“Why People Leave Boquete”

When I was a Pastor in growing churches we had two concerns: the front door and the back door. The concern with the front door was that it be open and welcoming to everyone, churched and unchurched. The front door involved publicity, promotion, greeting, welcoming, making people feel at home, getting them involved, having them attend membership classes and become active and involved members of the church. But a church can take hordes of people in the front door, and not grow if other people are going out the back door. People tend to leave churches when they don’t feel a meaningful part of the church family and when their needs are not being met, be it day care, spiritual nurture, parking, whatever. So to build a growing church you needed to keep the front door open and the back door closed as much as possible.

Lots of people are deciding to pick up and move to Panama, and specifically to Boquete. But, just like church, not all of these people stay. While many are coming in the front door, some are leaving out the back door. So it has always interested me to know not only what brings folks to Boquete, but why they leave. I wish someone would do a study on this! But here are some of my own pondering . . .

There are the Perpetual Adventurers– Let’s face it, picking up and moving to a foreign country requires a certain sense of adventure! Some folks we know have left Boquete and moved elsewhere because that’s just the kind of people they are. They are always looking for another place . . . maybe another spot of the world that hasn’t yet been “discovered” and where property is still ridiculously low priced. There are some folks who the moment they move to Boquete are already scouring International Living and the Net and looking for the next “hot” place to move.

There are those whose relationship is already on the rocks – Moving is always a high stress event, and moving to a new country with a new language, new customs, new mores is even more high stress. Folks who thought that making a new start in a new country might “fix” things soon find out it doesn’t work that way. The stress is greater so, like a tiny crack in the windshield, the cracks in the relationship are soon going in multiple directions. Plus, for a lot of folks, moving to Panama is breaking out of the mold, or rut if you will, of the traditional commute, 9 to 5 job, social obligations, family expectations – whatever. Suddenly feeling free, and frequently knowing that this is the last big adventure of life . . . folks break loose . . . one stays, one heads back to the states, or they both move on in elsewhere in different directions.

There are those who didn’t do their homework in the first place– If you came to Panama looking to shop every other day at the Galleria, or expect museums, openings, Broadway, and symphonies in Boquete, or want a tennis club, US-style country club, shopping at Pavillions or Bristol Farms, or a 30-screen cineplex . . . well you ain’t going to find it in Boquete! So why are you surprised? Didn’t you do your homework?

There are those for whom the novelty wears off– Let’s face it: you chuck off everything in the States and move to Panama! It has a certain excitement and novelty to live in a new country where everything seems different. But after two, or three, or four years the novelty wears off, and you begin to miss the familiar and the comfortable feel of wherever “home” used to be. You get homesick for Home Depot, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Wal Mart and even the bureaucracy of the DMV where at least they – usually – speak English.

There are those who came to make a killing . . . and don’t – For some Panama was seen as an opportunity to get rich quick as the world’s attention focused here and real estate and condo speculation was manic. Everyone saw the opportunity for instant cash: just buy a farm cheap, throw in a road and sell lots to unsuspecting foreigners like yourself. Well things rarely work out that way. There is still great opportunity in Panama, but the day of the “fast buck” is disappearing quickly. Scam artists are gradually being sent back home, either by being rooted out by Panamanian authorities or being extradited back to authorities in their own countries.

There are those who don’t like the weather– Some folks never bothered to check the weather. Living in a rain forest is incredibly beautiful, but, guess what? It rains! A lot! Particularly at certain times of the year. And that isn’t for everyone. There have been a lot of friends for whom Boquete is too cool and too wet and so they have left, not to go back to the States, but for beach areas where its a lot hotter and there is a lot less rain.

Panama isn’t the “tax haven” people thought it was – Yes, Panama, like every place in the world has taxes! The taxes may come in different forms, like fees, etc., but they are there none-the-less. Almost everything from the states is MORE expensive here because it has to be shipped in and is charged duty and tax (on the value of the item plus the cost of shipping). As Panama moves from being a second world country to a first world country the government is becoming more computerized making it harder for those who would seek to avoid taxes illegally. But, as anywhere, there are ways to legally minimize your taxes, but there are taxes. Panama does not tax on income earned outside Panama. But, guess what, the long arm of the IRS reaches into Panama. US citizens are taxed on everything, anywhere in the world. But, if your permanent residence is outside the US, and your income is earned outside the US, and presumably outside Panama if you want to avoid Panamanian tax, the IRS does give you a generous break.

“I’m not ready to retire . . . what I really needed was a Sabbatical”– My wife helped me define this after talking with a friend who was returning to Atlanta saying, “I still have ten years that I could be working!” Nikki has sometimes said, “I feel guilty . . . like I should be doing something . . . like I should be contributing.” I find myself scouring potential cruise jobs, not that I want to leave Boquete, but I sometimes want to be back in “the action” for a few months of the year. This isn’t anything unique to living in Boquete, it’s just a challenge of retirement. Perhaps more of a challenge to boomers than it was to past generations.

“S*** Happens!” Life changes– Some people’s lives change dramatically. Aging parents back in the states suddenly require more direct attention and involvement. Properties back home don’t sell as expected. Businesses you thought you left in good hands suddenly need direct involvement. Spouses die and what was once your dream of a life together in Panama now rings hollow. One or another partner develops a medical condition best faced in the company of family and familiar medical resources and/or Medicare assistance.
Our new house in Palmira is on the road to the tiny cemetary in Palmira. My wife has informed me that she is “not moving again!” She has made it clear that her next move will be in a pine box, where she doesn’t have to pack anything, to the cemetery down the road. Well, that’s our plan . . . now. But, as Heraclitus pointed out, “We are living in a world of constant change.” Things do change. People change. Plans change. And because of that, not everybody will stay in Boquete.

Since I first posted this I’ve received some interesting reflections from other ex-pats living in Boquete.

From Scott and Belinda . . .

Richard- Excellent observations. The North American’s that I know personally who left Panama, came here with little or no money and little to no continuing retirement income. They typically had exagerated expectations of earning a living in Panama (bad idea, in my opinion). When that didn’t work out, they had no choice, but to go back to their former jobs in the U.S. If someone wants to have a business to keep them occupied or for fun or to employ locals, fine…But don’t count on making a living or getting rich. Come to Panama with sufficient income or assets to pay your bills, which may be higher than you expect. Scott and Belinda McAda
From Diana . . .
From my observation, it is not until you have made the move and experienced the lifestyle, experienced the differences (more than a few months) and the real challenges, that any individual can judge and accept or reject the way of life here in Panama.

Boquete (if considered as a separate entity) (which I think it should be) seems to be on the surface, the paradise that so many retirees are looking for. The climate cooler and the views of Volcan Baru and surrounding landscape is stunning. Boquete is marketed as “the place to be” It is where so many have invested a lot of money, time and Patience!!! It is where so many have made it their home, or invested for the future. It is the place that boasts many housing developments, hotels, sporting and leisure activities and is one of the biggest tourist destinations here in Latin America.

It is a place where people have chosen to live in the safety of numbers, behind bars and security gates, in gated communities and advertised that they were not wanting to integrate and had something the local people could only dream of. Many have fallen victim of the common “Gringo Bingo” where they have been charged greater sums of money for products or services than others. Many local people see us as an opportunity and feel there is much money to be made or just a little to supplement a pitiful income, as rich Americans/Europeans flaunt their previous lifestyle expectations in their faces.

Many come here with the thought that they can have their cake and eat it but we will not change this 3rd world country to the one we left behind and why should we? We are actually responsible for how things progress and should realise that before we try to change this country into the one we have escaped from, we need to take stock of what there is here and how we should preserve that which we love about it. There is without doubt the need for patience here and I think that many are so used to the fast pace they have left behind, that the exceedingly slow pace here is intolerable. I think the weather has little to do with it as there are so many climates to be found within a few short miles of each other and this is a common excuse for a reason to leave.

I think in reality, for many of us, it is way out from our comfort zone and the old rules no longer apply. Diana Boase

From Roger . . .

“I’ve observed is that many come here with little or no knowledge of what to expect, assuming it’ll be like it was from whence they came. Sometimes they try to recreate their ‘comfort zone’ here, but eventually give up. Most make little or no effort to learn Spanish, understand the people, customs and how things work here, or involve themselves into (not onto) the Panamanian community. Sometimes they retreat into their homes, like a turtle into its shell and, after they get bored doing nothing (there’s much to do here), they leave. A foreigner here has to be proactive and friendly to be accepted and make a new life for themself. Sometimes, too, it’s a matter of culture shock and lack of commitment . . . Roger Imerman”

2 thoughts on ““Why People Leave Boquete”

  1. Very interesting and informative post. You are right that there are a myriad of ways for people to become disenchanted with a new place, mainly due to the gap between expectations, dreams and reality. There is no substitute for homework. I notice many people in several of these blogs who one day announce they are going to Panama, and yet, they have hardly visited there, and then only as a tourist, and not a prospective resident. Some things are inmutable, such as culture, language, rhythm of life, weather etc..
    Adaptation, patience and courage to face new challenges is required, even when moving to “paradise”.
    Tony

  2. Greetings in Jesus name. we visited Panama in 2007 and will return in the future. I am doing my ‘Homework”. I am 56yrs ( young) and love to help an existing church/Shelter/ministry etc dealing with families of those incarcerated, teen pregnancy, etc or maybe the Lord wants us to start a new work. I enjoyed Boquete but i need to also look at Las Tablas, Pedasi, Santiago, Penonome, David etc . can you help me connect with pastors or ministrires out there?
    Blessings, Joe ….. Gal 2:20

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