Moving to Panama Reality Check

This last week of protests have been a surprise to some of the newcomers to Panama. Nothing has changed from my perspective. In the nine years I have lived here, there have been multiple protests. Some are protests for valid reasons. Some are politically motivated. Some are instigated from countries like Venezuela. All can be dangerous to innocent bystanders.

No matter the reason, protests are a major nuisance to everyone. When I know of a potential protest, I avoid the area at all costs. If you watched the news this week, you saw stores being looted, car windows being broken, and for all practical purposes Panama City was shut down. If you get too close, you may wind up with your car pelted by rocks, hammers or worse. By the way, your insurance is probably not going to cover the damage.

The son of the patient in the Regional Hospital had to pay $60 to get from Albrook to Tocuman, a normal $30 ride. His cab driver had to go well out of his way to avoid the blocked streets. When he got to his hotel, the man that opened the door said, “todo es loco hoy”.

No one is going to learn of these disturbances by reading International Living. That publication will tell you that life is more tranquil, prices are lower, healthcare is great, food is abundant and you are missing the opportunity of a lifetime if you don’t check it out. I don’t remember seeing anything on CNN about these protests. You had to be here to know the impact.

Tom McCormack has three containers in Colon waiting to be transported to David. While he waits to transport them he is being charged a fine each day for not moving them. The sole purpose of these containers is to benefit the needy in Chiriquí.

You may be reading this thinking, well maybe I should consider Costa Rica instead. Think again. You may not have to put up with protests, but you will have other negatives that will outweigh protests. Crime is much higher. Costs are out of sight.

Lilliam’s sister just moved back to Costa Rica from the U.S. While she was visiting Lilliam, she bought several staples to take home with her. One was a couple cans of Wizard room spray. She said the cost in the U.S. was 99 cents. It was $1.80 here and it is over $8 in Costa Rica. Many, who live in Costa Rica, come to Panama to shop at PriceSmart.

The money in Costa Rica is Colons. However, most things you buy will be in dollars. Each time you convert money, you lose.

When you consider moving, it is wise to try before you buy. I tell everyone to live in Panama six months before making any decision to move here. Some people don’t like the rainy season and some don’t like the dry season. Some wind up not liking anything about Panama.

Live where you think you are going to move and experience what it is like. Deal with the bureaucracy. Experience the culture differences. I hope you have brushed up on your Spanish or at least plan on learning Spanish. Make a thorough examination of your healthcare options. Walk the aisles of the super markets. Go through the major building supply stores and compare prices and quality.

Make a list of what you require to be happy. Don’t leave anything out and be honest with yourself. Don’t just make a decision based on what you think the cost of living will be. Experience it. Don’t move because you are looking at the negatives of where you currently live. Remember, the grass always appears greener……….

Many think they will come here and live a life of luxury and have a maid and gardener because labor is cheap. The hourly cost of a maid or gardener may be reasonable. However, you have to factor in the increased risk of being robbed. Maybe not by the maid or gardener, but they have friends, and cousins and what you have will be known by all.

If you give your maid a key to your house to clean while you are not there, plan on her making several copies.

Don’t plan on employing a maid and gardener and not paying their social security. When they become disgruntled and quit, expect to hear from a Representive of the Ministry of Work after they have filed a claim against you.

If you are using Medicare in the US, guess what? It can’t be used here. Double check your insurance to see if it covers you in Panama. If it doesn’t cover you, buying insurance in Panama may be a little tough based on your age. Living in Panama without insurance is not a wise decision.

Without insurance, you are going to wind up in the Regional Hospital, if something serious happens. To this point, I have been requested to check on 9 US citizens that were in the Regional Hospital. Out of those 9, three left on their own two feet. One was lucky enough to get to a VA hospital in the US. One was medivaced to the U.S., but by the time he got there it was to late to make a difference. The others died.

Your chances in the Regional Hospital, or any hospital for that matter, are greatly reduced if you do not have some one checking in you constantly. You will most likely see a Panamanian family member sitting beside the bed of each patient who is critical.

Planning on moving here and building your dream retirement home? Expect the land and house costs to be as high or higher than the US. You may be better off buying something already built. At least then can see something up front. I have met several people that created plans, payed builders and were not here to monitor the building. When they returned they found that nothing had been done and the builder was nowhere to be found.

Think I am exaggerating? Ask around.

Check on the availability of water and typical electrical outages. You will need to have all electrical devices plugged into a voltage regulator. TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves. PCs should be on UPS.

If you live in a remote area, you will have limited choices for Internet and TV, if any. Plan on watching a lot of TV in Spanish. If you buy in a remote area and electricity only needs to be run 300 yards to get to where you want to build, plan on it not being there in five years.

Whoa! With all of that why should I move to Panama. Well, maybe you shouldn’t. That is why you need to do a serious reality check before moving.

I moved here being mislead like others. However, I have found much that I do like. I have had a diverse set of neighbors from Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Europe. I also have many friends that have moved here from the US.

I like the weather. I like having one type of clothes to wear year round. I like the slower pace of life. I like being able to drive an hour and being in the mountains, or the beach. I like eating fresh pineapple, mango, watermelon, papaya, and other locally produced foods. I like my electric bill being between $50 and $80 all year. I like paying $6 every two months for gas to cook with and for hot water.

I have adapted. I spoke no Spanish when I came, and while my Spanish is bad, I can now get by. I have plenty to keep me busy from my blog, to volunteering for the U.S. Embassy, to helping organizations such as Nutre Hogar, and reading books I never had time to read before.

What are you going to do here? If you don’t know, don’t move!

I did not write this post to dissuade anyone for following their dream and moving to paradise. I love it here. Those that come here with realistic expectations, should be happy. Those that don’t – won’t.

15 thoughts on “Moving to Panama Reality Check

  1. A very honest appraisal of what it’s like in Panama. We share your appreciation of how the positives outweigh the negatives!

  2. Good write-up Don Ray. My wife and I spent 4 months last summer building a house in Chiriqui, and we had to stay on the sub-contractors constantly. Even with that, things didn’t turn out 100% like we planned, and we have already had to go back a few times to fix problems. The family hadn’t been there 4 weeks, and someone cut through the chainlink fence and was attempting to enter the house through a window, before they were noticed. Had to put bars on all the windows, metal outer doors and an exterior gate for the car just for additional security.

  3. You’ve painted a realistic picture of the Panama experience. One can research “until the
    cows come home,” but living here is another story. Things you’ve never heard about or even considered, now become evident. Some are delightful surprises, others may leave you revolted. It’s a mixed bag you’ll be handed, and only you can decide if you want to keep it. Live here before you make the move you owe it to yourself and to the people here. Panama is fine as it is- but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fine for everyone.

  4. I would also add, that with little or no Spanish you will be at a huge disadvantage, considering studying before or after you arrive, and learn the language if you plan on staying for a while.

  5. Very good article Don, as having been here for 15yrs, there is a lot to be said
    about Panama, the good; the bad; and the ugly but adaptability and being
    careful will get you through.

  6. Costa Rica is out of control – the corruption is flagrant – it is almost as bad as Peru (Peru has the best cops that money can buy). every night on Peruvian national tv all you see is young punks throwing rocks through some government administration windows. It was necessary for me to sleep with a shotgun next to my bed.

    Panama is a very refreshing breath of air

  7. Well, Im sure no one wants to hear it but,frankly, this blog was not wery well writen. It was so choppy that it was really hard to follow There is a lot of truth to it, but, of course, everything depenfs on,where you live. I am going to make more comments when i have fewer Vofka Tonicas.

  8. Thank you Don.I had no problem following your blog.Very well put.If you come here with stars in your eyes you may welll go home sad.Hope this wasn’t too chopppie.

  9. My husband and I were in Panama for the first time last week. We have pretty much decided it will be the place we retire to, but we want to take a few more trips first. While there, we explored El Valle, Santa Clara, Farallon, Coronado, Chame, etc On our last night, we stayed at the Marriott Courtyard MetroMall. The day we were to fly out of Tocumen, we decided to visit the vendors on the overpass one last time, shop the outlets, stop in the casino and then have lunch at the mall. While on the overpass shopping, we heard one vendor yell to the next and to the next and so on. We didn’t think they were being raided by the police because the police were already positioned at the bottom of the steps. They threw everything into large 3×3 bags and quickly closed up shop. So we continued over to the outlet stores noticing that they were either shut down or shutting down. We were told politely by a man our age (40-50 yrs) to “get a taxi, go back to your room, NOW. Riot.”. We knew flying into Panama a week prior that there were protests in Colon and other areas. While in Coronado, and El Valle, we pretty much forgot about it all. So we did what the polite Panamanian said and headed back towards the mall. We could see the mall was still open but many people exiting. A few going in. We were told by the hotel staff that when the mall deemed things unsafe (like they had at the outlets), they would shut it down. We decided it best to head to the airport early. We didn’t want to chance road closures, increase in taxi fares, or no ride to the airport at all. We never felt in danger. Once at the airport with our cellphones now turned on and having Wi-Fi, we did get the State Dept Alert that morning to avoid certain areas. We still love many things about Panama. You just need to go with your eyes wide open and leave the rose colored glasses in the States.

  10. Don —

    I haven’t commented in a while — sold my condo in Boquete last December.

    I still love Chiriqui Chatter. I discovered it before moving to Panama. I am retired Army — lived 4 years in Europe, did many assignments with the State Dept. in El Salvador, Ecuador, and other places, and speak fluent Spanish. I thought all the things Boquete offered were perfect, so I bought a condo and moved there. I thought with all my experience living abroad, I didn’t need the “six month test”. Wrong! Bottom line — I lasted two years and high tailed it back to the USA.

    Why? Well, turns out that in all the overseas places in the Army and State Dept., we had staff who dealt with drivers licenses, bad landlords, medical care, issues with the bureaucracy, etc., etc… I thought I could easily deal with all that (I have a Masters in Latin American Studies from UCLA! and a BA in Spanish, so even culture/ language was no problem for me)… Well, I did not expect the bureaucracy, the corruption, and especially the “juega vivo” you deal with ALL THE TIME there (if you don’t know what this is, look it up on Google)…. Again — do a search of “juega vivo” and you’ll learn what to look out for in Panama — it is everywhere and very upsetting to some Gringos (like me) who instinctively trust most people… Sorry, but it is true (as you point out often, Don)

    In short, it’s a beautiful country, exactly as you describe, but the advice of spending six months there renting, then deciding, is brilliant and right on. I thought I knew it all with my background, and I was severely disappointed. I would have learned a lot if I had taken your advice. Luckily, I sold my condo for what I paid for it, so no harm no foul, but I was really disappointed that it was not what “the Retirement Magazines” said it was, by far! I’m happy back in the US. Thanks for your great blog and your excellent advice. You play “bad cop” or “scared straight” spokesman, and that’s terrific. Panama offers a lot, but no Gringo should move without living there for six months first. Great advice and keep it up. And thanks for all your help while I was there (2009-2011).

    Keep up with the great work on the blog, and again, thanks for being a Warden and doing so much to help your fellow Gringos navigate the murky waters of Panama…


  11. Just had my sister-in-law from David visit us for two weeks here in the States. She found a few things amazing, simple things like she was surprised we not only leave the grill unattended in the backyard, but with the canister of gas attatched to it also and it has neve been stolen. I did inform her though that our lawnmower had been stolen earlier this year, so not all is perfect. She also loved how you could easily find a trash can and Use it.
    There may be somethings here that are not ideal for a Panamanian, but I hope she went back with new thoughts or actions for her community, such as not littering.

  12. I’ve lived just outside of Boqueron. I’ve lived in Boquette. And now I live in thev outskirts of Bugaba. tyhe only place Ive ever seen a trash can in in Boquette at the town square.and some people actually use them. As an American, the trash problem really gets to me. It is amazing: these people don’t respect anything. Bugaba is a nightmare – trash and filth everywhere. The town Square was dedicated in 2006 and it loo!ks like it hasn’t had maintenance in 25 years!!! Twenty-five well placed trash cans with regular pick-up would do wonders

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