What I enjoy most about lecturing on ships is the Q&A sessions after the lectures. Plus I get lots of emails, and lots of questions, some over and over again. Since you may just have some of the same questions I’ve answered some here, but you can get a whole lot more information in my book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING & RETIRING IN PANAMA, and also there is a whole lot of information already here on my blog.
“What kind of government do they have?”
Panama is a democracy, a democracy that is in many ways far more participatory than in the US. To be in Panama prior to an election is an amazing thing, particularly when contrasted to the election process in the US which mostly involves the citizenry just sitting back and watching TV ads! The current President Ricardo Martinelli graduated from university in the US and is owner of Panama’s largest chain of grocery stores. He’s a no-nonsense business man who likes to point out that he has seven CEOs in his Cabinet and Obama has none.
Many folks are caught up in the “ancient” history of Panama. The most popular man to ever live in Panama was military strongman General Omar Torrijos. It was General Torrijos who negotiated the transfer of the canal to Panama with President Jimmy Carter. It was after Torrijos died in a plane crash that Manuel Noriega, a CIA operative, came to power and aligned himself with various Columbian drug cartels as well as initially the CIA. Noriega soured on the CIA and former CIA director, by then president George W. Bush, and the US soured on Panama. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama by the US in 1989 and Noriega ended up in prison in Miami. After the Invasion Panama abolished the military, choosing instead to invest in education. Like its neighbor Costa Rica it is officially neutral, and like Switzerland it holds everyone’s money following the old adage, “If you have them by their money, their hearts and winds will follow.”
There have been charges of corruption in Panamanian government centered around the former Presidents who were accused of favoring friends and family. The difference between Panama & the US is that in the US we pretend there is no corruption, while knowing that there is, and in Panama and other countries it is acknowledged. In the recent elections there was a candidate who as a child had lost an arm in an accident. The joke was that he should be elected because he could only rob the voters with one hand.
“Is it like Costa Rica?”
Yes, in the sense that it is Costa Rica’s neighbor and has the same abundance of natural wonders and beautiful coastlines on two oceans.. Like Costa Rica it is a neutral democracy without an army. Panama’s current Pensionado program to attract retirees is similar to the one Costa Rica used to offer. Many people took advantage of Costa Rica’s retirement incentives, so they are well-known even although the incentives are no longer offered. Most people know little about Panama other than the Canal and the Noriega episode.
The US dollar has been the legal currency of Panama since 1904, so any inflation is tied to whatever inflation there is in the US.
When much of the high quality coffee production shifted to Viet Nam, Costa Rica took a heavy blow. Most of Costa Rica’s economy was tied to coffee. The result has been economic turmoil, increasing unemployment and crime. Panama took heavy hits on coffee and bananas but the major economic contributors in Panama are the Canal (which Panama has operated at a profit since the US withdrew), international banking, and business services for the many offshore Panamanian corporations. Panama is leveraging its strategic position at the crossroads of the Americas as a free trade center, telecommunications center, and Internet hub. Although Panama enjoys the highest per capital income in Central America, it still offers an affordable and educated workforce that is familiar with US culture/customs. In Panama City many skilled workers are bi-lingual.
“I’ve heard coffee is making a comeback in Panama. Is this true?”
European and American tastes in coffee are becoming more sophisticated. Boquete in particular is taking advantage of the many microclimates that exist in and around Boquete. It’s similar to the Napa and Sonoma valleys only in our case the product is coffee. Different coffee farms produce different tasting coffees due to variations in climate and soil. Boquete coffee is becoming a unique, distinct, and increasingly recognized specialty or boutique coffee. This is helping prices to move up to levels where it may again be as profitable to raise coffee as sell off real estate.
As land becomes more and more expensive, it becomes harder and harder to grow coffee and make a profit. You can’t pay more than $4 a square meter for land on which to farm coffee, and land in Boquete is now going for $15 a square meter and up. The lata [in coffee cherries about the equivalent of a 5 gallon paint can] of coffee we sell for $8.00 costs us $2.50 to pick, $2.00 for fertilizer, and $1.50 for labor, so our net is $2.00 per lata. That lata will end up in the US producing about 10 pounds of roasted coffee beans selling at $18 a pound in the States, so we are making about twenty center per lata, so, like most farming, it’s not the farmer who is making the money..
And all of the certifications – “Fair Trade”, “Rainforest”, “Bird Friendly”, etc. – all cost lots of money, and no matter what they say, they benefit the big growers and coops and not the truly little farmer. There is no small farmer who could afford the big fees these marketing outfits charge, let alone flying people down from the States to Panama, putting them up in hotels and paying their expenses, so these folks can say, “Yes, you grow coffee.” I admire people are willing to pay $1 more per pound for these certifications which they think are helping the small grower and making life better for the Indigenous people who pick coffee. Not so! These are clever and profitable marketing schemes which may help big growers and huge coops, but are of no benefit to the real small farmer like us and most of our neighbors. Yes we are bird friendly! We’ve kept trees, we love birds, and we do whatever we can to encourage them … but we don’t pay some outrageous amount of money, more than we or most truly small growers would make in a year, to be able to use the “Bird Friendly” marketing label.
“Can foreigners own property?”
Yes. Panama allows foreign ownership of property with a few exceptions like beaches (which belong to the people), properties within proximity to international borders, etc. Basically foreign owners/investors have the same rights as Panamanians. The tricky part is that some properties are “titled” similar to what we expect in the US, and other properties offer just rights of possession. Most often foreigners choose to own property not in their own names but in the name of a corporation, usually an anonymous “SA” corporation, as a means of enjoying various tax advantages and protect from liability.
“Is it safe?”
Safer than Oxnard, California where my wife used to work! You don’t listen to gun shots at night. Innocent people aren’t being randomly shot by drive-by shooters. People don’t talk about “respect”, they live it! You don’t have the gang culture. There is respect for the law. It’s a given that you may have to resolve an issue by offering some direct assistance to a police officer who is struggling to make ends meet, but it is done without pretense. There’s not the cop/gang banger mentality where it is a “we-cops” vs. “citizens-kids-criminals-anyone-who’s-not-a-cop” mentality.
“Do you know Spanish?”
Si, un poquito, pero . . . About the same percentage of folks speak English and/or Spanish in Panama as in Oxnard or LA. Certainly more people in Panama speak English than in Miami! I am a guest in a country whose primary language is Spanish, so I will learn their language. It’s only polite. I actually do know some Spanish, and when I’m in Panama I start thinking in Spanish, so I’m getting there. I’m not in Panama just to associate with English-speaking expats! When we bought our coffee farm 2 years ago our Indian worker said, “Don’t worry, in 2 years you will be speaking Spanish.” Now he says, “Don’t worry in 5 years you will be speaking Spanish.” He will probably master English before we master Spanish.
“Where is Panama?”
OK, I thought it was kind of dumb too, but many Americans are amazingly ignorant of geography. The Republic of Panama is the southernmost Central American country. It runs East-West bordering Columbia on the East and Costa Rica on the West. The Caribbean is to the North and the Pacific is to the South. And the Panama Canal actually runs North-South, not East-West. The fact that many North Americans even have to ask this question says something about our knowledge and perceptions of the rest of the world.
“Is that, like, a state?”
Please don’t laugh. Someone actually asked me this! And yes, like, they really, like, from, you know, the San Fernando Valley! Totally cool, and totally clueless! It’s amazing how ignorant Americans are of basic world geography! The Republic of Panama is an independent country, albeit one with deep ties to the US. I like to think of US/Panamanian relations in terms of the US as being “big brother.” You may not always want to live with or in the shadow of your big brother, but when in a jam it’s nice to know you have a big brother for “backup.”
“Are the Indians who live in the jungles dangerous?”
Several dozen indigenous tribes inhabited Panama when the Spanish arrived: now only seven remain. The important thing is that seven remain! In this tiny squiggle of a country there are seven indigenous groups who were here before Columbus arrived and are preserving traditional lifestyles. Remarkable! The three main groups are the Kuna, Gnobe Bugle and Embera. The Kuna are the largest and perhaps best known and live primarily in the San Blas Islands. The Gnobe Bugle, formerly called Guayamis by whites, live in the mountains of Chiriqui and are the indigenous who live in and around Boquete and work the coffee fincas. The Guaymis women wear brightly colored dresses and are often seen in town. The Embera live primarily in the Darien and Chagres and are committed to maintaining their traditional lifestyle. If it weren’t for my Embera friends and researching the Embera Puru I probably would not have “discovered” Panama. To stay overnight with my friends I drove 1 hour out of Panama City, then took a dug out canoe 1.5 hours into the jungle up the river to their village.
Afraid of what? They were my friends. That we’d eat monkey brains? Well, the thought passed my mind! Actually we had the best tilapia I’ve ever tasted, right out of the river. We were deep in the jungle but although these folks live in the jungle most of them have never even seen the “dangerous” snakes and cats that inhabit Panama. They are wonderful, contented, happy people who have made a choice to preserve their traditional lifestyle. When I used my rental car to take my friend Erito into Panama City, Erito, who is like the village mayor or manager, whipped his cell phone (doesn’t work in the village) out of his briefcase and started doing business. We visited three banks, one attorney, dropped someone off at a clinic, stopped at a sweatshop to pick up clothing, picked up videos (car batteries run two village televisions), and picked up supplies before leaving the little town where we left our dug out canoe. Interestingly no alcohol is allowed in the village. Not to worry. We left with three cases of beer in the boat and by the time we got home, 1.5 hours later, there was no beer! The next morning Erito and one of the village elders gave me the same pharmaceutical tour of the jungle they give to representatives of drug companies looking to “discover” new cures.
“How do you deal with the heat and humidity?”
Some places in Panama are hot and humid. 9 degrees from the equator and lots of rain, particularly in the rainy season: lots of place are hot and humid. The Caribbean side tends to be more humid than the Pacific side. During the dry season, on an endless beach with only two or three other people, it felt a lot like Cabo. Hot, dry with successive waves of cool breezes coming off the ocean. 85 degree ocean!
Because Boquete is at 4,000 feet up in the mountains the year round temperature ranges from a low of 61 degrees to an occasional high of 80 degrees. You may need a light sweater at night, generally covers. Certainly not the hot humidity of the lowlands. When it’s 75 degrees in Boquete it can be 100 in David which is 35-40 minutes a way. Kind of like the difference between Ventura and Simi Valley back in California.
“What does your family think?”
They love the idea! They see it as a new, low-cost destination vacation resort!
“I’ve heard that cruise ships are now using Panama as a ‘home port’?”
Yes, largely because of the hassles the so-called “Patriot Act” and “Homeland Security” . . . [Bush even had to rename the country! The “United States” has worked well for over 200 years: who decided to rename it the “Homeland”?] . . . and impossible visa requirements, it has become very difficult for Europeans wanting to cruise to use the Florida ports. Royal Caribbean will begin using Panama City as a “home port” for one of its ships in 2008.
With the renovations at Tocumen and increased airlift into Panama from the US and Europe, I think movement of ships from Florida to Panama will continue.
“Doesn’t it rain all the time?”
It rains a lot, but not all the time. And rainfall in Panama varies widely. The wettest areas are on the Caribbean side, and there are some dry areas on the Pacific side. The “dry” or summer season is from mid-December to mid-April. During the “green” or “wet” winter season Boquete gets 11″ of rain a month (whereas Ventura gets 11-13″ a year), but most of this comes in torrential tropical downpours, often thunderstorms, in the afternoon. Mornings are nice and sunny and usually in mid afternoon there will be a storm or a slow afternoon drizzle. It’s not Seattle rainy. And, even during the “rainy” season, we can go days without any rain.
“What kind of diseases are there? Do you need shots?”
Depends who you ask. Before we moved to Panama we went to the County Health Department, where my wife used to work. They pulled out the CDC Manual and gave us pills and injections for almost every disease known to mankind at a cost of almost $500! It turns out we didn’t need any of this!! With the exception of a few areas in Bocas del Toro, where in all fairness we were headed, we didn’t need ANY shots or pills, period. Live and learn. If you’re coming to visit us, the only real hazard is consuming too much Panamanian rum ($4.95 a bottle)! Popular brands of US cigarettes at $10 a carton should be avoided.
Can you visit Cuba from Panama?
There are direct flights from Panama City to Havana. The rest of the world enjoys the freedom to visit Cuba: US citizens do not enjoy the freedom of travel to Cuba. Despite the fact that we’re all buddy buddy with Viet Nam, China, the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and even getting all cozy with Lybia, the US still can’t get along with our nearest “enemy-neighbor” Cuba. Do we really think Castro can make the world a totalitarian Communist system when Russia and China couldn’t make it work?
So as a US citizen you can visit Cuba from Panama, but you may not. [Remember all the grade school teachers who used to play that silly can/may game?] But people go none-the-less. The Cuban government graciously insists you pay in US dollars and stamps a piece of paper rather than stamp incriminating evidence into your US passport. Just don’t get caught and don’t try to bring back a box of Cuban cigars! Hopefully a new administration will stop our foolish isolation of Cuba. Richard Nixon opened the door to China: why the stupidity about Cuba?
Can you drink the water in Panama?
One of the legacies of American involvement in the Panama Canal is that throughout Panama, with the possible exception of Bocas del Toro, municipal drinking water is usually safe to drink. I have a “tender tummy” so to be sure, we boil our drinking water. The water in Boquete is delicious: better than Evian! The water comes from springs that originate from deep within the long extinct Baru volcano. Pure and delicious!
“What about shopping?”
Panama City is rapidly becoming a shopper’s paradise for South Americans who come to buy luxury goods and the latest fashions. Panama City has almost everything. In Boquete we have three small supermarkets and a farmer’s market that is open daily with fresh, locally grown produce. The Boquete supermarkets (and we use the term “super” loosely!) will sometimes run out of common things like meat and bread and have difficulty keeping a reliable inventory. 40 minutes away is Panama’s third largest city. There is a PriceSmart store in David. It’s not as big as the Costco stores we were used to in the states, but has the same “big box” feel and has some of the same things. Unlike the states, it is not always cheaper than the local stores and you often pay more, not less, for bulk sizes. The joke is that once gringos find something they like, PriceSmart stops selling it because the gringos keep taking it off the shelves and buying it. If your tempted to ask, “But isn’t that the point?”, then you don’t understand how business works or thinks in Panama.
“What about ‘squatters’?”
This is more of a a problem and is not generally a problem in Panama (more of a problem in Costa Rica). People are respectful of others property and property rights. Since there are “haves” and “have nots” and as a gringo you are perceived to be fabulously wealthy, whether or not you actually are, it only makes sense to take care of your property and if you are an absentee owner to have someone locally looking after your property. Grates or “bars” on windows are a Latin American tradition. They do deter petty theft, but often have the more important function of conveying to your neighbors the message that you are so successful and have so much “stuff” inside your home that you need to protect it.
“What about health care?”
First, the life expectancy in Panama is about the same as in the US. And who knows, without drive-by shootings for some populations it might be higher. Second, because of the long Canal/US association Panama has a pretty good health care system without exorbitant prices and the litigious culture and price gouging that characterizes so much US medicine. David has three large hospitals and many doctors have been trained in the US.
My wife has cardio concerns so we decided to visit the US-trained Boquete doctor who was highly recommended by local US expats. She went to his office without an appointment and waited 20 minutes because the doctor was making a house call. The doctor listed to her history and suggested since we’d been in Boquete a while that he do an EKG to see how she was doing at 4,000 ft. No problem. My wife asked, “Well, what happens if I have a heart attack here.”
The doctor answered, “Well, you call me, and I’ll call the ambulance and come over and ride with you down to the hospital in David. We’ll get you stabilized and if necessary air lift you to Panama City where the best cardiac specialists are located.” He named the guy he considered to be the best, also US trained, picked up his cell phone and said, “Let me see if I can get him.” He got him on the phone, described Nikki’s condition and said, “Here, you talk to him”, handing the phone to Nikki.
After 45 minutes with the doctor (not sitting in an exam room waiting for the doctor), an EKG, a consult with a specialist, Nikki walked out with a bill for $60.
We’re still working out health insurance issues. Expat International Medical Insurance is widely available and as long as you are having treatment outside the high-priced US it is not that expensive. We finally settled on a program offered by the local Chiriqui Hospital that’s kind of a modified HMO, discount program.
Friendly. Delightfully diverse. Panama has always been at the crossroads of the world. Columbus put in at Bocas del Toro to do ship repair. The pirates hung out here. Panama’s heritage and people are a delightful blend of indigenous, European (Spanish, Italian, Greek, Jewish), Caribbean (Jamaican), Oriental (Chinese) and American peoples. This is one of the few countries in the world that actually like the US! Because of the long cooperative history with the Canal, many Panamanians have US relatives. There is a laid-back industriousness about Panamanians. They are neither driven nor lazy, but seem to have worked out an approach to live that works. Things get done . . . eventually . . . . although maybe not on an American time schedule.
“Do they like Americans?”
Yes. Actually Panama may be the only country in the world that still does like and respect the US! Panama exists largely because the US “created” it because it wanted a canal route. Without US support and “gunboat diplomacy” the secession of Panama from Columbia could have never succeeded. There is a hundred year history of cooperation with the US. Through the years there has been a lot of intermarriage between Panamanians and US nationals living and working in the Canal Zone. The US invasion of Panama to remove Noriega was largely supported by Panamanians. The national currency of Panama, although called the “Balboa” is in fact the US dollar. Panama has never printed its own currency. Coins are stamped in the US Mint in Philadelphia and although they have different imprints are identical to US coins and work in US vending machines and are used interchangeably with US coins in Panama. ”
“Isn’t Panama a big drug center?”
According to the CIA it is a, “major cocaine transshipment point and primary money-laundering center for narcotics revenue; money-laundering activity is especially heavy in the Colon Free Zone; offshore financial center; negligible signs of coca cultivation; monitoring of financial transactions is improving; official corruption remains a major problem.” Of course according to the CIA EVERYPLACE BUT THE US is a major drug center!
And if drugs weren’t demanded by the US population of course there would be no problem. If the US decriminalized and regulated drug use, removing all of those who suck at the teat of the drug industry (drug lords, law enforcement, prison industry, “justice” industry, etc.) would be out of work and on welfare, but eventually we’d save billions of tax dollars and be able to invest that money in education and treatment.
The short answer is that there is a lot less drugs in Panama than Ventura or Los Angeles counties!
“What kind of visas do you need?”
You don’t need any visa to visit. Before flights to Panama leave the US the airlines usually sell $5 “tourist cards.” To encourage tourism, Panama is stupidly talking about raising the cost of this tourist card to $50. Panama is sometimes good at shooting itself in the foot when it comes to tourism.
US Citizens require visas to remain in Panama. There are various options to meet various needs. Many retirees chose a “Pensionado” visa which allows permanent residency in Panama if you have a pension income of at least $600 per couple. There are additional visa schemes for investors or those who wish to buy into reforestation projects.
“How about moving?”
You know those big shipping containers you see trucking up and down the freeway? They come in 20′ and 40′ sizes. You can load your own or have a professional mover take care of everything. In LA they will bring the container to your home, it gets loaded, goes back to the Port of Los Angeles and takes about two weeks to arrive in Panama. The cost for a 20′ container is about $3,500 plus transport costs to/from the ports. The major cost is the moving the container to and from the ports. Moving is expensive anywhere, but it doesn’t have to be any more expensive to move to Panama than Denver.
I did not want to contend with hurricanes! One of the big plusses for me about Panama was that it is tropical but is below the hurricane belt. Sometimes the tropical depression vestiges of a hurricane will affect the Caribbean side around Bocas with heavy rainfalls, but the brunt of hurricane assault that your risk in most Caribbean islands is not a problem
“How is banking different?”
Mostly it’s point of view. The IRS would call it “clandestine” and “secret.” Others would call it “private.” But opening an account and dealing with the bank is like dealing with the DMV! We’re used to working with banks in the US who generally seem to want your business. Here banks seem genuinely hostile, some more than others. And it’s against the law to say anything critical about a bank you don’t like or the bank will take you to court, which can drag on for years, and in the meantime tie up all your accounts and assets. Like every other business in Panama, banking has no customer service orientation. The “secrecy” of banking in Panama is now a thing of the past. Panama in 2010 decided to roll over and give the US access to whatever it wanted!
“Aren’t there lots of mosquitoes?”
Everyone knows mosquitoes and yellow fever were problems in the building of the Panama Canal – over a hundred years ago! – the mosquito image has lingered in Panama. It doesn’t help that ages ago folks who weren’t into tourist and real estate marketing named things like “Mosquito Coast”! With the possible exception of the area around Bocas del Toro yellow fever is not an issue in Panama, and it’s only a rare possibility in Bocas. You will find mosquitoes in some areas, but probably not nearly as many as in Alaska in the summer – where, incidentally they’re called the state bird of Alaska.
Boquete has about as many mosquitoes as Ventura, and to the best of my knowledge does not have West Nile Virus which Southern California now has. Frankly the bigger pest are flies. We have two kinds, coffee flies and regular flies and both are somewhat seasonal. The coffee flies are tiny, little flies that leave a bite like “no-see-ums”, And a thin layer of skin lotion seems enough to discourage these guys. We didn’t believe it at first, but after a while the insects seem to tire of you when you’re no longer “fresh meat”. The population of regular damn flies seems to explode at the beginning of the rainy season. For about two months they are everywhere!
“You’re not in Kansas any more!” Many of the things we’re familiar with – REALTOR®, Code of Ethics, listing agreements, exclusive listings, offers to purchase, multiple listing services, etc. – are non-existent. Some things like licensing, title insurance, escrow companies are just beginning. Although the government is trying to crack down, pretty much anyone can and does sell real estate. Not all real estate offered for sale is even owned by the people who are selling it! In some places land is titled, in other places you are essentially just buying “the right to pick fruit” on the land. I saw folks selling building sites along the road overlooking the beach across the road – great view, great price – the only problem was the land they were selling is owned by the government and is not for sale! But it IS possible to buy titled property and not get ripped off if you work with people you can trust, and proceed cautiously.
Often people utilize anonymous corporations “S.A.” as a holding vehicle for property. So when you buy a property you don’t actually purchase the property but ownership of the “S.A.” company whose sole asset is the property you’re acquiring. Purchasing property in this way is an anonymous way to own property that protects the property should you be named in a law suit and offers certain tax advantages.
“You make it sound like paradise! What’s the downside?”
Nothing is perfect.
For us there’s no view of the ocean, which we miss from Ventura. But it’s only 1.5 hours to our little place on the Pacific, I just can’t see it every morning.
The business orientation is very different and there is no customer service, and I miss specific businesses like Home Depot, and believe-it-or-not Costco.
If I want to fully communicate and become part of the culture of my new home I’ll have to master Spanish. Not that I couldn’t communicate without knowing Spanish, it’s just that I want to communicate in the native language. It’s a challenge at my age, but supposedly learning a new language is one of the things that keeps your mind working and prevents dementia.
It does rain a lot. Actually during the rainy season I look forward to the rain at 3 or 4 PM. It’s an excuse to kick back and read a book or take a nap! The only time it becomes somewhat oppressive (like Seattle in winter!) is in October, and I try to be away from Boquete in October.
Many of the things I’ve come to Panama for are, ironically, the things I’ll have trouble with! Things like 2-lane roads – of course I’m trying to get away from the 405 with it’s 10 lanes! There are stores and supplies, just not as convenient as Ventura – of course I’m trying to get away from the commercial “strip”! Then there’s the pace. I tell myself I want a slower pace, and I do, but sometimes I still want things NOW!
Every governmental agency in Panama seems to operate like the DMV in California.
So, nothing’s perfect, but for us, this is damn close!
“Do foreigners and retirees have to pay Panamanian income taxes?”
National and foreign retiree pensions are free of Panamanian income tax. Panama only taxes income that is generated within the territory of the Republic of Panama. Therefore, foreign source income is not taxable in Panama.
There are some and the quality of the English varies. In general Panamanian schools are very different from US schools. Many of the very basic resources we would take for granted are lacking. Primarily the government furnishes a building, sometimes without electricity, and teachers. Yet kids of locals and expats have gone on to schools in the US and have become attorneys, doctors, engineers, etc. Some have returned to Panama and others have stayed in the US. Some ex-pats use home schooling or online schooling or some combination. One young friend did most of his schooling on line, until he hit high school and then started a local school while continuing online. The local school offered one plus that the Internet didn’t provide: girls. We do have a new International School that has opened in Boquete and is completely bi-lingual and very progressive.
“What about security, self-defense and gun laws?”
Security – I feel more secure here than in Ventura and Ventura County has two of the consistently “safest” cities in the US. [And since this question originally came from someone in South Florida . . .where they have that new body piercing thing – bullet through the head . . . ] There are areas in Panama City and Colon where I’d rather not get lost, but on the whole this place is MUCH safer than the US. Unlike much of Central America, you can drive anywhere in Panama safely. The only dangerous place in Panama is in the jungle along the Columbian border where only drug runners and Columbian rebels would be anyway.
Self-defense – a couple of the guards at Valle Escondido are black belts and teach karate, but it’s more of a macho, young guy thing that they learned along the way. People really don’t worry about that here. The more urgent worry is if you remembered to bring your umbrella in case there is a downpour!
Gun laws – There are LOTS of guns in Panama. There are gun laws, in fact there are lots of laws. But there isn’t the budget to enforce most laws. I don’t want a “cop heavy” society so I guess I can’t complain. I’m not into guns, but I understand it is fairly easy to get permits, so lots of people have guns. But on the whole Panamanians are generally very docile and non violent people. They would much rather discuss than have a confrontation: the discussion can go on forever, but what’s the hurry?
“Assuming you have no air conditioning how to you sleep at night? Is the breeze cool enough?”
Depends where you are living. In Boquete you wouldn’t need AC. In David, Panama City or along the ocean, it is probably essential for expats, although locals wouldn’t need it. In Boquete, up in the mountains, it was probably a low of 61 here last night, definitely need a blanket or two.
“How is restaurant and bar life? Are there “Gentlemen’s Clubs?”
Again, it depends. Panama City has fantastic restaurants, night clubs, and “Gentlemen’s Clubs”, as you put it.
Boquete is a small town, but for a small town we have some local Panamanian-style restaurants, a new good rib place, and some ethnic restaurants – Chinese, Mexican, French, Peruvian, Middle Eastern and Italian. Some of these are tiny, and some may not be that great, at least for my taste, but there is increasing variety. The Panamonte Inn has a lovely formal dining room with candlelight, crystal, and china. We have a couple of sports bars, and bars for gringos, Panamanians, and Indians. Indians come in on paydays (2 Saturdays a month), some like to get pretty drunk, they will sometimes fight each other over women, pull out their ever present machetes and someone ends up cut and can’t work. But they stay to themselves. We’re certainly not Panama City, which is very Latin and hip.
During “Fair of Coffee & Flowers”, Carnival and holidays they bring in huge portable disco clubs with two-story speakers and there is lots of partying to the early morning hours.
“Can you really live in Panama on $600 a month?”
No. I get this question a lot. People get this $600 a month number because in order to get a retirement or pensionado visa you have to prove you have outside pension income of at least $600 a month for a couple. So, can you live on $600 a month? It’s a struggle, but amazingly some Panamanian retires do manage to live on $600 a month. But most folks from the US and Canada do not want to live this way. For most retirees from the US $600 a month is going to be nowhere near what they need!
One of the problems with the Internet is that information is not dated and is often outdated, particularly when it comes to “cost of living” information from Panama. Food seems to cost almost as much as it does in the States, unless you are going to shop like a Panamanian, local market at Panamanian not Gringo prices, and steer away from prepared and imported products. Most Americans aren’t going to shop that way! Price Smart looks comfortably like Price Club/Costco but has nowhere near the selection and really doesn’t offer much, if any, savings, unlike Costco in the US.
“You and others talk about the super protective labor laws. So from what I gather, you can have for a bargain a maid and a gardener, but you have to pay them a 13th month, plus give them a month’s vacation and sick days and holidays and pay their social security. So what’s the workaround on that? Is there any?”
The minimum wage is 1.05 an hour. If you are “on the books” you pay about $28 a month in social security, and the additional benefits workers are entitled to by law. Sometimes workers aren’t concerned or don’t want social security and will work “under the table.” However, if a worker gets pissed at you for any reason, or is injured or hurt, they can take you to the labor department and if that worker is injured on your job or any other job, supporting him and his family for life. Understand that the basic principle of Panamanian labor law is “the worker is always right.” And you are the outsider. In my book you’d be a fool to try to avoid your responsibility. Labor law is about as big of a business here as lawsuits are in the US.
My understanding is that if you employ someone for not more than 2 days a week, or on an occasional basis, that you can avoid this, however, you must have a clear contractual agreement. It is important to consult with a Panamanian lawyer specializing in labor law.
“I a retired Air Forcer, then trial lawyer, and now part-time REALTORÒ. I’m 71 and ready to finally retire and move to Panama. Can we survive on $5000 a month? We want a place where it is not too hot, but not too far from the beach. My wife is Russian and loves herbs, fresh vegetables and gardens, animals, birds, and is a nature lover. I am a lover of fresh coffee. Is there a nice furnished place we can rent until we can buy what we want? Probably wouldn’t bring any furniture, maybe just my car and what we can carry. Your suggestions would be appreciated. I am a member of International Living and have read extensively on this area and believe this is where I will want to spend the last 20 years of my life.”
Boquete just might be your place! The expats who have settled here are a diverse and international group. You will find much of what you like here in Boquete, except for the beach. We lived overlooking the ocean in Ventura, California, and the ocean is the one thing we miss. But we’re only 2 hours to the Pacific and 4 hours to the Caribbean, so we can get there when we need a “beach fix”. International Living has brought lots of folks to Boquete. My only caveat is that prices have gone up considerably, and continue to rise, so some price information people pull from old International Living pages is pretty out of date. We live WELL on $4,000 a month, but I don’t play golf and my wife limits her massage appointments! But you could live VERY WELL here on $5,000 a month. Food costs more than we expected, as does medicine. If you want to get a feel of rentals look at Boquete.ning.com – kind of our bulletin board here. I’d think twice about bringing down a car. Most folks have found it more expensive than purchasing here and lots of frustration. We brought down our furniture because its “ours” and we’re attached to it, but, you can pretty much find everything in Panama City. You might want to bring in overstuffed furniture, but anything rattan or wood, buy here. You’re coming from a major port city so it should be relatively easy to share even a 20 ft container.
” I’m a single guy in my 40’s living in Miami Beach and thinking of moving to Panama City. What is the night life like? The Bay looks beautiful: is it good for swimming? ” Sorry, but I have to include his email handle . . . Spoiledrichkid
Panama City is a vibrant Latin capital where the night life starts at 10pm and goes until morning. You’ll find lots to keep you busy! However, Panama City is not Miami Beach. And forget about swimming in the Bay! One of the problems, and challenges, of Panama is that all of the waste from Panama City is dumped untreated directly into the Bay, so nobody but poor kids in shanty towns would think of going into the water. The good news is that there are fantastic beaches within an hours drive from Panama City, or a puddle jump flight out to some of the Pearl Islands, one of the areas where “Survivor” was filmed.
“My husband and I are looking into relocating to Panama. We are in our early 30’s, so the retirement option is probably out. I have read a lot about reforestation but am not sure I buy it. I understand the only way to get residency, if you have some money to invest, is to use and attorney . . . there are so many on the internet. Is there someone you would recommend as reasonably priced and honest? “
You’re assuming many attorneys here are dishonest? Actually you’ll find that Panamanian attorneys are just as honest as their American counterparts, and maybe more so. For what it’s worth there aren’t as many lawyer “shark” jokes as in America. I think the key is to find a firm, as opposed to an individual attorney, who specializes in visas and immigration. Business Panama [www.businesspanama.com] specializes in a lot of these issues and might be a good place to start. The reforestation option is an interesting one that works for some people. As with everything in any foreign country, move cautiously, check out all the facts, and once you’re sure, then move ahead.
“I hear Panama City’s high rise buildings referred to as “Cocaine Towers”. Is Panama really a center for money laundering?”
It depends who you ask. Some locals tell me that money laundering is a “secret everyone knows about”, yet others say while there may be a few nefarious investors, most operations are legitimate investments. There are boutiques in high rent malls that continue in business year after year, yet nobody ever seems to buy anything. There are lodging operations which look perfect, yet never appear to have any quests. I’m told that the “secret everyone knows about” works like this. You build a tower that you show as costing $12M, when in reality the actual cost was $4M. You sell it to another S.A. (anonymous) corporation, and even if you pay some tax, you’ve so you’ve cleaned and pressed $7M. It helps if you have some key people with phantom jobs on your payroll. These are folks who may be paid $200K a year, who don’t ever show up to work at your place, but do have real, albeit poor paying jobs, in key places.
“Did you pay cash or finance your place if you did a loan? Is it more difficult to do a loan there? “
We “cashed in our chips” and got out of the Southern California real estate casino and bought our home in Panama with cash. You can also get a loan. A loan requires all the US paperwork and more. And getting a loan approved can take forever in Panama! Also, Panamanian banks will not loan you money after a certain age, and the loan must be repaid before you are 70. The thought is that once you are retired you will no longer be able to service the loan.
“With so much new building coming on line there do you have personal concerns as to Boquete losing the feeling that brought you there?”
Yes, it’s a concern. Like most people we want to see our investment grow, but at the same time, once we’re in, we’d like to “close the door” to prevent further growth. There are a lot of proposed projects for Boquete. Some of these will actually be completed, and others will die along the way. Local government is beginning to address growth and some of the challenges it brings.
“Is it feasible to rent a car and see the country safely in 2 weeks time? I’m very interested in the non-city experience in seeing rural Panama, both coast lines, the mountains etc.”
Absolutely. Driving in Panama City is a hassle and not for the faint of heart. But once you are outside of the city, driving is fine. Main roads are generally in good condition. Except for one small section of the Pan American Highway, now being rebuilt, the Pan American Highway is a good road and the 6 hour trip from Panama City to Boquete is interesting and gives one a good view of life for most Panamanians. All the major rental car companies have offices in Panama City and in David should you choose to fly to David and rent a car locally. Here’s my suggestion for 2 weeks.
Days 1-4 – Panama city area. You can hire a cab for $12 an hour. I can give you suggestions or you can check with the front desk of your hotel. See Old Panama, the old French area of Casco Viejo including the Canal Museum, Opera House and Golden Altar. See the Canal itself including the Miraflores Locks visitor center. Your driver can call and check the schedule so you are actually at the visitor center when a ship is in the locks. Arrange an all day tour to the Embera Puru through a company called Adventures In Panama. They will pick you up at your hotel and it will be a memorable day.
Days 5-6 – Stay at the beach. Decameron is an all-inclusive beach resort that’s about an hour from Panama City.
Is the area suitable for a single woman in her late fifties?
Days 7-10 – Fly to David, rent a car, and visit Boquete. We have hiking expeditions, river rafting, canopy zip line tours, coffee tours and more.
Days 11-12 – Fly to Bocas del Toro, a funky, laid back, somewhat noisy town in the Caribbean islands.
Days 13 – 14 – Fly to the San Blas Islands and visit the Kuna Indians.
Day 15 – Fly home.
That will give you a whirlwind tour of Panama and you’ll be anxious to return for more.
“What about the real estate tours? I understand these are sometimes free or at reduced prices.”
Have you been to a time share presentation? Understand that you will be somewhat of a “captive” audience to real estate developers and promoters. You will see their projects, but the tours are intentionally designed to steer you in certain directions and keep you away from locals.
The only real exception I know of is Jackie Lange’s Panama Relocation Tour which is a boots-on-the-ground tour that lets you see the real Panama, and meet real expats who will give you unrehearsed and uncoached answers about living in Panama. Plus Jackie is not selling anything, unlike many of the other tour operations where “presenters” pay to participate.
“Do many foreigners live in the area as they get into their late seventies and eighties?”
It remains to be seen. A lot of us have come here with the intention of spending the rest of our lives in Panama. We have seen some folks who have returned back to the states for medical reasons, mostly insurance and Medicare driven. There have been some projects designed tol offer US-style assisted living for folks as they get older, but none of these have actually gotten off the ground.. A live-in care giver and companion is still relatively inexpensive. Our medical care is good and relatively inexpensive, although generally not covered by insurance, and certainly not by Medicare. The biggest problem with hiring a live-in care giver is that you, or someone you pay, has to deal with the labyrinth of Panama labor law, Social Security, etc.
Generally by the time people are already in their eighties, it is harder to make the transition to a society that is new and radically different. The argument can be made that people will live longer when they retire to Panama just because the quality of life and the quality and personalized aspect of medical care is better than in the US. Both my wife and I fought high blood pressure in the states. Since coming to Panama both of our blood pressures have dropped at least 20 points. The air is pure, the food is locally grown, fresh, relatively pesticide free, and better. At least in Chiriqui we don’t have violent crime. Sure, there is the occasional violent crime, an spouse or lover who beats or kills, and we’ve had a few expats who’ve gotten mixed up in drug deals, but for the most part if you keep your nose clean and know your neighbors … which in MHO is more important and effective than living in a “gated and guarded” development … and have a few dogs, you’ll find living in Boquete a lot safer and happier than many places in North America and Europe. In Panama City, just like any big urban center any where in the world, there are some areas that are safer than others.
“Do roads ever get washed out due to the heavy rains?”
Sometimes. Usually when this happens they are repaired within a few days, or an alternate temporary route is devised. A bigger problem is trees that fall over the road due to heavy rain or wind or just the inside of the tree being infested with termites. These are usually cleared rather quickly by enterprising individuals who then sell the wood to coffee beneficios who use it to fire up the coffee bean dryers.
“Are you still enjoying it there?”
Absolutely! We love it! Is it perfect? No. Are there frustrations? Yes. But on the whole we love it and only wish we had made the move sooner. You have to accept that there is no perfect place on earth. Every place has some pluses and minuses, but the good of living in Boquete far outweighs any frustration. You have to have a little sense of adventure and be willing to accept a lot of cultural differences such as the difference between Panama time and “gringo time,” what sometimes is a much more polite society where it can take forever to “get down to business,” and that part of that politeness is that people tell you what they think you want to hear, which may not always be what you need to hear.
If you’ve lived in California with Santa Ana winds or Colorado with Chinook winds, you know what they are like. We get strong winds blowing down from the North generally off the volcano during January, February and early March. They are generally not continuous, but come and go. Some valleys and canyons feel them more than others. There is nowhere in the world that is perfect 100% of the time. I’d rather put up with a few windy days 3 months out of the year than deal with snow for 5 months of the year! We get strong winds in Palmira where we built our house, but we designed the house to accommodate the wind and it is oriented away from the winds.
“Do you feel it is best to buy an existing home or to have home built? There seem to be good reviews on a company called Pan-American Construction that builds in the new housing developments. Any knowledge of that company or opinions?”
This was an old email question, but I’ve included it because the company in question went out of business a few years ago leaving a number of folks high and dry. Whatever you do in Panama, as anywhere else, you need to do your due diligence and make a thorough investigation. Take your time and talk to many people, not just the reference names that are suggested contacts. Nose around. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. if it wouldn’t make sense in the states, why would it make sense somewhere else. The company referred to in the email was asking for 80% of the cost of construction up front. That wouldn’t make sense in the states, so why would it make sense in Panama? Being “American” or a US builder is no more guarantee of success than using a local, Panamanian builder. It is tough to build in Panama, but it can be done, if you are on site to supervise. The chances of building long distance and being happy with the result are minimal. If you intend to rent in Panama and live here during construction, go ahead and build. Otherwise, buy an existing home where you can see what you are getting and someone else has endured the hassles of building.
When we came ten years ago you pretty much had to build to get what you wanted. Now there is a healthy supply of “North American/European” type homes, and with the skyrocketiing cost of construction these existing homes are often available for for below replacement value.
“What do you actually DO?
Before we moved to Panama, this was the question we emailed to everyone we’d met in Boquete. Our greatest fear was retiring to Panama with nothing to do! Our friends would laugh and say, “We’re as busy as ever!” And it’s true! But the busyness you have here is busyness of your own choosing. You make the schedule. You do what you enjoy and you find new things to enjoy.
We have a lot more friends here because in California we were both so busy we really didn’t have time for friends. We socialize more, largely because we have time. You can be as busy as you choose to be!
Nikki runs our coffee farm and has been very active in a lot of community projects. I spend 4 to 6 months on board ship and when I am home I tend to want to chill, relax and be a homebody. On the ship I “eat out” all the time and part of my job is socializing so when I’m home I’m happy to be home and “off stage.” I write, blog, garden a little, take care of the “honey do” list that evolved while I was away, and often am working on lectures for the next cruise.
“How often do you do cruises?”
The easy answer: as often as possible! The real answer: it depends. Depends on the opportunities available and how interesting the itinerary is, and the arrangements. I’ve been to most of the Caribbean, and many of the islands have just become one Little Switzerland and Columbian Emeralds after another. I love the Canal trips because I get to talk a lot about living in Panama, but you can only do so many trips through the Canal and keep it interesting. I enjoy longer cruises to some of the more exotic destinations in the world. I’ve done two 106 day round the world cruises and hope to do another.
Sometimes. Generally she can come on board any time she wants and I just have to pay her air and tips. Nikki has about a one month tolerance on a ship. If it’s an itinerary that repeats, every voyage has the same or similar entertainers, same shows, same menus, etc. You can only read so many books! She did do two months with me around Africa and the itinerary was loaded with ports that were new to us and interesting. It’s different for me: I’m working. On the ship we usually end up having dinner together, naturally “eating out,” and going to a show, unless we’ve seen it a dozen times, or sitting in the cabin reading. TV is mostly repeats as well if it is an itinerary that repeats. World cruises are different: there is an endless stream of fly-on-fly-off guest entertainers, different menus and everything is kicked up several notches. Plus in our case we have to find a house-sitter who loves dogs!