Moving TO or FROM Panama: Some Stuff You Must Know

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No matter who you are or where you are moving from or to, moving is a pain in the ass! Here’s some stuff we learned the hard way and some things to think about if you are moving TO Panama or eventually move FROM Panama back home, wherever “home” may be.

FIRST: TRAVEL LIGHT We had (tense is important here) a lot of really neat things that we’ve picked up in our travels around the world. Our decorating theme we’ve always described as Marco Polo with a little Hemmingway thrown in. Our stuff was important to us and when we moved to Panama 18 years ago we were going there “for good.” The home we built in Palmira, just outside of Boquete up in the Chiriqui Highlands, was on “Cemetery Road” because our little road led down to the tiny cemetery that served our tiny hamlet. I remember when we moved in my wife said, “This is it! I have only one more move and that’s down the road to the cemetery. I’m not moving again!”

So we thought. And we were wrong. I guess nothing is forever.

The current advice is take as little stuff as you can with you to Panama. There is a good likelihood that at some time you will be coming “back home,” and if that’s even a distant possibility sell, give away or store your stuff and travel light. When we moved to Panama it was hard to find what you needed and were used to in Panama and particularly in and around David. Now you can find pretty much anything and everything in David which is only a half hour or so from Boquete. People are coming and going and there is lots of stuff in a few good resale shops. Now we know folks who’ve “moved” to Panama with nothing more than a few suitcases prepared to rent or buy locally whatever they need.

SECOND: HAVE AN EXIT PLAN.

I learned this, or should have learned this, in my MBA classes. See point above: nothing is forever. It will eventually end either jetting back home or in a box in a little Panamanian cemetery, or in a pottery jar that your kids won’t have any idea what to do with or how to get rid of. If you have an exit plan you will be able to make wiser decisions throughout your stay in Panama knowing that whatever you acquire you will have to get rid of or take with you.

Of course we didn’t have an exit plan, so when our first family of three dogs died, and then we adopted three more, we weren’t thinking of ever leaving Panama or, in addition to all our stuff, getting three dogs back to the states. Not really understanding the legal differences in Panama, the quality of the medical system and what our future needs would be, and, of course, not reading or fluently speaking Spanish, and without a thought-through exit plan, we were sitting ducks for crisis when and if it became time to exit.

Making any kind of move is a stressful event and it you’ve thought all along about an exit plan when the time comes, it will make it far less stressful. In our case it is almost as if by failing to have an exist plan in place all along, we created the most high-stress exit possible. Even if you end up developing a somewhat last-minute plan, Panama being Panama and people being people don’t count on things working as planned!

TIMES CHANGE

Times change, and not always for the best. Things such as Covid and economics take their toll. When we moved to Panama, flush with cash from selling our home in California, there weren’t houses available period, and those that were often were not built to North American standards or expectations, at least not in Boquete. We, and a lot of others who arrived around the same time, built really nice and somewhat grand homes. I think, if I recall correctly, our construction costs ran about $70 a square foot, plus of course finishes, site development, well, yada yada. As construction began on the new Canal locks, prices for concrete, steel, and other building materials soared due to high demand and limited supply. So housing construction prices climbed steadily.

Then things started to change. The US dollar devalued and bought less. Many folks in the US saw their retirement plans disappear and the folks moving down, lured by promises of “cheap living” in Panama, were all looking for cheap houses which still offered all the comforts of North American living. Literally thousands of expat folks came to Boquete area looking for “cheap” and some might argue changing the whole tenor of things. Folks who had lived as expats for years were at a point where they either needed or wanted to “go home,” so all of those grand houses started coming on the market offered at prices less than it would cost to build them in that current market. We saw the writing on the wall that eventually, much as we had enjoyed most of our time in Panama, time was marching on and it was time for us to go “back home” and be near to family. But. given the market, it took a while to sell our home and farm not making the profit we had hoped for, but more-or-less (discounting inflation) breaking even. But, make no mistake, we had a wonderful adventure in Panama that was well-worth it to us for the “cost.”

If we had a well-developed exit plan we would might have done a lot of things differently … wouldn’t we all.

THE MOVE FROM HELL

So we decided we were going to return to the States to live in Washington near to our kids. Real estate in Washington was going crazy with soaring prices and bidding wars for properties that went hundreds of thousands above the asking price. We couldn’t have picked a worse time. Supply chain issues resulted in US ports that were swamped with freighters tied up for weeks and that was getting worse by the day. We had decided we would move our valuable stuff back with us at the tune of about $24,000 and take our three rescue pups with us. Crazy, I know now, but at the time we thought it made sense.

Molly tries out her quarters for the flight back to the US. Understand that the folks who brought her to Panama before getting rid of her to Dog Camp, flew her as a “service dog” FIRST CLASS to Panama on Copa/United. We certainly were a comedown for Molly but we love her and weren’t about to give her up.

The dogs were a major challenge. We worked with a pet relocation outfit which was somewhat helpful at times. We couldn’t use our regular vet in Boquete but had to use another David vet who had trouble copying down the correct information on the paperwork and identifying our neutered male dog as a female, all of which resulted in my wife and dogs being driven en route from Boquete to Tocumen Airport in Panama City and ending up getting a call when they were halfway in Santiago about the paperwork problems, then having to drive back to Boquete and start over. The normal challenges were acerbated by Covid which resulted in fewer flights and smaller aircraft which could not handle the large containers required for our full-sized pups. Suggestions were to charter a private plane (right!), fly all three dogs from Panama to Amsterdam or Frankfurt, thence to Costa Rica, thence to Miami, and finally to Seattle. Not wanting three dogs to take a world tour, nor pay for their world tour, we finally got Copa to fly them to LAX. Since I had gone ahead once the sale of our house in Panama closed to buy a house in Washington, I drove from Seattle to Los Angeles to pick up Nikki, three dogs, and three dog crates from Copa/United cargo in LAX. That cargo operation was a nightmare and we only narrowly avoided our dogs getting on a live taxiway and chasing a 737 aircraft down the runway!

Road Trip!

I never thought I’d be writing how grateful I am for Motel 6 because they were the only place that would take us and our three dogs for three nights. The rooms were clean and comfortable if basic, and the dogs actually loved riding in the car and staying in motels and were, for our farm dogs, exceptionally well-behaved on the journey.

So the dogs and we made it.

The furniture and rest of our stuff more or less made it although not all in one piece. I had asked the one person who knew more about folks moving to and from Panama than anyone else for a recommendation. They reported they had heard “good things” about Mexican Moving Company. Let me clear one thing up from the start: they are not Mexicans, but a company based in Alabama owned and run by father and son, Ronald Ponton Sr. & Jr., that apparently began moving folks between the US and Mexico and had expanded to their destinations including Panama.

It was tough getting space reserved on a freighter for our 40′ shipping container, so we took what we could get. We ended up fooling around with the buyer’s attorney which messed up our timing, so our stuff had to be loaded and shipped before I had the money to fly to Washington and buy a house. So the container with all our stuff was at sea with us, anticipating shipping delays, intending to buy a house before the container arrived, or, worst case need to store it a few weeks, something we had discussed with Mexican Movers.

I’ll write more about our horrible experience with Mexican Movers and why I would never recommend them at a later date. Suffice it to say we are here and we’re trying to build our new lives in Washington. Unfortunately about everything the movers touched was scratched, damaged or broken, so we are constantly reminded of the distain Mexican Movers showed towards us and our treasured possessions.