Why Panama, and not, say Costa Rica, or Santorini, Ecuador, Bora Bora, or dozens of other beautiful places I’ve visited? Or just Florida or Arizona? People frequently ask me what is the most beautiful place I’ve visited in the world. Quick caveat: some places are insanely beautiful, and wonderful to visit, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to live there. Generally, I don’t like Florida. The weather is frequently fantastic, if you don’t mind evacuating every other year. Take for example St. Augustine. The riches history of anyplace in the US. The fort is an amazing national treasure. And the old wooden homes just north of the fort are gorgeous, if you don’t mind being flooded out every other year. I have lots of friends who live in Florida and love it, so I know it’s a whole lot more than just the urban sprawl of Miami/Ft Lauderdale. I thought maybe I could do Key West and join the Conch Republic, that is until I read LAST TRAIN TO PARADISE, all about Henry Flager and the rise and fall of the railroad he built to Key West.
When people ask me this question on the ship. while certainly preferable to the usual cruise passenger questions like, “Is this island surrounded by water?”, “Do the crew sleep on board?”, “Does this elevator go up or down?” … there’s a whole raft of those kind of questions! But the most frequent question is, “Why did you choose Panama?” I’d like to just tell them to buy my book THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE, which honestly I wrote because I was tired of being asked this question. I’ll give you the short answer to “Why Panama?” although if your even just considering Panama, or Ecuador, or even Arizona, it would be well-worth your $20 to buy the book.
By the time I turned 62 I was selling real estate in a busy, very active real estate market in Ventura, California. I’d always been interested in real estate, liked sometimes being a looky-loo and stopping at open houses in which I had no interest in buying, but was nosey enough to want to see inside. I was looking for a job which I could continue in retirement, working as much as I wanted, and pretty much being my own boss, and it used many of my different communication skills. Turned out I was pretty good at selling real estate and it was a hot market where you’d show a house, write the offer on the hood of our car, and offer more than the asking price hoping that at least the sellers would be willing to talk with us. My life was ruled by my cell phone and a new technological gimmick called a Palm Pilot. It was fun, busy, and profitable in a very beautiful area. We had an old house that I had totally renovated, DIY helped by a couple of teenagers who would become my friend, kind of like the sons I never had. Then one day, stressed by constant phone calls and Ventura County traffic, I came home, poured some rum over ice and said to my wife, “There comes a time when you need to cash in your chips and walk out of the casino, and for us, I think it’s time.”
My wife had enough years in with the County to retire as well. We could sell the house in an upmarket, live without being burdened by a mortgage, downsize to a simpler life, and begin a new adventure. Nikki ran a program for pregnant teenagers responding to a huge problem in Southern California and she loved her teen moms and teen dads and was great at it. But she was tired of the games the State continued to play with the programs and with the lives of kids, tired of constantly running to Sacramento to fight for funds while the State government could care less about the kids, and only cared about getting reelected. So she was an enthusiastic yes!
Throughout our married life although we will always have different ways of getting there, we always want to get to the same place and we like the same things. So with a dream in mind we began the work of figuring out what exactly we wanted. I’m convinced that many people don’t know what they want, and so they never know when they “get there.” Southern California and the “Gold Coast” of Ventura to Santa Barbara has one of the highest costs of living, so we knew that the only way we could do this was to find a less expensive place to live. But where? We both had business & operations background and we knew we couldn’t afford mistakes.
The first thing we looked at was our finances. Yes, we would come out well on the sale of our house, but like most middle class families money came in and money went out and in the end we had nothing left. So we looked at ALL our resources, no more hidden rainy day funds or piggy banks.
The second thing we looked at was what did we need and want. Each of us working totally independently came up with a list of 15 things we needed/wanted. Then we compared our lists, and not surprisingly, since generally we always agreed on goals, although we got there differently … many, make that most, of the things were on the other’s list, maybe in different order, but there. So we combined them to come up with a single list.
Now with our list of 15 Things, we acknowledged that some items were more important than others, and often in life you don’t get everything you want. So we said, if we had 100 points, how would we divide them up, with the items getting the most points being the most heavily weighted and the things we absolutely needed or wanted. This gave us a quantitative way to evaluate what we wanted/needed. There is a LOT more about this process in my THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA book and I’d encourage you to read it as part of your research. Doing so will probably save you thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars! Sure, we made some mistakes, mistakes which turned out to be very costly, and I don’t want you to make the same mistakes.
Now that we knew what we wanted we began our research in earnest. We read everything we could find, realizing the much of it was simply “BS.” or folks trying to cash in on your dreams selling books, reports, advice, tours and the like. Not all of it is bad, but some is, so be a cautious, careful consumer. Of course by now you know that just because something is in print, or on the Internet, doesn’t mean it is true. Thanks to Kelly Anne we know that “facts” aren’t always “facts,” although I haven’t quite figured that one out. Just holing up in your public library and reading travel books can spark your imagination, realizing, of course, that visiting a place can be quite different than living there. Use your vacation time to visit places that peak your interest, and look back through your journals and photos of past journeys and see if you can jog any memories of thinking, “This could be a fun place to live.” And look at the real estate listings to see if your dream spot is affordable for you.
After doing all our research the walls of my study were covered with pictures of beaches, churches, houses for sale, maps, articles, looking like one of those walls of police detective TV shows where they are working to solve a case. Interestingly there were no pictures of the place we would ultimately end up. Nothing beats boots-on-the ground, actually visiting the places where you think you might like to live. In Panama, where we’ve lived over 15 years, my friend, Jackie Lange offers a boots-on-the ground relocation tour that isn’t selling anything. In Panama, like most places in the world, everyone has an opinion, and here everyone considers themselves “experts” even if they’ve only lived here a few months, and go for coffee one morning at Sugar & Spice and they’ll give you their “expert opinions.”
One one cruise I met some folks from Embera Puru, a village deep in the Chagres Jungle where folks are preserving their lifestyle from the time when Columbus visited Panama! When I first met these folks, they were selling their baskets and carvings when the ZUIDERDAM visited Colon. They kept telling me they wanted me to visit their village. When I got home to California and tried looking up the Embera on line, there was very little available back then, but I did stumble on a lot of information about all the benefits for expat retirees in Panama. If you take the time to read many of the articles I’ve published here on Living In Panama you’ll find a wealth of information.
Our short list of countries was: the three US Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, and Panama. Five in all. We’d spent a lot of vacation time in the Virgin Islands: beautiful, but often dirty when you got off the touristy route. Using the US Dollar, mostly speaking English and territory of the US, were all big advantages. But crime was high, and knowing that if you had a relative in the judicial or law enforcement business meant you could get away with almost anything. Nice place to visit … BUT!
Everyone talked a lot about retiring in Costa Rica and Ticos are wonderful folks, but they have their own currency which, like many South and Central American currencies, sometimes fluctuates wildly. At the time the main industries were computer chips, tourism, and bananas. And since we retired Intel has cashed out of Costa Rica leaving the country dependent on tourism and bananas. Tourism alone can be fickle and how can you run a country on bananas?
Panama had a long relationship with the US, and like any long marriage has had good times and bad times. Most importantly the only currency Panama has ever used, although called the “Balboa” is in fact the US Dollar. And most of the world views the US Dollar as one of the most secure and stable currencies. Thanks to the US, Panama has the Panama Canal, greatly improved and expanded since the Canal turnover. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the Canal which, although outside of politics, is owned and operated by the Republic of Panama. At the end of the fiscal year, after paying all expenses, interest, bond payments, taxes, a sinking fund for future expansion, everything, whatever is left over is put into a check and presented to the government. That check has been running around $1.5 BILLION US which makes a huge impact in a nation of 4 million! Additionally the Canal has done small projects in smaller community, like our beautiful new children’s climbing facility and the covered and lit up basketball/soccer court. Call Panama a “Banana Republic” if you will, but institutions like the Gorgas Tropical Medical Research Institute and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Centers make an enormous impact on our understanding of our planet. Over 200 International Banks have operations in Panama. Many of the largest and most respected financial institituions, funds, and insurance companies are based in Panama. Of the world’s entire shipping fleet, 23% are registered in Panama. Because of it’s location “at the center of the world,” Panama has the second largest Free Zone in the world, second only to Hong Kong. It’s central location plus the Canal infrastructure and amazing Free Zone has made Panama the perfect place for distribution centers of the world’s largest international companies The International Red Cross/Red Crescent has recently opened a massive disaster relief operation right next to the runway at Tocumen International where it can store disaster relief supplies making it possible to respond quickly to the entire region. Tocumen International Airport expands year after year making Panama now the “Hub of The Americas.” One of the major reasons we chose Panama is that I sensed a perfect wave of prosperity was building, and that has proved to be the case.
Since the disastrous era of dictatorship, Panama has become a very successful democracy. Learning from Noriega, the President can only serve 5 years and cannot be reelected unless they sit out for ten years. They have five years to focus on doing the job, not raising money to get reelected. Yes, corruption and lack of transparency are problems, just as they are in every government. There are multiple parties, all generally led by slightly right-of-center businessmen and women. And yes, Panama has had a woman president, Myrea Moscoso.
Most importantly Panama is incredibly beautiful. In TAILOR OF PANAMA, John Le Carré describes Panama as having “everything God needed to make paradise. Great farming, beaches, mountains, wild life you wouldn’t believe, put a stick in the ground you get a fruit tree, people so beautiful you could cry.”