we give him the $120 and a bag for his meager belongings and loan him some money for food.  When they get to the eco lodge the Latino kids all whip out their brand-new pop up tents and camping gear or slept in facilities provided by the eco lodge.  There were three Indian kids in the group who were sent to sleep by the river, away from the rest of the students without any shelter and never having been told what to expect.  It rained and the Indian kids made do the best they could under garbage bags but they were “just Indians” and should be used to that kind of thing.  So they managed to squelch that dream.

I was sitting at a tiny restaurant in Boca Chica, really just the porch of a woman’s home, but she makes a great hamburger.  Up the road come 30 or so Panamanian kids and a few older adults and they take over the restaurant.  A university field trip of students studying tourism.  Hungry kids, having just come from spending several nights at a resort on Boca Brava.  But nobody bothered to tell these kids to bring money for food and the professors of tourism who organized the trip never realized that basically there is no place to eat in Boca Chica, at least no place with cheap food that can serve 30 plus people without a lot of advance preparation.   After they left and I was finishing a second beer the lady who owned the tiny restaurant said, “They are supposed to be teaching tourism, yet they do this all the time.  They have no idea how to plan anything.”  She just shook her head.

It makes no difference at what level … it sucks.

“The Singapore of Latin America”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Panama’s economic success is sometimes compared to that of Singapore.  Both countries by virtue of their locations have great strategic advantages.  Both are building soaring towers.  Both have shown remarkable growth.

But, long-term, Singapore’s prospects are brighter.  Why?  Because of education.  When Singapore looked at its position int he world it realized that while it had the advantage of a strategic location, it could never compete with China on the basis of cheap labor.  So Singapore decided to invest in education and creating an educated and skilled labor force.

Varela has a lot of challenges … how to keep Panama’s economy growing, and keep the engine of change a progress moving full speed ahead, while at the same time bringing inflation into check.  The gap between rich and poor in Panama has increased, not decreased, over the past years.  Panama’s Indigenous population deserves respect and more than just lip service to equality.  But most importantly, the educational system in Panama needs reorganized and revitalized from the top down.  If you fail to invest in the young people of a country, what good are all the improvements to infrastructure?  Varela should listen to Quijano’s advice, “Panama has to strengthen its education … There’s so much investment coming into Panama now, but if we don’t have [trained] people, those investments will go elsewhere.”

“TIP” = “This Is Panama”

This has been a busy weekend in Panama.  All the heads of the myriad of government agencies and their minions, which is about everyone but the janitors, were packing up and clearing out their offices in preparation for the new government which takes office July 1st.

The challenge for ordinary citizens is that if you had an issue with a government agency, a file in the pile on the desk of one functionary or another … everyone likes to leave a clean desk behind … so get ready to start all over again.

The newly elected president, John Carlos Varela, has been busy announcing who is taking over what positions, which is harder than it may sound. With a population of 3.7 million, and a somewhat neatly divided political structure and election, that leaves the incoming president only 1.2 million people from which to choose. Since the election was close and Varela’s party lacks control of the Assembly, like it or not, there has to be some horse trading. Since the dictatorship, fearing any concentration of power, Panamanians have switched democratically elected governments every five years. “TIP” = “This is Panama.” It’s the way it is done and although to an outsider not always the most efficient way, it seems to work.

Panamanians say that politicians are like the big vultures that fly over Panama [a/k/a "The Panamanian Air Force"]. What they mean by this is that “during the day they fight over the same road kill, but at night all go home to the same tree to roost.” These folks all come from the same old, powerful families that control much of Panama, and all belong to the same clubs and high society. Outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli appointed the incoming President Varela as his Vice President. Although they had a very public falling out and Varela defeated the candidate of Martinelli’s party and Martinelli’s wife who was running as Vice President, Martinelli and Varela are partners in a number of huge businesses ["Welcome to Panama!"] and will eventually find a way to work together for a better Panama, as will the rest of the country.

Unlike the US, this is not a country divided by “red” and “blue” but a country of Panamanians. The election is over and there is work to be done, and it will happen. But first … the party! Just to be sure everyone gets off on the right foot, Tuesday, the day the new President is inaugurated is a national holiday! Just what is needed, another day off!  And since Varela’s family owns the largest rum distillery … what’s good for the country is also good for the new Chief Executive.

Not really comforting …

This picture isn’t really comforting if you’re shipping all your worldly goods in a container to Panama or elsewhere!

The ship in the photo ran aground which caused this grand shift in containers, and lost about 900 containers off the coast of New Zealand The average number of containers lost may be higher, or lower, than what you’d expect. According to the World Shipping Council …

Combining the results of the two WSC surveys over the six year period from 2008 to 2013, the WSC estimates that there were on average 546 containers lost at sea each year, not counting catastrophic events, and on average a total of 1,679 containers lost at sea each year including
catastrophic events.

The data demonstrates that container losses in any particular year can vary quite substantially based on differences in weather and based on the extent to which there may be one or more catastrophic vessel losses. For example, in 2011 (the year of the loss of the M/V Rena) there was a total annual loss of 1,514 containers. In 2012, there was a total loss of 958 containers. In 2013, there was a total loss of 5,578 containers – 77% of which occurred with the sinking of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean.

Some folks when they move to Panama pack up much of the furniture and stuff of their lives, shove it into a container and bring it along. We did that because it was “our stuff”, stuff we liked, and things that had symbolic importance. Nikki and I brought most of our professional libraries which we have since dumped, sold, or given away, knowing that twice as many books as we brought with us can now reside on Nikki’s Kindle. When we came it was tough to find the type and quality of furniture we were used to in the States. It’s different now. One of the things we do on the Panama Relocation Tour is to spend an hour at one of the malls in David, not to shop, but to do a quick walk through and see that most of what you’d want if you moved with just a few suitcases, is now available in David. And anything you’d want is available in Panama City.

Panama Relocation Tour?

I received this email from Stan …

Hi Richard, I am Stan from Memphis, TN USA. I am 99.9 % sure that I will be moving to Panama by end of 2014. I am planning to attend the 2014 Panama Relocation Tours this July 12 – 17. I usually don’t make it a habit to pay money up front before services. I understand for a trip they required a down payment and I understand that, but this is something I ran across on the internet and the name isn’t exactly a well known name like Disney World. I like you hire people who has been referred. So my question to you is, have you heard of this tour and the 2 ladies running it, Jackie & Melissa Lange of Panama and Dallas, TX? I have seen your name on their website and seen pictures of your house with the coffee plantation. If this is true, I can’t wait to see it in July. Their website and other websites are very convincing, anybody can take your video and your picture and make their own convincing website as a scam. I just need a little verification that this tour guide is real and honest, can you help? Hope to really see and speak to you soon. Thanks, Stan

Hi Stan! Jackie and the Panama Relocation Tour are legit! It’s a great tour because it gives you a boots on the ground look at Panama and you get to meet and talk to real folks, expats who are living here. I’ll be coming along on the July tour and, by the way, I see there must have been a cancellation because as of this morning there are two spots open, so tell your friends! There was a lady who has a travel agency in Arizona who was attempting to run copycat tours, using Jackie’s trademarked “Panama Relocation Tours” name and, get this, even using the videos of people endorsing Jackie’s tour or her Web site! Believe it or not this gal had actually come on one of Jackie’s tours last fall, kinda held back, aloof, and didn’t really connect with others on the tour … guess what? Well, I guess it takes all kinds. Stan, Jackie is legit, and it’s a great tour!

We’re just finishing up the June tour, so here are a few pictures …

Here we are with the gal who's the bartender at one of the bars at Sheraton Bijao, an all-inclusive resort right on the Pacific ocean.

Here we are with the gal who’s the bartender at one of the bars at Sheraton Bijao, an all-inclusive resort right on the Pacific ocean.

The folkloric show at the Sheraton Bijao

The folkloric show at the Sheraton Bijao

Meeting with Bob Adams of a great site.  Bob brings a world-wide perspective and is a great source for understanding the economics of various countries folks consider as expat destinations.

Meeting with Bob Adams of a great site. Bob brings a world-wide perspective and is a great source for understanding the economics of various countries folks consider as expat destinations.

We try to eat in a variety of restaurants that reflect the real Panama since this is a boots on the ground tour.  This was a $3.50 lunch at a fonda typica in David.  A fonda is a place where the food is cooked over a wood fire.  There is no menu, English or Spanish, but the waitress just tells you, in Spanish of course, what the choices are for lunch.  Ordering itself is great fun.

We try to eat in a variety of restaurants that reflect the real Panama since this is a boots on the ground tour. This was a $3.50 lunch at a fonda typica in David. A fonda is a place where the food is cooked over a wood fire. There is no menu, English or Spanish, but the waitress just tells you, in Spanish of course, what the choices are for lunch. Ordering itself is great fun.

The heart of the fonda ... the wood-fired stove!

The heart of the fonda … the wood-fired stove!

Jackie forwarded me an email Melissa [Jackie's daughter in Texas who handles a lot of the tour logistics] received from a lady cancelling the July tour – probably why we have two spaces available. Here’s the email …

HI Richard

we had a cancellation for July tour. This is the reason they gave

Melissa, Too much going on in July. And, the houses we saw in the last newsletter for Coronado cost more than they do in Phoenix. Some of the houses in Boquete also list for more than an equivalent house in many parts of the U.S. do, although the rental amount is seems reasonable. And, it appears from other readings that Panamanians are beginning to resent gringos.

We also want to look at Nicaragua when those tours start in January. Appears to be a lot more potential there than Panama or Costa Rica.

Of course this gal got a complete refund. I wish her well. I’m sure, since obviously she’s done a lot of research, or just swallowed hook line and sinker the glowing reports from the several companies who specialize in providing relocation information, investment opportunities, real estate tours (some of which are like timeshare presentations where you are a captive audience) … but when I read this I just shake my head.

First, “Panamanians are beginning to resent gringos.”  Really?  Not my experience, although I suspect, given this gal’s know it all attitude, that she could engender some resentment.

Nicaragua: good luck with that!  You can find houses in Boquete in all price ranges … from $40K to $4 million.  It just depends on what you want.  Big difference in a place like Boquete, from Arizona … you don’t need air conditioning or heat here!  Water costs $60 A YEAR unlimited amount.  Home insurance, car insurance … a fraction of Arizona!  Sometimes it scares me when I see how some people investigate and make decisions for major changes in their lives!  That’s why I wrote ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA which is the textbook if you will and provided as required reading for everyone of the Panama Relocation Tour.

While I don’t go on every tour, I do go on as many as I can, and all of the tours stop and visit our home.  So here’s just a random collection of photos of some of the tours I’ve been on.  You can see we have great, small groups, and we really do have a lot of fun.

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