I like Jackie Lange and I like her Panama Relocation Tours. Before she decided to leave Texas and move to Panama she had read my book ESCAPE TO PARADISE, now THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE: OUR EXPERIENCE LIVING & RETIRING IN PANAMA. When her real estate investor friends in the US, and turns out she’s quite an expert in real estate investing and has a huge following, were fascinated by her decision to move to Panama and wanted to come down and see it for themselves, she kind of backed into doing tours and the result is Panama Relocation Tours. I like the tour because nobody is selling anything! They are boots-on-the-ground tours that let you see some of the places expats like to call home and talk to real expats and learn their unfiltered experiences. Unlike some of the big outfits that promote seminars and materials for folks interested in an international expat lifestyle, Jackie goes out of the way to give an unfiltered view of life in Panama. And she’s checked out Ecuador too, so she can give you her comparison of the two places. Ecuador is another place some of these big outfits are promoting.

Sometimes Jackie has invited me to tag along with the tour which I love doing when I can. Sometimes Jackie gets a little over-enthusiastic and we tend to balance each other. Yes, a lot of local folks in Boquete DO speak English, or a little English. And if you stammer around in your limited Spanish they feel free to try out their limited English and communication takes place. Many of the locals in Boquete are trying to learn English, while the expats try to learn Spanish. I have a Panamanian friend who jokes, “It’s a toss-up which language everyone will speak most in the future.” Sometimes I think Jackie pushes the “less expensive” argument for Panama too much when I think the stronger argument is that Panama offers a BETTER LIFESTYLE albeit still for less than many places in the US, Europe and Canada.

I thought this recent piece by Jackie was excellent … and for more go to her Web page.  She offers a free booklet, HOW TO FUND YOUR LIFE OVERSEAS , which seems maybe at first blush a little over-enthusiastic, except I know that Jackie uses these strategies, and I know others who do as well … and they work!   It helps if, like Jackie, you have unending energy.  When I’m stumped I go to one of our TWO Jackies.  If it’s a computer issue I go to our resident computer whiz Jackie Kuo.  And for almost everything else, I go to Jackie Lange!  One of the neat things about living internationally in a place that HAS an expat community is that you HAVE a community of friends and connections … if they don’t know, they’ll know someone who does know.  Friends can tell you the best place to by pork in David.  It’s an unmarked, unadvertised butcher and  you’d never find his store unless someone told you.  While most of what you need is available in David, finding it can be a challenge, so you ask around.  Someone in the expat community will know.

So do you just dream and read about Panama, or do you actually do something about it?  I’m happy that 10 years ago we picked up and made the move.  What a marvelous adventure it has been.

Last night we had a couple over for dinner who first came to visit on one of Jackie’s tours.  I was off at sea t the time, so had never met them.  What a neat couple!  Younger than many of the expats moving to Panama, they decided, based in part on what they had seen in their parents lives, that there was more to life than just doing business and making money.  While they were healthy and active they wanted the adventure!  So they are renting a tiny, tiny … did I say tiny? … casita, kind of back and forth … checking out areas in Boquete where they would like to live … then going back to the States to sell off properties and business.  Their primary business can be totally run from Panama.  As it they already deal with their customers by phone and Internet and not face-to-face.  They can do that just as well while living the adventure in Panama, as they would shivering in North America.

Relocating to a Panama will be much easier if you move to a community where there are already many expats. With an established expat community English will be widely spoken at the banks, doctor offices, restaurants and other services like cell phone or internet providers. It will be easier to get things done.

The two main expat communities in Panama are Coronado and Boquete. There are about 2,500 expats in Boquete and most of the expats live there full time. Boquete has a population of 25,000 so about 10% of the population are expats.

In Coronado, I’m not sure how many expats there are but I see expats often when I’m there. In Coronado, approximately 40% of the expats are Canadian, 30% Americas and the rest are primarily European. My guess would be that there are more total expats in Coronado than Boquete but fewer of them live in Coronado full time.

No one knows for sure how many expats are in Panama because there is no requirement to register with any Embassy.

There are also a lot of expats in Panama City but expats are harder to find because it is such a large city with almost 3 million people.

Other areas like El Valle, Las Tablas, Sante Fe, David, Volcan and Puerto Armuellas certainly have expats living there but not as many as Coronado or Boquete. English is not widely spoken in any of these areas.

COMMUNICATION

The good thing about living in Boquete is that English is widely spoken. The bad thing about living in Boquete is that English is so widely spoken that you don’t need to learn Spanish. It’s much harder to learn Spanish if you live in an expat community. There are language schools readily available if you take the time to participate.

In non-expat communities few locals will speak English. So you will need to learn at least some Spanish before you make the move. A smile and “Buenos” goes a long way!

There are several online Spanish classes. I really like http://www.WarrenHardy.com because he also explains the Latin culture and WHY it is important to say or do certain things. Warren’s course is specifically designed for people over 40 and the way we learn.

In non-expat communities, because English is not widely spoken, it will be harder to get anything done and this could cause frustration. The solution, initially, is to hire an interpreter or find a bi-lingual expat to help you get settled.

When I went to get my driver’s license I hired an interpreter to go with me. Much to my surprise, everyone spoke English at the office where you get your driver’s license.

Panama is a Spanish speaking country so it is good to learn at least some Spanish. The more you learn, the easier your life will be in Panama. Plus you will not be limited to speaking only with other expats or only Panamanians who speak English.

Because there are so many expats living in Panama, some service providers now have English speaking support. If I have problems with my internet service, I can select #2 for English when I call support. If I need to call my 24/7 information line at either of my banks in Panama I can press #2 for English support. Plus they speak English at the local office too.

ACTIVITIES

When you live in an expat community there will be plenty of weekly activities like music events, theater, poker games, yoga classes, art shows, Zumba, chili cook-offs, and plenty of charities to get involved in. Some restaurants also have trivia or bingo nights.

In expat communities there seems to always be a reason for a party or a get-together. That’s certainly the case in Boquete. This Friday is Halloween. There are 4 parties with live music and dancing.

In non-expat communities you’ll need to create your own expat activities. There may be some activities but they will not happen often. A few months ago one of the restaurants in Volcan featured BBQ and live music for lunch.

Expats who live in expat communities seem to be much more social. They like going to lots of events and hanging out with other expats. Of course, you don’t have to participate but the events will be readily available.

Expats who live in non-expat communities seem to prefer not to be so social. They are perfectly happy enjoying the beautiful scenery in Panama.

If you need social events, you’d do better in an expat community.

PRICES

Housing will usually be more expensive in an expat community. We’ve certainly see that in Boquete. When the first wave of expats started moving to Boquete 10 years ago they came with wads of cash then built big houses. They drove the prices up. Now, a large percentage of the inventory of houses for sale now is these large houses.

Finding a house for less than $100,000 in an expat community in Panama is not easy to do. They are out there but they are hard to find.

Yet in non-expat communities buying a house for less than $100,000 is much easier to do. I’ve even seen nice houses on large lots priced at less than $50,000 in non-expat communities.

Rentals in expat communities could cost twice as much as a non-expat community. An example is the furnished house I rented when I moved to Boquete was $600 per month for a 2 bedroom, 2 bath house. A similar house in David is only $250- $300. David is hot and you need air conditioning so your utility bill will drive up your monthly costs. In Volcan the same house would cost $350 to $400. In Coronado, the same house would rent for about $800 per month.. even more if it were close to the beach.

In Las Tablas, Panama Relocation Tours meets with a lady who rents a nice furnished 1 bedroom house for $180. Another couple I know there rents a furnished 3 bedroom, 2 bath house for $400 per month. It’s hot in Las Tablas so you’ll have additional expenses for air conditioning.

If you live in an area like Boquete or Volcan, or anywhere above 3000 feet, the weather will be spring like year round so you will have no need for an air conditioner. This saves a lot of money on utility bills. If you live at a lower elevation it will be hotter and more humid so you will have additional utitlity costs.

The quality of homes in expat communities will usually be much better than the quality of homes in non-expat communities (unless you pay more money). Hot water at every faucet is NOT a given in Panama. But in expat communities you are much more likely to have hot water at every faucet in the house.

If you want to live close to an expat community but you’re on a limited budget, you can usually reduce your costs if you move 15 or 30 minutes away. You’re still close enough to participate in all the activities. Caldera is about 20 minutes away from downtown Boquete. Last year an expat bought a 2 bedroom house on a large lot for $35,000 there. You’d never find that price in Boquete.

We strongly recommend that you rent for at least 6-12 months before you even think about buying a property in Panama. In some cases, it makes more sense to just be a renter and not buy. Rents are affordable. Renting gives you the flexibility to try out a variety of different areas in Panama. Buying is easy but selling could take many years.

CONVENIENCES

In expat communities you are more likely to have a wide variety of restaurants with very good food. Some of these will be expat owned. In Boquete we have traditional Panamanian food, fish restaurants, Italian, Mexican, German, Peruvian, French, Spanish, Pizza, Egyptian, sandwich shops, etc.

In non-expat communities your choices for eating out will be very limited unless it is a larger town like David which has a population of about 180,000. David even has a McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Subway plus a plethora of other restaurants. You will not find these “chain” type restaurants in small communities.

David also has many very nice grocery stores, department stores, and hardware stores. David also has a PriceSmart which is like a Sam’s or Costco. Luckily, it’s about a 30 minute drive from Boquete to David on our new 4 lane highway so it is quick and easy to get shopping.

Even in small expat communities like Boquete and Coronado you’ll have a better chance of finding the grocery or pharmacy items you want. In small non-expat communities like Sante Fe, Las Tablas or Volcan there will be less of a selection so you’ll need to make occasional trips to a larger town to get the things you need.

IN CONCLUSION

There are always trade-offs.

Moving to a non-expat community will be more affordable and have a bigger upside potential if you buy. As more expats move in to the area it will be converted in to an expat community with more services, more restaurants, and more amenities. Home prices will go up as there is more demand. But you need to learn Spanish.

Moving to an already established expat community will make your transition much easier.. you’ll have more social activities, and you’ll have more conveniences ..but all that comes at a price. You’ll pay more to live in an expat community. English will be spoken at most places.

Where you decide to move to in Panama will depend on your personal preferences and your budget.

No matter what you’ve read about each area in Panama or seen on videos, you can’t really get a “feel” for what it will be like until you go visit the town and visit with expats who live there. You need boots on the ground.

PanamaRelocationTours.com will show you a VARIETY of different areas during our 6 day all-inclusive tour. You’ll get the chance to meet with expats every day of the tour. Panama has something for every budget and every preference. Come see what it’s like to live in Panama.

Join us on a Panama Relocation Tour in 2015 to find your paradise!