15 Things I Wish I’d Known BEFORE We Moved to Panama

After an 18 year adventure of living in Panama, here are some things you should consider if you are even thinking about relocation to Panama. This section is under construction, so keep checking back as I finish writing. One of the challenges of doing your “do diligence” before moving is that you often don’t know the questions you should be asking. If you know what to ask and check all the information, not just what may be packaged for you by the relocation company, you will go in with eyes wide open and have a better experience living in Panama. In spite of the hassles, we had a wonderful 18 year adventure and I hope you will too. Regards, Richard

1 Regardless of what anybody says, YOU DO NEED TO SPEAK & READ SPANISH

Regardless of what you may hear, you need to speak and read Spanish. Spanish, and to be specific Panamanian-style Spanish, is the official language of Panama. Yes, a few people may know a few words or phrases in English, especially in Panama City, but Spanish is the official, legal language, plus a half dozen native, Indigenous languages. There is no “Press 2 for English” here. If you want to do business, work with the government in any way, sign legal documents, etc., it has to be in Spanish. If you only want to hang out with other English-speaking expats or hire a translator to shadow you, you can squeak by, but you will be agreeing to things and signing official documents that you may not completely understand which should wave a big red flag.

Some folks who are already good with multiple languages, and are young, or like some Europeans who already speak multiple Romance languages, you will probably do OK learning Spanish or adjusting to the Panamanian style Spanish. Kids generally do fine, picking up the language from their playmates and peers, but when you get older … Face it: you don’t “pick up” a language in your sixties.

And here’s where it becomes really important. It doesn’t make any sense to move to a vibrant new country, like Panama, and only hang out with and socialize with other North American expats who speak primarily Spanish. If you want Panamanian friends, and you want to talk about life, gossip, relationships, faith, the meaning of life and all the ups and downs of each others lives, you’ve got to be able to speak the same language!

Sure some of the expat relocation “experts” will tell you it’s fairly easy to pick up Spanish and even offer you some free, very elementary Spanish lessons. “Hello” and “Where’s the bathroom?” while important, will only get you so far in building relationships and making your time in Panama meaningful.

Do some research on the language which you will need. Spanish is one of the most difficult languages to learn and Spanish speakers are very fussy about you speaking Spanish absolutely correctly. To make matters worse, Spanish in Panama is not exactly the same as in other countries, and even within Panama there are regional differences between the very proper Spanish spoken in the capital and Spanish spoken on the “frontier” like in Boquete. Add into the mix that Panamanians speak Spanish with machine gun rapidity.

It takes work, hard work, and there are folks, like me, who just don’t have a brain for languages. I took high school Spanish, French in college, Hebrew (Biblical Hebrew – big run on that), classical Greek, and even Latin in junior high. I suspect it was the Latin that soured me on languages. I always managed to learn just enough to get the grade and move on. I did learn street Spanish in the Puerto Rican area of the South Bronx where my first church was located. Yes, I can curse with a pretty good string of street Spanish and say some truly insulting things about your mama, but aside from cursing out offending technology, that skill isn’t worth much.

And be prepared to screw up trying, and laugh it off and make it a game. For years I tried to apologize for not speaking Spanish buy using a Spanish word that I assumed meant “I’m embarrassed” because that’s what it sounded like it meant and there are a lot of Spanish words that sound like the English equivalent or vice versa. Finally someone kindly told me that what I was really saying was “I’m pregnant.”

On our little coffee farm we always had projects going on and local guys who worked with me. They were patient, understanding and actually learning English faster than I was learning Spanish. One time some bilingual friends were visited and they heard me say, in Spanish (Yahoo!) to one of the workers, “I need to use you over there.”

My friends looked shocked and said to me, “Richard, do you know what you’re saying?!?” I said sure that I needed him working over there. They said, “That may be what you think you are saying, but what you are really saying is that you want to use him sexually over there!” Well everyone had a good laugh, but …

If you are introduced to someone the polite response is “Mucho gusto” the polite way of saying you are happy to meet the person, Somehow I got it mixed up and started saying “Me gusta”. That came to light when I had some gay friends who were introducing me to one of their gay friends. What was saying was, “I like you” as in “I think you are hot!”

Funny, but very frustrating. We had the teenage son of the woman who was living with one of our workers on our farm. At the time the worker was involved in a very fundamental, judgmental church. Because the kid wasn’t “his” son, the worker was very hard on him. The kid came to the house one night crying. He’d gotten his girl friend pregnant and needed some advice and was afraid to tell his family and he said, patiently and mostly in broken English so I would understand, that we were the closest thing to real parents that he had.

It gets worse. Time passes. That worker breaks up with the woman, quits the local church he had been involved with, quits working for us and moves back to the comarca (like a reservation, basically a sovereign Indigenous state within a state, Two years after all these folks left the kid, Jose, shows up at the house crying. He now has two kids, his partner’s family hates him, his mother and the guy who worked for us don’t want to see him, and he wants me to tell him what to do because I’m the only “father” he’s ever known. Good luck communicating without a common language. And as best I can I tell him he’s not a kid any more, but a man, and he needs to step up and be a man, and while it’s not going to be easy, he has to take care of his family. I hugged him and sent him off. Then I was crying because I just didn’t have the ability to communicate.

He’s on my Facebook, so I see pictures of him as he’s grown. He was struggling to learn to play an old guitar and he posts video of him playing and he’s become really good. I’ve tried to use Translate to send him occasional messages, but I have no idea how he is really doing.

You’ve got to speak Spanish! There’s no way around that. Your experience and enjoyment of Panama will be a thousand percent better if you speak the language! That’s true on an interpersonal level but also legally. We got royally screwed, which I’ll tell you about later, by a dishonest, supposedly very “Christian” attorney who ripped us off big time. Had we known our way around the legal system, been able to study the law, and read everything, we would have saved ourselves a lot of grief.


the three months since we left Panama and moved back to the States we’ve done a lot of reflection on our 18 years living in Panama. We have some wonderful memories! We miss many of the friends we made, other expats and what I would call salt-of-the-earth Panamanians, folks who are genuine, honest, hard-working, the exact opposite of the corrupt politicians, lawyers, and hustlers. We miss the sunshine, the 12-hour days and nights year-round, the warmth (not just of the people but the climate as well), the rainbows and coffee. Yes, there is a lot we don’t miss as well. We haven’t had a single power outage – in three months! The Internet is dependable. We have a great choice of stores and stuff to buy, although occasionally some shelves are empty either due to Covid (the all-purpose excuse for everything) or “supply chain issues.” Last week my wife was searching at Safeway for for chicken and there was none! Chicken!!! “There is a shortage of chicken.” Imagine, a shortage of chicken in the home of the brave and land of the free. Maybe the Super Bowl had produced a run on chicken wings. Stranger stuff happens.

But what we miss the least, correction … what we don’t miss and what in part drove us out of Panama was the corruption. It starts at the top (and not just the President because as we know Presidents can be dishonest crooks in any country), but politicians, lawyers, judges, hangers-on, political appointees from the top down to the local level, can be thieves and crooks. Not everyone, but since corruption like shit runs downhill, most folks get smeared. No one seems to be immune, even folks you think would have some shred of integrity. Folks who thump their Bibles and are even religions “leaders” in the end turn out to be just like everyone else.

One thing I learned in Panama was this: you can trust people until you can’t. Unfortunately that has been our experience. Now we have some good friends, neighbors, friends, folks who’ve worked for and with us, whom we love and care and cared for. My biggest fear leaving Panama was that some of these folks would suddenly turn on us, but they didn’t. They have hearts and souls of gold. They are good people who somehow manage to hang onto their integrity.

And it’s not just Panama: it is a Latin American thing. A town puts in new roads, or a water or sewer system. A contract is awarded to someone’s friend who manages to cut corners to pad their own pocket book and pay off the politicians. Sure it may be “illegal” but that’s hard to prove in a country which really doesn’t have much by way of law or integrity. If it goes to court good luck. Panama does not have a system based on English common law or case law so a judge ends up making decisions and whoever pays the judge the most wins. Sure, some of these judges do get nailed and even a number of Supreme Court judges end up behind bars.

About those town improvement projects … eventually the cheaper materials start to fail, problems develop, and another contract is awarded to someone with the right political “connections” who will cut different corners to make payoffs, and it goes on and on and on.

All of which brings me to this article which appeared in Newroom Panama reprinted from LA PRENSA:

OPINION: Paradise Lost to political crime’

“For the second day in a row, the political community and control institutions remain silent on the issue of a farm in Boquete and the house that was built on it, whose ownership is attributed to the deputy president of the PRD, Benicio Robinson. It seems that nobody wants to mess with the Bocatoreño deputy or simply indifference has reached unsuspected levels.

 Things being like this, the country is adrift, with leaders subjected by their own cowardice and/or complicity. The hope of a change in the leadership of the State is lost. Instead, Panama begins to look like a tax haven no longer, that has passed to the shelf of children’s stories. Paradise now belongs to political crime, impunity, even drug activity, whose tentacles have reached the government. Little by little we are approaching the point of no return, that is, by the time there is a serious reaction to everything that is happening, the country and its institutions of control, justice and government will be under the control of mafias that will not back down.  The first signs are already in sight, and fear is one of its many symptoms. It is a humiliation to have to share the country with these foxes and these sheep. LA PRENSA, Mar 9.

And please don’t believe that you can move to Panama, live as an expat, and somehow escape being smeared with this sh**. It is pervasive, and not just for the ultra-rich and their “Panama Papers.”

3 YOUR LAWYER WILL BE YOU NEXT BEST FRIEND … OR WORST ENEMY: Panama Has Lots of Laws But Does Not Enjoy “The Rule of Law


5 MEDICINE IS NOT THE SAME; In Some Ways Maybe Better, In A Lot of Ways Worse