The Little Engine That Could

Like thousands of kids I grew up with THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD by “Watty Piiper” but the problem that after over 100 years, nobody knows for sure who Watty Piper was, although it’s generally assumed there never was an author named Watty Piper, but after all these years nobody knows for sure who wrote the book.

But it inspired me!  And like the Little Engine That Could I was, and frankly still am, motivated by the thought, “I think I can!  I think I can!”

I’ve always thought a takeoff on the title of this ever popular kids book, long before all the technical hoopla that kids have to put up with today … I’ve always thought that a good description of Panama would be THE LITTLE COUNTRY THAT COULD.

1867panama_railroadI KNOW it would be an apt description of the Panama Railroad that really was the LITTLE RAILROAD THAT COULD.  Eclipsed, as usual, by its younger sibling the Panama Canal, while this year the Canal celebrates its 100th Anniversary, the Panama Railroad, and its current lineal descendant, the Panama Railway, celebrates its 160th Anniversary!

In many ways the construction of the railroad was even more challenging and interesting than the construction of the Panama Canal. That’s why in my book PANAMA CANAL DAY I have an entire chapter about the Panama Railroad, telling a fascinating story that is often ignored.

I think it can be fairly argued that the fantastic achievement, which it was in its day, of linking the oceans together, and the Panama Railroad making Panama a crossroads, inspired the courage and commitment to create the Panama Canal.  With the Canal and Panama’s unique geographical location [Location! Location! Location!] it has become possible for Panama to be what it is today, “The crossroads of the world.”

PRR in jungle

That, “I think I can!” spirit, is a motivating factor in Panama’s success in the world today: nothing seems to daunt the spirit of Panama.  It’s interesting that the video progress reports on the expansion of the Canal often refer to “our new nation.”  Of course Panama as independent country and not a vassal of Spain or Colombia is over a hundred years old, yet, after the dictatorship and the turnover of the Canal, in many ways Panama really became a new and independent nation and after a few transition years things really began to happen.

Panama is in the midst of grappling with what afflicts most Latin countries, but few ever attack, and that is corruption.  It happens everywhere, including [Wake up folks!] the US, but in a country of less than 4 million people it is a little harder to hide.  It is becoming apparent that the Martinelli administration was possibly even more corrupt than its predecessors and the current administration is trying to sort all this out.  Hopefully the current President, Juan Carlos Varela, will manage to keep his hands clean and become the exception to the rule.  Maybe Martinelli was lining his pockets, but his “Just do it!” and “Get ‘er done!” attitude of just going ahead and awarding contracts without years of meetings, studies and committees, while it opened the door to wide-scale corruption, did get things done!

Look at this tiny little squiggle of a country: a massive $6 billion expansion of the Canal coming to completion, scores of architecturally interesting towers dotting the skyline, a brand new subway with line 2 near ready to start, two new bridges under construction or ready to begin across the Canal, the fantastic Costa Cintera, the expansion of the Pan American Highway nearing completion, multiple new hospitals across the country under construction, and a long-range project to clean up the Bay of Panama moving toward completion, and the former Fort Howard being developed as a new, planned community called Panama Pacifico, another expansion of Tocumen International airport which just can’t seem to keep up with the additional traffic created by Panama’s Copa Airlines and our geographical position as the “Hub of The Americas”..

Look at what’s on the drawing board and being planned: a new, massive LNG terminal, a brand new major container port on the Pacific near Agua Dulce, a possible container and cruise ship port in Puerto Armuelles, the renovation of the City of Colon, thousands of new homes being constructed by the government to continue Panama’s long-range plan of creating a strong middle class, and the Canal de Panama already working on yet another expansion project to accommodate the ships already out there known as the New Panamax vessels.

This is an exciting country and at the heart of all this, at the heart of Panama, is that “can do” attitude, and a general positive and upbeat feeling about the country and life here.   Maybe that’s why for the second year in a row, Panama WINS the Global Well-Being Award!

All important stuff to consider if you are thinking of an expat lifestyle or retiring to another country. Plus, Panama, which has always been the crossroads of the world attracting people from all over the world, puts out the welcome mat for foreigners. There are more skilled jobs than locals to fill the019m. Assuming you have a clean police record, you are welcome in Panama. There are work visas, visas that will enable you to build business in Panama, and visas for retired “Pensionados” that even entitle new Pensionados to the same discounts and benefits that Panamanian retirees enjoy.

Expats Aren’t Just Retirees

If you think the only expats moving to Panama are retirees, think again. More and more I see younger folks, and families choosing to vote with their feet and escape to Panama. For some “escape” means getting away from aspects of life in their home countries that they don’t like, but for a lot “escape” means escaping the typical, the usual, the 9 to 5 grind and escaping to a new world of adventure and possibilities.

A friend of mine told me that her son is giving up his $150K a year Silicon valley job, turning down the $200K offer his company made to keep him in his cubicle, and moving to Panama with his girlfriend to do his own thing, enjoy life, escape the endless mind-numbing meetings and get a life … in Panama!

It is now fairly easy to get a visa in Panama that allows you to work and earn a living, and the possibilities are endless.  Naturally to be successful you have to have a plan, put together a sound business plan, and do your homework.  Just come down and “open a business” willy nilly and you, like hundreds of Panamanians who do the same thing without doing their planning, homework and business plans, will fail.  Do it right and there is opportunity!

I came across a very interesting YouTube video of a young 17-year-old guy named Trent Bayless whose folks moved him from Dallas,Texas to Coronado, Panama when he was 14. It gives you an idea of a kid’s perspective on life as a teenage expat in Panama. Asked if he knew any Spanish when they moved to Panama, Trent replied, “Only the bad words because I’m from Texas and had a lot of Mexican friends.”

Trent obviously goes to a rather select school.  We have neighbors who moved to Palmira with their teenagers, who’ve gone to the local schools and thrived.  We know another gringo-Panamanian family whose kids went to school online.  When he was 15 the kid asked to go to the local school which offered one thing the online school didn’t: girls.

Renting In Panama

If you are thinking of moving to Panama, or anywhere else for that matter, it’s generally a good idea to consider taking a “test drive” and renting first.  However, when we visited Panama just to see if it remained on the list of countries we were considering [and  you can get the complete story of how we analyzed and evaluated countries before narrowing down the list to the final candidates in my book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE], when we visited Boquete we fell in love, bought a house, and have been here happily now going on eleven years.  So … different strokes for different folks.  In our case we pretty much know what we want, and when we find it we don’t dork around but act.  We’ve done it before, and we know that it works for us.  And we were and are looking for value, not just cheap.  I’ll pay a little more to get what I want, and I like nice, not extravagant, but nice.

But for many people, maybe most people, taking a test drive and renting first is a good idea.  Jackie Lange of Panama Relocation Tours has written a very good piece about renting in Panama.  In many ways it is different than what you might be used to, and, as always, it’s best to go in with eyes wide open.

17 Tips for Renting in Panama

Renting a house or apartment in Panama is not like renting a property in North America or Europe. Many of the things you take for granted do not necessarily come with a property in Panama. You do not need a residency visa to rent in Panama.  To find a rental, see the links to web sites listed below.  However, many of the best rentals are NOT advertised on a web site or with a real estate agent; you will need to drive around looking for Se Aquile (For Rent) signs posted in front of the property.

Rental prices depend in the area you select.  Panama City, Coronado, Boquete and Boca Chica are some of the most expensive areas for rentals or home purchases.  Other areas have more affordable rentals.  I know a lady who rents a 1 bedroom house for $80 a month in Las Tablas.  A couple has a 4 bedroom 4 bath house in Cerro Punta for $650 a month.  A couple who has a nice 2 bedroom house in David for $220 a month.  To get a condo in Coronado or a house in a gated community in Boquete you’ll spend closer to $1500 or more per month.   If you don’t rent in a gated communities, you can find much better prices.  A tour guest recently rented a great 1 bedroom house near Boquete for $425.  I paid $600 a month for my 2 bedroom furnished rental when I moved to Panama.  The further you are away from the town center (for highlands) or the beach (for coastal areas), the more affordable the prices will be. If you are on a tight budget, understand that some areas in Panama are much more affordable than others.

No matter which area you are considering, if you take your time to look around, and if you are flexible, you can find just what you are looking.  The less things you have on your “must have” list, the easier it will be to find a rental. Some landlords will take pets.  Some won’t.  Some landlords will accept a family with children.  Some won’t.

Here are some important things to take in to consideration before renting in Panama:

1. Don’t assume that there will be hot water at the property or that there will be hot water at all faucets. Some houses, especially in warmer areas, do not have a water heater. Some houses only have hot water in the shower, called a suicide shower, but no hot water at the kitchen sink or any other faucets. A suicide shower is an electrical device that hooks in to the shower faucet to heat up the water when it comes out. There are usually wires hanging out.. thus the name suicide shower. You don’t want to touch the wires or you could get an electrical shock. Ask if there is hot water at all faucets. |Most water heaters in Panama are on-demand water heaters which take some getting used to.

Suicide Shower

2. Just because a property is advertised with “high speed internet” does not mean it has what you would consider “high” speed. It is better to find out who the internet service provider is who services that area. If it is Cable and Wireless, you can get 4 Mb of internet speed for about $30 a month. If it is Cable Onda, you can get 7-15 Mb for $25-$50 a month. But if neither of those ISPs is available, you will be lucky to get 2 Mb and forced to pay $120 – $140 for Planet Telecom or MobileNet. Be warned that the properties with the best views rarely have the highest internet speeds. There are trade-offs!

3. It is important to rent a house which has a reserve water tank. Towards the end of the dry season, in April and May, there may be no, or low, water pressure. Some municipalities (especially the Azuero Pensinula) actually turn off water during part of the week when there is very low water pressure. The reserve water tank is usually a blue or black tank next to to the house, sometimes elevated, which will insure that you have constant water pressure throughout the year.

Reserve Water Tank

4. Never rent a house without seeing it first. The photo of the property may look great. But it may not show the neighbor who has 12 roosters who make noise all day long or the 4 barking dogs or the teenagers who have their boom box blaring all weekend. Before you decide to rent, you should visit the neighborhood at various times of the day and on the weekend so you can determine what the noise and traffic level is like.

5. If the property has a metal roof it will sound like a freight train is coming through your house when it rains. You won’t be able to hear the TV or radio or anyone talking to you. It is much better to get a house with clay or cement tile roof.

6. If the road to your house is not paved, you may have a hard time getting to the property in the rainy season. Dirt roads get washed out and/or get ruts so big that you will need a 4 wheel drive vehicle to get to the property.

Off Road

7. Verify that the house has a washer and dryer. Some houses only come with a washer and a clothes line outside. A propane dryer will keep your utility costs down. A small propane tank is $5.37 and will last about 2 months.

9. Some houses come with a tiny 5’ tall refrigerator which will make it necessary to go to the grocery store every other day. Ask if there is a full size refrigerator.

10. Verify that your rental comes with cable TV if that is important to you. Cable Onda or SKY TV have 200+ channels including movies, CNN, Fox News, Animal Planet, etc. Some of the channels are in English all the time. Others channels have television shows in English some of the time or Spanish, German, or other languages. If Cable TV is not included in your rent, it will cost about $70 a month to get that service. Or, you could subscribe to for about $10 a month., iTunes and Amazon shows are available too.

11. If you move to a warmer coastal area you will need air conditioning. Most of the houses will have an air conditioner unit mounted on the wall in the bedroom but there may not be a unit in every room.  There will also be a compressor outside.  Before you rent, run the unit to see how noisy it is and to verify that it cools the room.  Central air conditioning is rare in Panama. Find out which rooms have an air conditioning unit. In the mountain areas it is rare that there will be an air conditioner unit at the property….you won’t need it!

Split Air Conditioner

12. Most single family house rentals come with a weekly or bi-monthly gardener. If the gardener service is not included in your rent, you will pay about $15-$20 per day for a gardener. Some rentals also come with weekly maid service. Ask what is included.

13. Always get a lease agreement in writing. Get it translated before you sign so you know exactly what you are agreeing to. Make sure the lease spells out what is included with the rent, like electricity, water, Cable TV, internet, gardener, etc. and the length of the lease and how rent will be paid. Many landlords give you their bank account number so you can make a CASH deposit in to the account to pay rent. Most landlords will not take a check or credit cards for rent.

14. Many rental properties come fully furnished with furniture, dishes, silverware, linens, television, etc. Get an inventory list of what comes with the property or create your own list then get your landlord to sign off on it. You may want to take pictures too.

Firnished Rental in Boquete Panama

15. How far is the property from town? Unless you buy or rent a car, you will need a rental property that is close to town. Close means about 1 mile (if you can walk one mile). You can rent a car for about $600 a month. If the property is not close to town, and you don’t want to rent or buy a car, you could take a taxi or the bus. The hassle factor and expense of taking a taxi or bus needs to be considered before you rent.

16. When renting a condo, find out what amenities are included with your rent. Also find out if there is a backup generator for the elevator and a working emergency call button. If you are living on the 25th floor and there is a power outage, you don’t want to carry groceries up 25 floors. One time we were touring a condo and the elevator stopped working. The emergency call button did not work and cell phones did not work in the elevator. Not good!

17. December through March are high season. It is harder to find a rental property during those months because there is less inventory. We have a lot of “snowbirds” from colder climates who come to Panama during high season. Some landlords jack up the rent prices during high season. If you come down when it is not high season, you will have much more selection and better prices too.

In Panama, it is customary and a good idea to get a short term rental for 1-6 months. Test drive the property before you sign a long term lease.

Normally you will be required to pay 1 month rent as a security deposit plus your first month’s tent. Rarely will a landlord require you to pay more than that to rent a property.

Tenants can legally get out of any lease with a 30 day notice. You may not get your security deposit back unless it is the end of your lease agreement, but you can get out of paying rent after your 30 day notice. This is another good reason to sign a short term lease initially.

Follow these tips when renting in Panama so you have no surprises of conflicts.

This may sound like it is more complicated to rent in Panama cut it is actually easier because so many properties come fully furnished.  You only need to bring a suitcase with clothes and a toothbrush when you rent a fully furnished house.

The best way to find a rental it to talk to people who live in the area.  Ask if they know about anything for rent in your price range.  Finding rentals before they are advertised is how you find the best deals. Some real estate agents have information about rentals too. Some agents do not handle rentals.

The folks who do their homework and do the research are the ones who move to Panama, love it, and stay. Those who don’t make big and costly mistakes. Jackie’s Panama Relocation Tours are one of the best ways to check out Panama and get an overview of the places expats like to call home and to have the opportunity to meet real expats with unrehearsed stories about life in Panama. Unlike some of the big outfits that promote endlessly and claim to tell you all about Panama while you sit in a hotel ballroom in Panama City and hear folks who’ve paid to participate tell you about “opportunities” to invest, on Jackie’s tour nobody is selling anything. These are boots-on-the-ground, informational tours that will help you evaluate Panama. They are not real estate tours or time-share tours.

Panama is not for everyone, but it may be for you.