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 USTVNow.com for about $10 a month. NetFlix.com, 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.

“It’s the economy, stupid”*

There are some countries that are promoted as expat retirement destinations that will only succeed on a wing and a prayer, and do not have a sound economic foundation. There are pluses and minuses for retirees living in a country, like Panama, with a booming economy.  Compare, for example, Panama and Costa Rica.  Both are spectacularly beautiful countries, neighbors, both neutral, and neither with an army.  Costa Rica stands alone, and it knows it, but hopefully should the military need arise, can count on assistance from other countries in the Americas who do have armies.  Panama has the second Carter-Torrijos Treaty in which the US guarantees to protect the neutrality of the Canal, and ipso facto in this tiny squiggle of a country, the neutrality of Panama in perpetuity.  Big difference.

Panama, like Ecuador and El Salvador, has a dollarised economy, meaning that our currency, although called the Balboa, is in fact the US dollar.  [If I were President of the Republic of Panama I would use three currencies, the US dollar, the Euro, and the Balboa as a separate, totally Panamanian currency.  I’d nationalize Panama’s gold mining and hang onto all the gold to back the Balboa with gold.  And I would keep the Balboa as a totally private currency only held and traded in Panama.  I think you would see billions of foreign dollars flood into Panama.]

Because we use the US dollar, as the US dollar has been devalued and prices have gone up in the US, they have also gone up in Panama.  Obviously this is cause for concern for retirees living on fixed incomes.  But, for us, since prices have also gone up in the US, we still live far better for less in Panama.

In my mind the benefits of living in a country which uses the US dollar far outweigh the disadvantages. There is a stability of currency that other countries, like Costa Rica which has its own currency, do not enjoy. We don’t have the wild fluctuations that often characterize Latin American currencies. Even with its ups and downs, the US dollar is still considered world-wide to be one of the best and most secure currencies.

Panama has a booming economy. During periods when many countries in the world were lucky to proclaim 1 or 2% GDP growth, Panama was averaging 5.5% GDP growth. A lot of that is because of the Panama Canal, the centerpiece of Panama’s strong economy. But Panama, unlike some neighboring countries, is not a one pony show. The Canal is only one piece of the economic pie. 25% of the world’s ships are registered in Panama. The Colon Free Zone is the second largest free zone in the world. Panama is a Latin American banking center with over 80 international banks. Many of the world’s best-known companies are registered in Panama. Panama is the center for regional distribution. And the Canal does not stand alone but is surrounded by huge ports, has bunkering facilities, and is a strategic distribution center for many international companies.

The saying is that “nothing succeeds like success” and to an extent that is true economically if the economic success is built on sound fundamentals. There is something to be said about living in a country with a optimistic and positive view of its future.  When countries, like people, stop growing they start dying.

There’s a good web site that has a lot of economic information about Panama and other countries called The World Folio.

I happen to like Costa Rica and I love “Ticos,” the self-given name to the people of Costa Rica.  I’ve been frequently to the Costa Rican ports, Puntarenas on the Pacific, and Puerto Limon on the Atlantic.  Both ports are, IMHO … well, let’s just say that Puerto Limon (“Lemon Port”) is a lemon of a port, as is Puntarenas, BUT both ports are the jumping off place for fantastic tours into the interior of Costa Rica.  Costa Rica is Panama’s neighbor and in fact I live in Panama only 40 km as the crow flies from Costa Rica.  It’s just that for us, and for many, Costa Rica just isn’t a good place for expats or a place to retire.  There are many reasons for that, but at the base is the struggling economy of Costa Rica vs the thriving economy of Panama.  Costa Rica has been a one pony show.  OK, a couple of ponies — computer chips, bananas, and tourism. Yes, and they do grow coffee, actually some very good coffee. But the exciting pony in the show was computer chips, in fact computer chips, not bananas, were Costa Rica’s #1 export.  But last year Intel, the giant computer chip manufacturer, announced plans to pull out of Costa Rica, yet another blow to Costa Rica’s faltering economy.

Costa Rica made our final list.  And when I analyzed the countries on the list, and you can read all about this process in THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING AND RETIRING IN PANAMA, Costa Rica wasn’t any better, given what we were looking for in a place to retire, than where we were living at the time in Ventura, California!

Jackie Lange, who actually read my book before moving to Panama, and now runs Panama Relocation Tours, shared Panama vs. Costa Rica …

For two years, I’d researched where to move to that would have affordable costs and great weather (no air conditioning). I’ve been all over Europe, Canada, South America, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and in February I visited Panama.   As soon as I discovered Panama I really felt it was THE place. But I kept reading about how great Costa Rica was and saw Andy Brown’s videos about Costa Rica so I decided to check out Costa Rica.

There were 4 things that turned me off to CR right away:

1. Crime is a huge problem. Everyone we talked to said they could not even go to the grocery store or out to eat unless they got someone to stay at their house. Who wants to live like that?! A guy I know in Escazu (who used to live in Grecia) had been broken in to 3 times in the last 12 months.

2. Even with no air conditioning, the utility costs are extremely high in Costa Rica,  at least 10 times higher then Panama

3. Food costs were 50% more in Costa Rica for the basic items I compared.

4. Housing costs, including rents, were much higher..

I actually cut my visit to Costa Rica short because I quickly determined that it was OFF THE LIST.

Panama is much more affordable.  On my first visit, I ran in to three couples from Costa Rica who came to Panama to stock up on items from PriceSmart because the prices are so much cheaper in Panama.

Each time I visited Panama to check it out I discovered that everyone is friendly and helpful – both expats and Panamanians. There are many community activities to be involved in and you  feel right at home in Panama.

The last thing we all want when we’re in retirement mode is to worry about money.   The economy is strong in Panama and that helps to keep inflation down – you can read about the Panama economy at Bob Adam’s site www.retirementwave.com

Come learn what life would be like living in Panama during a Panama Relocation Tour!

I know nothing about these guys at VIVA, except that they make a good graphic and making it readily available is a good way to get a link to your site.  And by the way, I’d agree with their dots.

*”It’s the economy, stupid” is a slight variation of the phrase “The economy, stupid” which James Carville had coined as a campaign strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George H. W. Bush.