13 Things the Offshore Gurus Will NOT Tell You About Panama

Driveway leading to house
Driveway leading to our house

When I come back and visit the US and folks find out I live in Panama they’re always interested and have lots of questions. It’s not unusual to bump into folks who subscribe to, or have read press releases by outfits that promote seminars and literature about living in Panama. Yes, it has been “paradise” for us and many others, but it is not “perfect” and some of these outfits tend to gloss over the realities of life in Panama. The more you know about how life really is in Panama, or whatever country you are considering, the happier you will be when you make the move.

Jackie Lange who runs Panama Relocation Tours wrote this piece on her blog …

Ask 100 expats what their life is like in Panama, you will get 100 different answers.

Their perspective depends on where they live, how patient they are, and how much they have attempted to accept Panama for what it is… a developing country.

When you read offshore publications about Panama you’d think the whole country is a “Paradise”. The distant photos of down town Panama City look like any first world metropolis. But walk the streets or drive around the country and you will quickly notice that it is not as developed as the USA, Canada or Europe.

With its beautiful skyscrapers, new subway system, and Trump Tower, Panama City is certainly impressive. Some areas are very modern with underground utilities. But that is not the way it is in most of Panama City – or Panama in general.

Many people say Panama is like the USA was in the 1960s but with cell phones, internet and flat screen TVs. I grew up in the ’60s and have fond memories of what life was like then. Panama does offer a simple life where young children can walk all over town safely and family values still exist.

But it is not all paradise.

Here are 13 things you won’t read about in in the sugar-coated publications about moving to Panama:

(1) Don’t assume you will have hot water at every house or at every faucet in the house. Some houses only have warm water at the shower.
Be careful to check out the hot water situation before you decide to rent or buy. You should not rent a house without seeing it first.

(2) Internet speed is not the same throughout the country or even on the same street. If you are lucky enough to live in an area serviced by Cable Onda, you can get up to 15 mgps for about $50 a month. If you can’t get Cable Onda, you will be forced to use MobileNet or Planet Telecom where 2 mgps will cost you $125 per month and you will pay a whopping $250 for 4 mgps. Cableonda is available 1 mile from my house but I’m stuck with paying the higher prices for less speed.

(3) The sidewalks are not level. They may have holes your whole foot can fit through, or metal pipes protruding in bad places or the sidewalk may have stretches which are completely missing. You need to wear sturdy shoes and watch where you are walking at all times in Panama.

(4) If Code Enforcement from the USA came to Panama, they would probably shut down most of the country. There is crazy wiring inside and outside. There are steps and other unlevel surfaces with no handrails or safety devices. There usually will not be a GFI outlet within 6 feet of all water sources. The only exception is new construction in the higher price ranges… maybe.

(5) Most places will have a sign in the bathroom asking you to NOT flush the toilet paper but instead to put it in a waste basket which is next to the toilet. Oh, and don’t assume that all public bathrooms will have toilet paper… bring your own. The reason you should not flush toilet paper because most businesses and homes have a septic system. The more toilet paper that is flushed, the more often they have to get their septic tanks cleaned out and it is just as expensive to do that in Panama as it is in the USA. We recently paid $175.

(6) You can pick your temperature by your elevation. If you are at a lower elevation, it will be hot and humid. If you are at 3500 feet it will be 75-80 just about every day and less humid. Get above 5000 feet and you can enjoy weather in the high 60s to mid-70s every day. Lower elevations (less than 3500 feet) will have more snakes, spiders, and bugs. There are tradeoffs.

(7) There is no Walmart. There are plenty of affordable stores but it will not be the same. We do have a have PriceMart which is very similar to a Sam’s or Costco. Currently, the only big fancy malls are in or near Panama City.

(8) Name brand, imported items will usually costs more, but similar Panama brands will usually cost much less than you pay now. You may or may not be able to find all the name brand items you use now but there is usually a good substitute.

(9) It rains a lot in Panama. We average 100 – 120 inches of rain a year. It does not rain every day or all day… usually. In the dry season, January – April, is may not rain for a month. In October and November it will pour down rain like the Heavens opened up and dumped the Pacific Ocean on Panama….but this usually happens in the late afternoon so you can plan accordingly. The rains keep everything looking lush and green and provide plenty of water for ships to go through the Panama Canal.

(10) Speaking of water… yes, there is plenty of water but the water distribution systems are not what you are familiar with. Some rural areas have water delivered in a small PVC pipe that gets busted occasionally. That means low water pressure at your house or no water. In the dry season, there may not be enough water pressure so it is important that you rent or buy a house that has a large reserve water tank so you have consistent water pressure. Other areas have more modern water delivery systems. In some areas, the water is treated in other areas it is not. So you really need to have a good water filter system at your house. Take all this in to consideration when you select a place to live.

(11) Panama is a Spanish speaking country. In Panama City, Coronado and Boquete English are widely spoken. But in other areas it is not. Even in the areas where English is widely spoken, not everyone will speak English. If you want to live in a Spanish speaking country, you need to learn some Spanish.

(12) Getting things done like opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license, auto registration or even getting mail will be more complicated. It will get done, but your patience will be tested.

(13) Panama has small earthquakes. In the last 12 months I have felt 3 small tremors. They usually last 1-2 seconds. If you are sitting still, you will feel them. If you are driving or moving around you probably won’t feel them at all.

(14) I will throw in one more… There is poverty in Panama but it is not as bad as other South American or Central American countries I have visited. The Indian tribes are most affected by poverty because many of them have no skills and only make $12 – $15 a day. But Panamanians are proud people so you rarely see anyone begging for money.

So with all these negatives, why in the world would anyone want to live in a country like Panama?

For some it is purely economic, others have strong political reasons, and some are just ready for a new adventure. Regardless of the reason, these are the things you can enjoy when living in Panama:
Low utility costs (if you live in an area where you don’t need air conditioning)
Affordable health care .. I pay $2460 a year worldwide health insurance
No wars, no military
Very strong economy
Very low crime in most areas
Fresh air
Fresh fish from both coasts
Great produce and fruit supply – some organic
Great soil to grow your own food
Government leaves you alone and has less rules and regulations
Low or no taxes in Panama
If US citizen, you can take advantage of the $97,600 Foreign Earned Income Exemption
No hurricanes, No snow, No tornadoes
Consistent weather year round – no extremes
Plenty of water – no drought
Visible improvements happening all over the country .. for the better
Not a country divided with conflict from strong left or strong right political parties
Get away from the insanity and intrusion of the US government
Do not have to sign up for or pay for Obamacare
Incredibly beautiful scenery
A lot of opportunity
Small country so you can go to two Oceans or the mountains in a day…. Driving
Friendly and supportive expats… almost always
Friendly and supportive Panamanians… almost always
Pamananians do not have an entitlement mentality

I could go on and on…

Panama is just right for some. But Panama is too big of an adjustment for others who want everything to be like it is back home… wherever that might be.

Panama Relocation Tours will NOT sugar-coat what life is like in Panama. You will learn about the good things and the bad things about life in Panama. I will share my current personal experiences about living in Panama and so will all the other expats you meet with during the tour. The country is changing so quickly, you need to know what it is like being in expat in Panama this month.  For me personally, I can tell you that my only regret is that I did not come to Panama to check it out 10 or 20 years ago then move here sooner.