Eyes Wide Open

The following came from on one of the Yahoo Panama Groups. The author wrote this to balance some of the “Panama is Perfect in every way” posts that are portrayed on the commercial (for profit) websites and sometimes on the Panama Yahoo groups. Panama is not for everyone. If you are considering Panama as a retirement location, then you need to decide with your Eyes Wide Open.

I have read his post a couple of times and really can’t find anything that I completely disagree with. The author has had some experiences that I haven’t had, but until you feel comfortable that you understand what you are getting into, then a little caution can’t hurt. I sent the author an email for permission to repost it on Chiriquí Chatter. I haven’t heard back, but I am assuming that the author will have no objections.

To the newbies to these boards, please take time to read this whole diatribe; it contains information that you may not know or have not thought about prior to our visit or move to Panama. Consider me the voice of experience, one who cares whether you have a pleasant vacation or move to Panama. Eyes wide open.

I have seen repeated instances of a practice that sickens me with a few of the expat community that I think needs to be expressed on these boards. This is what I have seen and experienced; if it does not apply to you or you are considering moving to Panama, be forewarned. After pointing out a few of the other warts and wrinkles, I will get to the practice that I speak.

Like others have said, Panama does have its warts and for some, these warts can become a major irritant or cause them to wonder whatever possessed them to move or visit here in the first place. Let me also preface my remarks by saying that if you are considering moving to Panama, please, please, please, RENT for AT LEAST six months, but better yet, one year. Repeat that to yourself. This will give you enough time to see the warts and decide for yourself if they are small blemishes or things that would drive you crazy that you cannot live with.

Unless you plan to buy a high-end sports car, money does NOT buy speed in Panama, on service or anything else. As you already know, money cannot buy respect anywhere and this includes Panama. If anything, you will be resented and targeted for future opportunities for fleecing if you flaunt this attitude. Do not come here and play high roller unless you have the cash to back it or don’t care if you are taken advantage of.

If you are not a patient person to begin with, you should be prepared to learn to be so or go insane. Panamanians view time very differently than Norte Americanos, if you are told an hour, it might turn into two, three or four. It could also turn into never. Do NOT expect a courtesy call to cancel an appointment; more likely than not, none will be forthcoming. Mañana, pron. Mun-YAH-na, or tomorrow, easily turns into otra manana (day after tomorrow), or days and weeks later. It can and often means NEVER.

Do NOT under any circumstances loan money, no matter how small an amount to anyone, INCLUDING other gringos; experience has taught me that to do so opens you to everyone and that there is a good chance you will either not get your money back or you will have to chase it down. Do not pre pay for ANYTHING, you will not get either the service or goods or if you do, it will be substandard simply because they already have your money so it’s too bad if you are dissatisfied. They could not care any less and you WILL NOT get your money back. Even under the most blatant and ridiculous circumstances, Panamanian law usually favors Panamanians so you have little to NO recourse.

When you arrive via Tocumen or Allbrook and are sure of where you are and where you are going, do not accept taxi rides without first confirming a rate for the service. There will be a contingent of taxi drivers lined up to offer you their ¨service¨ (read separate you from your money¨). Short distances inside set city boundaries should only cost a dollar, across set boundaries, extra passengers and luggage add up to more. Know where you are going or ask the driver to show you a map outlining how many boundaries in the city are going to be crossed. Each boundary should only cost a dollar. By Panamanian law, they must do this if they really want your business.

Unscrupulous taxi drivers have set up a ¨deal¨ with the government authorities at the only international Panama City airport (Tocumen) to fleece newcomers out of far too much to ferry them to their destinations within the city limits and have eliminated all competition, so be forewarned. If you let them, they will start offering to carry you and your luggage for forty dollars or more, claiming that it is a great distance to your destination and a great bargain. Remember, you are in Panama, not New York City. You might get a great tour of Panama City when all you really needed was a short ride to the Riande Hotel, just a few blocks away. The funny part of this is that if the newcomer has enough strength, resources and travel companions with them, they can WALK out of this trap and find a reasonable taxi or bus within a block or so of the airport. As of this writing, to my knowledge, nothing is being done to address this problem.

If you buy or rent in the interior, be prepared for frequent water and power outages. Roads and other infrastructure are under constant construction and no advance notice is ever given prior to these services being interrupted. You may find yourself in the middle of a bath or shower and suddenly have no way to rinse should this happen. Save your plastic containers for just such an emergency. Two and a half liter soda bottles seem to work very nicely for this purpose. If you require twenty-four hour a day electrical service guaranteed for a medical condition, forget Panama unless you are wealthy enough to afford battery backup for any period of time.

VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: Under NO conditions should you allow anyone into your home that you have not known for a great deal of time and trust explicitly. The only exception is workers and then you should supervise them closely. If your new `friends’ want to visit, make sure it is OUTSIDE your home, preferably on your front porch, in a park, restaurant or some other public place, NEVER in your home. If you do break this rule and do not have a guest bathroom that is separate from all other rooms, be prepared to have your valuables and medicine cabinets gone through or looted while they ‘borrow’ your bathroom. Keep your valuables totally hidden, or better yet, in the states or your home country, never in plain sight or in obvious places.

It should be understood, but NEVER leave cash lying around, even small change, it can turn ‘nice’ people into thieves very quickly. NEVER loan your cell phone and always keep it on your person. Leaving your jewelry in your home country is really the best advice. Do not ever forget that a dollar here is like five or ten at home, and unless you are fabulously wealthy and do not care about money, this is a definite no-no. Just to be very honest, I was recently robbed of not only my cellular phone, but also my diamond wedding ring that I put in a bedside drawer after being warned of wearing it in public. This lesson cost me over fifteen hundred dollars. This may represent a mere pittance to you, but the sentimental value is lost forever to me and the thief doesn’t care one way or the other. If you do loan your telephone or anything else, it is considered carte blanque from then on and you will wonder why your ¨friend¨ grabs YOUR telephone to make his or her personal calls without asking if this arrangement is ok with you in advance.

If you do decide to live here, do everything you can to learn Spanish if you do not already speak the language. Remember, you are in THEIR country and most of you find it irritating and rude when ‘foreigners’ do not speak your tongue in your country. YOU are the foreigner here, not THEM. If you choose not to learn the language, you are at a severe disadvantage. Also, remember that speaking English louder and louder does not raise the chance of suddenly turning a Spanish speaker into a linguist who will magically understand perfect English, but it WILL increase the chances of a confrontation suddenly turning very ugly. I myself have not made this mistake, but I have seen others who have. It is not pretty. Spanish is one of the romance languages; spoken can be quite beautiful. Keep that in mind. Once you do learn Spanish, other romance languages become much easier to learn.

To the average Panamanian, you are a rich Americano, whatever nationality you are, they tend to believe all who can afford to come to Panama must be rich and therefore you are easy pickings for some of them if you show any sign of kindness. Kindness to a great many of them is seen as a weakness to be exploited whenever possible. Do not loose your manners or common courtesy when visiting or living in Panama; just be sure to bear the preceding in mind. Please also bear in mind that this is not a blanket condemnation of all Panamanians, just a hint to not fall into the trap of being overly generous or friendly with anyone in order to ¨fit in¨ of make a friend. All this does is make potential thieves out of otherwise decent people.

If you are not a retiree and think you will be able to find a job in Panama, FORGET IT until you have either been handed a written contract with a company here that has at least nine Panamanian employees and all proper paperwork apostilled in your home country’s Panamanian consulate. Even arriving with all the aforementioned, expect at least a three to four month wait while your Panamanian attorney pushes the papers through the immigration and labor departments here to obtain your official work permit. Bring enough cash or have access to enough to survive at least that long or you will be in for a major surprise that could seriously jeopardize your financial health. If you are wealthy enough to start or buy your own business here, my hat is off to you, but also remember to check out all the regulations and conditions attached to owning such prior to plopping down your cash. Panama loves beauracracy and everyone wants to get a finger in your pie. Do NOT let anyone here tell you on these boards or via e-mail that you will be able to get work and not to worry about making a living here.

If you do not speak Spanish, find a local you feel you can trust right away and let him or her do your talking for you when it comes to renting or buying a house, else suffer the gringo pricing scam. For what a Panamanian would pay in rent, you will be expected to pay double or more and be happy for the privilege of doing so. Never let the owners know in advance you are the true buyer or renter, which is what the local is for, to get the actual asking price and not the gringo price. Once the price is established, go with the local to the owner and get your contract.

Rental houses and apartments are hard to come by here in the interior, furnished ones even more so. Panama City is the exception, not the rule, but even saying that they are very overpriced on these boards. In the city, be prepared to pay American prices for comparable digs you enjoy at home or more.

If having hot water in your home is important to you, be prepared to have it installed yourself, Panamanians for the most part have no use for or can afford a hot water heater. Also, be prepared to have large furniture and appliances delivered days after you purchase them if you intend to do so here. They do have every modern appliance for sale here and by American standards, usually at very reasonable prices. However, getting them from the store to your new home is a whole other ball game, especially if you do not own or have access to your own truck. Get used to hearing other people tell you they will help you do anything and then after the fact handing you a bill or telling you that you now owe them X amount for their ‘help’. This includes other gringos.

And now for the practice I spoke of in the beginning, the one that may get me invited to not post here any more. I have been a member of several Panama forums for quite some time and have noticed that there are others who post here that paint a rosy picture of their lives in Panama on the boards but privately tell others how much they actually detest it here and even some who have outright said that they hate Panamanians and think most of them stupid and backwards. If you are new to these boards and post your interest in living or visiting here, they will be among the first to reply to you, tell you how much they love it here, and encourage you to come on down right away if possible. They may also tell you to contact them via email off the boards. Should I say more?

The fact is they have an agenda that you do not know about. They are hoping to lure you to the community THEY bought into and convince you it is the ONLY place to live in Panama, your only sane option. They usually live in gated communities designed for gringos who have bought into the notion that all Panamanians are not to be trusted and the only reason to consider living here is the relative lower cost of living.

The bottom line is, if you do sign on the dotted line to buy a house in the community they live in, they in turn get a hefty kickback from the developer, who does not and would not even live in said community him or herself. They may even offer to let you stay with them in their home for a week or two so you can see just how lovely Panama and their community is, all the while trying to subtly or not so subtly convince you to sign a contract to buy a house there. After that, they will probably lose all interest in being your friend because they assume in time you will grow to hate Panama as much as they do and become angry with them because of it. Common sense folks, common sense. Do not leave it in your home country.

Doctor Hall posted a few weeks ago about the hate he and his son see in Panama and I tend to agree with him. Even though some apparently did not quite understand what he was speaking of, I think I did. I wasted a lot of time and money after arriving in Panama dealing with most of the things I have mentioned here. Everyone here seems to think himself or herself a realtor, most have no credentials to back up any of it. The thing I hate is the aforementioned people who would readily stab another expatriate in the back in order to make a buck for him or herself. Even though North Americans have enjoyed a relative closeness with the Panamanian people for almost one hundred years, there is still a contingent of Panamanians who resent the fact we are here or coming here and see us as a negative influence on their culture. A great many of them do not want to see a Macky Dee´s or Wal-Mart on every corner, and I for one don’t blame them one bit.

In conclusion, after having lived here for quite some time, I still love this country and want others to know that with the right attitude and frame of mind, it can be done. It can be a wonderful, life enriching experience. There are bad people everywhere so I do not mean to imply that only bad people live in or come from Panama. “They” are everywhere. If you see yourself in any of my diatribe, save us both the time and resist the urge to engage in flame wars with me. I have neither time nor patience for such drivel. You have already helped me waste valuable time and resources because of your issues and bullshit, but to your credit, I am now wiser and not cynical about the possibility of living my life in Panama or dealing with the likes of you. I have no axes to grind and no agenda to fulfill other than trying to get by on what little resources I have.

On a personal note, if you do decide to buy or rent here, tip the bagboys heavy at the supermarkets. Most if not all are not paid by the markets they work for and depend on tips to make any money at all. A majority come from dirt-poor families and need the money to help support said families, so give them a break by tipping heavy, especially when they help you get a taxi or load your groceries into your car. They will not ask for it, but they do thank you profusely when they realize you are not an ungrateful slob. It also helps change the attitude some have that all North Americans are cheap assholes. If you can afford to move to Panama, you can afford to do at least this one small thing. It just makes it easier on all of us that are already here and those yet to come.

One more word of caution. Be VERY careful to check out the neighborhood you choose to settle in. The one I chose turned into a nightmare of barking dogs and crowing roosters almost every night, sometimes half the night. The owners of said animals are apparently deaf and don’t mind their animals keeping the light sleepers awake. I also only realized after the fact that my neighbors on one side think dumping their raw sewage into their yard by my kitchen window is preferable to putting in a pipe to the city system a few feet away. Check EVERYTHING carefully. Take nothing for granted when thinking of renting or buying.

24 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Open

  1. Me thinks, Don Ray, that you are going to have more than a few comments regarding this post. But I’ll refrain except to say that I’ve always found that kindness has been repaid with kindness. In fact, I can’t think of a single instance in Latin America or Brasil where kindness on my part was used as an opportunity for exploitation. Oh, one more thing: of course, there is going to be a gringo price and a Panamanian price. That sort of thing exists in the United States–legally.

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment Tom. I think the main thing to take from the author’s post is that this is Panama and not the US. If you are going to expect all your personal and business experiences in Panama to reflect your experiences in the US, then you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment.

    I have come across honest and dishonest Panamanians. Of course I knew honest and dishonest citizens of the US as well. Probably the ones that are going to try to take more advantage of trusting gringos in Panama will be other gringos and not Panamanians.

    I use the cab a lot in David. I always pay what the cab driver asks. However, I have recorded the numbers of the ones that have charged correctly and will remember the ones that charged too much.

    I think it is better to come knowing potential problems to watch out for, than to think you are moving to paradise as the sales brochures state.

    I think it is important to understand that the bag boys in most if not all of the supermarkets are only working for the tips. I try to let the bag boys take my bags to the car even when I can do it, because I know they need the money.

    I agree with you that in most cases I have also found that kindness begets kindness and I think you will find that thought spread through most of what I write. However, I have also had some experiences in Panama where my kindness was an opportunity for theft. Luckily, I consider that the exception rather than the rule.

    I personally hope that everyone that comes to Panama has a positive experience. But if people move here expecting cheaper living than the US with no other offsetting factors, then I predict disappointment.

  3. Hey Don I totally agree on the Gringos taking advantage of other Gringos. I had only 1 bad experience in Costa Rica and that was with another American, freakin Scam artist!

  4. Hello Don:

    I am a panamanian and from the interior.I agree with everything in the articule. And yes, there are bad and good people everywhere. But like you Don always say, kindness brings kindness and respect no matter where you are.

    When my husband was in the service, we had the opportunity to live in different parts of the world. And the thing that always irritated me was hearing americans complaining that things were not like US. So if you move to Panama or any place besides the US, don’t see everything through the back-home-way glass.

    My comment about the gringo price and the panamanian price is that the people moving there are the ones to blame. And you would do us a favor by not paying gringo prices. The other day my niece was buying a lot to build her house and was commenting about the good deal she got on the lot. And she added “but don’t let gringos know or the prices will up”.

    La Chiricana

  5. Hi, Don. I visit the site every day but don’t have much time to comment. This post warrants a quick comment, though. First, let me say that I think the poster is perfectly correct in all of his observations.

    My take on life here is as follows. If you qualify for pensionado status, you shouldn’t have too many problems here. You have to be careful not to get conned with property but, apart from that, I don’t see too many pitfalls. Your contact with the Panamanian “system” (Immigration, Customs, Police) will be minimal and, by and large, you will be treated with respect. Most ordinary people are likeable and friendly enough.

    If you come here in any other capacity, however, the situation is quite different – and I speak from personal experience. I lived in Costa Rica for many years and only moved here for my kids’ sake. My wife refuses to live in San Jose (for which I can’t blame her) and David seemed a good alternative. My problem is that I am self-employed, not a pensionado. Before moving here, the Immigration office told me I would have no problem getting residency. As soon as I arrived, however, everything changed. A year on, I am no closer to getting a resident’s visa.

    In 25 years’ living in CR I never paid a bribe. Here I found myself having to pay one in 25 days! I have met a lot of really nice honest, local people but the “system” is totally corrupt and officialdom make life as difficult as they possibly can. They want to keep foreigners out and, if that isn’t possible, to squeeze them for all they can. I have met quite a few people that fall into this category and they all tell a similar story. Eventually, many just give up and go back where they came from, wiser and a little poorer.

    So, Panama is a question of “horses for courses.” If you “fit” the government’s profile, you’ll probably enjoy life here. If not…. don’t bother coming!

  6. La Chiricana – Thanks for leaving a comment. You raise a valid points an I am glad to hear it from a Panamanian’s point of view.

    Disappointed – Thanks also for your comment. I hear your frustration and I understand where you are coming from. However, 2007 is going to be a better year. Let’s hope that you get your visa worked out soon.

  7. If I had the writing eloquence of the poster, I could have truthfully written the same post as he did. I base this on my experience of having lived in Boquete from November, 2002 until June, 2006.

    I will make one exception to his post, however, and that is about furniture and appliance delivery. I gave our housefull of furniture to our oldest son before we moved from Costa Rica to Boquete so it was necessary for me to replace all of it.

    I received excellent discounts and FREE delivery from two retailers in David, Muebles de Brasil and Audio Foto. The prior has it’s own delivery trucks and in the case of the latter store, the store manager paid for the delivery out of his own pocket. I assume that his employer reimbursed him for this out of pocket expense.

    As I have written before, we moved back to Costa Rica last July. I have found some of the same negative occurrences that the article mentioned also happening here in Costa Rica. Yet not to the degree and frequency that I experienced while living in Panamá.

    Allen McDonald, El Galloviejo®

  8. Thanks for leaving a comment Allen.

    I think your writing ability is very good. I read the three part piece from the URL attached to your name above.

  9. Like the others I agree with the original poster. He didn’t touch on banking though. Never had an ATM withdrawal problem in the US in over 20 years, had 3 here in 3 years, and not trivial to get a debit reversal for cash requested but not received. Happens to other people I know too. Also I had a credit card fraud of almost $6000 that appears to be from a retailer in David. Never had a problem in the US.

    Oh, the loose dogs not only bark, they bite too.

    One last comment about gringo prices, the jacked up prices affect everybody, even other gringos. Don’t do it. Take your time and pay the right price.

  10. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Costabaru.

    I have only had one ATM problem in almost 4 years. I called my Credit Union and they worked it out with the Bank, but it did take 4 days. Wasn’t too bad.

    I also had a credit card problem on my exploratory visit to Panama. I used my card at a restaurant and the next day I tried to use my card for a hotel and it was rejected. When I finally got to talk to the CC Company, they said it had been stopped for potential. The card had been used to order $3000 worth of jeans. Each order was about $300. On the eleventh order they put a hold on the card.

    I also concur with your final statement.

  11. Do you guys use American credit cards or Panama? I just contacted my 3 US credit card companies to let them know of my trip to panama and had them update me on the FEES…all I want to add is this: you would be PLUM crazy to use an ATM for cash advances or purchases (use strictly for an emergencies ONLY) out the States! Your trip will end up costing you double.

  12. I do the same as Don Ray. My US credit union debit ATM card has no fees here unlike my US bank debit card which charges 1% and therefore I no longer use here.

  13. I totally agree and understand the “Debit Card” route. I have read 100’s of blog posts from travel sites where people talk about $ and travel and people comment that they use there US “credit” cards for money and purchases ONLY. No wonder this country is in HOCK up to its rear in Debt!

  14. The comment about not thinking you can spend more money to speed things up in Panama is right. Spend what it costs and be patient, as the posters also have said.
    This is an informative board with well thought out comments. I’m glad I found it.
    Hi Allen!

  15. Everyone has said “pay the right price.”

    How does one define the right price? That is a particularly difficult question if you are discussing items that people traditionally bargain for.

    As I mentioned earlier, even in the states there are different prices for different folks. It is not only legal, but there is no subterfuge–it’s blatant. For example, be from Alabama, go to Disneyworld, and see if you can get the Florida price. You can’t. Throughout the United States you will find one property tax rate for residents and one for non-residents. I have a good friend who is a plumber; the widow down the street is going to get a smaller bill than the multi-millionaire up on the hill. In some Connecticut towns, you’ll pay to go to the beach if you don’t live in the town. Can anyone say “Senior Discounts?”

    Seems to be that Panamian gringos should simply worry about not paying more than the gringo price.

  16. Tom – you are right it is a difficult problem. Some things will escalate in price and that is just the way it is. However gringos , many times due to ignorance, raise the bar. Start with simple things, tips for instance.

    Panamanians are conservative tippers. Many places, they don’t tip. If you are used to leaving a 20% tip when a Panamanian would leave 0 or 10 %, then you are having a negative effect on the economy.

    There are times when a gringo may not tip when they should, such as with the bag boys at the supermarket. Most work only for tips and deserve a reasonable tip.

    Buying property from a large development is a great way to increase costs. The developer will have bought land for a fraction of what he is going to sell it to you. Then he build you a nice house for a hefty price using labor that he is paying minimal wage. I have heard of developers that use the labor until they are approaching time to pay social security and then releasing them and hiring new.

    I think buying property in Panama can’t be done in a quick trip and hiring a good English speaking Realtor. You have to be in the area and become part of the community and learn the customs and get to know the people in the areas where you want to live.

    It is not easy. It is not for the faint hearted. It is not for those with serious health problems. It is not for those not wanting a little risk in their lives, but it will be an adventure. Whether it is a good or a bad adventure will depend on several things not all of which you can control.

  17. Hello.
    Nice to have read your words. I was a Baja California person for 12 years, and 40+ times from Seattle. Pretty much the same rules.
    What I would like to know from you is… can I bring my truck down to work? There are postings on CL.
    I was sent a ‘Dear Jane’ E-mail from my fiance last year. We live in the same town, I pass him constantly. Although it was I that introduced him to BCS, he has claimed it, my town, resturaunts & aquaintances for his own. He’s almost like ‘so in my face’. One country isn’t enough, I feel as though maybe if I put 2 or 3 between us, pour myself into my work,as I had before we met, I’ll be just fine.
    I know they have how many cubic yards of dirt to move? I’ve owned my own for 12 years, in the bus. for 22. Grandfather was a fairly large bridge contractor. I’m an operating engineer also. So, how do they feel about the girls on the jobs?

  18. Hi TG. Sorry for your misfortune. My recommendation would be to come down and visit. I can’t answer your questions related to your work, because it might be in need, however, in general all people who come from outside of Panama need a work permit to work in Panama. Better to check everything out before making the drive.

    Also that drive would not be something I would be looking forward to. Good luck.

  19. Very interesting article, and having lived here for 12yrs now, I
    enjoy every bit of it, why because I have adapted to the ways and
    the changes that occur here, and I can communicate with the
    community in Spanish. Honestly the only problem I have had is
    I like to help people , and so does my wife, and we have helped
    many Panamanians, and many Gringos that have come into the
    country new, and the surprising thing is it is the Gringos who have
    given us problems , and not the Panamanians, and I think it is
    because a lot come here with a bunch of money and think that
    everything should go their way, and I am talking from experience
    and these people know who they are, that we have helped, and
    they are the one that back-stabbed us, and not the Panamanians.
    However life goes on, and I and my wife still love it here in Panama.

Leave a Reply