Retire in Panama? Yes or No?

I can tell by the increased number of emails I receive each week from people considering Panama as a retirement home that it is time to address some of my thoughts again.

I have written several pieces throughout the years on this subject, but I think it is too difficult for many people to find them. With the financial stress being placed on people around the world and Panama continually being ranked high on some survey about retirement places, it has to happen.

People want a quick answer and they only want reasons why Panama would be the perfect place for them. Many start as I did and search for every Yahoo group that is Panama related. After living here for over 9 years, I avoid the Yahoo groups almost as much as I would like to avoid watching U.S. news broadcasts.

That is not to say that there isn’t any worthwhile information on these sources, but sometimes I don’t need to be depressed and often those sources depress me.

The fact is that there will be only one source that can tell you whether you will like living in Panama and it is not International Living, House Hunters International, the Yahoo groups, various books on the subject…

The one source is …… Wait for it… Drum roll… Almost there… Ready for it…

That source is you.

I can’t tell you how many people I have met at the airport that tell me they are here for two weeks and want to buy their retirement home and live here the rest of their life. They have read about paradise in Panama and they want a part of it. I am not kidding. I don’t have enough digits on my hands and feet to count that high.

They have read in International Living that the economy is strong here, the people are the most friendly, the cost of living is much less that their country of origin, the climate is perfect year round, and the only downside is that you weren’t here sooner.

There is always enough truth in those statements to keep the authors from being absolute liars, but my problem is that they put all of the positive reasons in bold print, and the cautions in subdued print.

Experience is the only thing that is going to tell you if Panama will be right for you. You need that experience before you put your entire life savings into that perfect plot of land that you found by accident. How lucky you were to be sitting next to the fellow on the plane that just happened to have the land of your dreams for sale.

The fact that he had been trying to unload it for the last 15 years, just didn’t enter into the conversation, but you were at the right place at the right time for one of you. Whether the right one was the buyer or the seller remains to be seen.

OK, I will give some thoughts to consider again. These won’t be in a particular order, but they are things I think will help to prevent another disgruntled retiree from coming to Panama.

The first thing I will talk about is at the top of my list. It is something I think you have to drill into your head before you get on that plane to Panama. You have to tell it to yourself every morning when you get out of bed. If there is one thing that has a shot of keeping you from making a mistake, it will be this item.

Are you ready for it? Is your mind open? I am serious. You need to tattoo this on your forehead. The most important you should do on you initial trip to Panama is…

Do not buy anything before you have lived in Panama for a minimum of six months. I chose the number six because you need experience in both the rainy and the dry seasons. If you really think this is going to be your home for your retirement years, chose to rent in a place as close as you can to where you think your future home will be.

Pay your bills the same way you will if you own here. Stand in the same lines. Use the same services you will require to be happy. Find out the quality of the Internet. It will be your lifeline back to family in your country of origin.

Live as you would if you were retired here. You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without walking in them and moving here without trying it first can be much more painful than a pair of ill fitting shoes. Plus a mistake will be much more costly.

Now that we have agreed that you will try before you buy, what else should you do?

Do this. Record how you spend your life today. What makes up your day, your week, your month, your year? This is going to be difficult is you have worked all your life and you are planning on entering retirement cold turkey.

Start making a list of the things you need to be happy. Everyone has different requirements. Understanding your needs is extremely important. Understand the things you take for granted. Do you see your grandkids every week or month? Do you like going to the latest movies? Will it bother you if there are Spanish subtitles. Do you like to sit and listen to music and read a good book?

What is on your list? This is very important. When you get here, match that list with the possibility of it working here.

Next make another list of things that will ruin your happiness. What is on that list is just as important. If you didn’t have water for 14 days or more, would you care? If you only had enough water pressure to bathe between midnight and 4 AM in the morning, could you handle it? Would you mind only having cold showers? Would Internet speeds in the dial up range be OK? Do you mind having bars on your windows? Do you mind tons of fireworks going off whether it is a holiday or not. If you needed a part for your car and couldn’t get it for two months and that required ordering it over the Internet, would that annoy you?

I guarantee you that neither of those lists can be too complete. You are going to come here and say, “How could I forget how important xxxxxx was to me?”

Now you have a list of things that make you happy and one of things that make you unhappy. How about a list of absolute needs. Do you have a medicine you have to take to live? Don’t assume that it is available in Panama. Don’t assume that it will cost the same in Panama.

Do you have a health condition that requires constant observation such as a heart condition or diabetes? If so, then determining how that will be handled will be important to you. It may also affect the location of where you live. Something bad happening late at night in a location that requires an hour drive in pouring rain to get to a hospital that can treat the condition could be the difference between life and death.

Now let’s discuss some random thoughts. Can you make a cultural adjustment? This is a Latin American country. Spanish is the language of the population. Are you willing to learn and interested in learning it? I am going to teach you your first Spanish word. It is Mañana.

I am sure you have heard the word and I am sure you probably think you know what it means. I thought I knew what it meant when I came here. I thought mañana meant tomorrow. You did too didn’t you?

Well I have learned in Panama that it means “not today”. If someone says they will call you mañana, it could be in a week a month or never. If someone is coming to fix your broken refrigerator mañana, it could be tomorrow, next week or never. The only thing certain is that mañana is not today!

If a meeting is to begin at 6PM, then people may arrive at 7:30 PM and be early. A type “A” personality is a kiss of death in Panama. You will drive yourself nuts. If you can’t adapt to the mañana lifestyle, you are going to live in contestant frustration.

If the tone of this post comes across negative, I don’t intend it to. My intention is to tell you that life is going to be difficult if your expectations are not aligned with reality.

There is much to like about Panama. I like the fact that people always greet you when they enter a waiting room. I am not talking about friends of yours, I am talking about absolute strangers.

I like the fact that I can have fresh fruit year round at a reasonable price. I like that I can see the stars at night in the middle of the city. I like that my mornings are serenaded by birds sharing their happiness with me. I like that my life is slower paced and I am happy to get up every morning. I like that my monthly electric bill is rarely higher than $60. I like that I can be in the mountains or on a beach with an hours drive. I like that I can make a difference in others lives by giving some of my time.

So is Panama the place you should retire? I don’t know and if you have not spent six months here you don’t know either. What is heaven to some is hell for others. The trick is to determine which it is for you.

33 thoughts on “Retire in Panama? Yes or No?

  1. You have put it better than I have every seen. Bravo Zulu!
    Your essay should be required reading for everyone that arrives in Panama with the intent of living here. If more people were aware of the points you make, less would come and even less would leave again.
    Thank you for your continued efforts to educate us newbie’s, it is sincerely appreciated.

  2. excellent…thank you! shared on my fb page. fortunately for us, we spent only two weeks here & knew this was the place for us. no looking back & absolutely no regrets.

  3. Right on, Ray! Your post is timely and dead on.
    I would add that there is no reason to move a lot of furniture if you decide to make the move. It will cost much more than it is worth, and there is a lot of quality furniture available in Panama. I would also add that people should do the math and determine if the cost of the Pensionado Visa will ever return the investment based on all the discounts. Will you ever use it frequently enough?
    The ‘mañana’ explanation was also excellent. Thank you for your article.

  4. Excellent piece Don. There are a myriad of decisions required to actually make the ‘jump’ to retire in Panama. If everyone would just ‘take it from the top’ – e.g. follow the path you just laid out – they would save themselves a lot of grief. Many would not have to make a LOT of decisions, because the analysis above would scuttle the plan upfront – for all the right reasons.

  5. Manana – Definition: If the appointment is for Tuesday, that could be next week, next month or even next year! Be Prepared.

  6. Excellent piece, Don. Your advice applies equally well to Ecuador or to any other country that American retirees might consider, especially as pertains to the six month trial period for living in country “x” (without buying any property!). Don’t take the plunge until you’re really sure about what you’re plunging into!

  7. Great article Don. Now I must advise all newbies that it is absolutely necessary to carry a roll of toilet paper with them when traveling about. You never know when the urge commences and you have to seek relief. Don’t ever count on it being there in a small public restroom not to mention Pricesmart, Do-it-center, etc… I guess you could count this as one of the negatives. I’m in my 14th year here after 4 in Costa Rica and the same holds true there also but there they rob the toilet bowl seats as well!!!. A WORD TO THE WISE.

  8. Your analysis is right on the money. I retired and moved here for good a year ago after researching Panama seemingly forever. I bought my property the year before and luckily for me it has worked out better than I ever thought it would. Each day here is better than the day before. I have found the people here to be warm and accepting, especially if they are shown common courtesy and respect. They appreciate the fact that I am trying, albeit poorly, to speak to them in Spanish and they are willing to help in any way possible. I am learning how to manage in this culture and your blog has helped a great deal. Thanks for “telling it like it is!”

  9. There’s also the issue of expat living. Have you lived abroad previously? If so, you know that you may find yourself in a rather small subcommunity. It’s a good idea to reach out and cultivate local friends and interests in addition to those you’ll have among other expats.

  10. Excellent piece, Don Ray. To it, I would add one thing. Become involved in the community. Most of the people I know here who are unhappy tend to isolate themselves or associate with only a few folks. The happiest ones, on the other hand, have volunteered their time to charitable or civic efforts or become involved with like-minded people in organizations promoting their interests. I recognize the sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment your warden responsibilities afford you, and I have experienced similar satisfaction in my work with Bid 4 Boquete. I meet new people, make new friends, stay busy, and feel an real investment in my life here. There are dozens of opportunities to become involved–in charities, in the arts, in education–which give one’s life meaning and dimension. Without establishing a new network of friends to replace friends and family back home, and without activities that engage you fully, your new life abroad is not likely to be satisfactory.

  11. Wish every person considering relocation to Panama had access to this piece, not to
    discourage them from coming here, but to supply a much-needed assessment of reality
    “on the ground.” By following all the sensible advice re: retiring here, renting in Panama for over a year, AND making a list, I’ve determined that my life is better- for ME- in the USA.
    It’s been an eye-opening experience, I’m really glad for it, and I’ll go back with a different
    set of standards than when I left. Patience and tolerance are 2 skills, among many more,
    that have been expanded and strengthened by the time I’ve spent here. It’s helped me
    to understand much more clearly, the difference between what I NEED and what I WANT.
    I will be forever grateful to have had this opportunity. It will be with a sense of renewal and
    thankfulness that I will apply the same level of understanding to the land of my birth that
    I was anxious and willing to give to Panama. Adios, y vaya con Dios.

  12. Morning,
    Excellent advice as usual and very well listed, Don Ray.
    I conducted a request for reasons why people had left Panama. In no particular order, I summed up the most often mentioned reasons:

    1. Dealing with government red tape.
    2. Being the victim of a crime.
    3. Weather issues: rain, wind, humidity.
    4. Failing to learn the language/culture.
    5. Partner did not want to stay.
    6. Insufficient activities/entertainment.
    8. Losing money on a house/land/investment.
    9. Having no faith in the healthcare for serious illness.
    10. Getting homesick for the family back home.
    11. Losing electricity/water/internet/phone once too often.
    12. Cost of living was higher than expected.
    13. Getting tired of repeating one or more of the above.

    My one bit of advice to add, don’t consider moving permanently until you can order a pizza over the phone in Spanish. If you can do that, you have a fighting chance of making it. Far too many resident tourists are retiring to areas based on the number of English speaking expats. Living in the community within a community insulates expats from the best part of Panama, the people who live here. Americans especially have a history of wanting every place they live to become the USA.

  13. I quite agree with Jim and Nena on their very last point. Lots of expats seem to think that the locals speak (or should speak) English, and that places like Panama or Ecuador aren’t (or shouldn’t be) too different from Tampa or Fairfax, or wherever. These are foreign countries and they’ll never be the same as the States, so as Jim and Nena say, don’t consider moving permanently until you can cope in Spanish, and cope with life in general outside of the States.

    Lastly, reading the update on the Porterillos water situation, and point number 11 on J&N’s “bail -out parade”, if you’re thinking about retiring down here in Latin America (or wherever), be sure and ask about the reliability of water/light/phone supply….

  14. Don:
    Another valuable post with great advice. I loved the definition of “mañana” as it is used in Panama — spot on!

    I would add one thing. The six-month advice is very good. And for those who have been stationed overseas in the military (or State Dept, etc)., don’t think that this gives you a reason to skip that item on the list. It doesn’t count. There won’t be an office to assist with landlord issues, government red tape, readily available translations or interpreters, health care issues, etc., etc., that the military provides troops stationed abroad. You will arrange for this all on your lonesome (with the help of other ex-pats if you are fortunate), but that is it. The only way to know if Panama is right is to live there — so spend six months renting, then decide. Also, if you don’t know Spanish and are over, oh, let’s say 40, it is unrealistic to ever expect to become fluent enough to truly enjoy the foreign country. It is just the way the human brain works. A couple years of HS Spanish years ago will not help at all. The rumor that most Panamanians speak English is FALSE. And why should someone expect that to be not the case? Also, the inexpensive health care selling point also has many “buts”… It is true many doctors have had “some” training in the US or Canada, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily of the same caliber as those licensed in the U.S. — and if they are, don’t assume that the latest MRI equipment, or even medications available at every US city will be available in David, Panama — they often aren’t. It’s a beautiful country and it is and will be perfect for many who choose to retire there — but I would say NOT for the majority who rely on magazine articles and such as their sources for where to retire. There is simply no substitute for spending time (and I think six months is a good number) before making a “permanent” move. I thought I could take a short cut with my background, and I was only going to be living there for several months of the year — keeping my home in the U.S. I made it two years and then sold my condo in Panama. I needed the Internet to do contracting work, and while I paid for the max speed (4 MB) I never got near that (and here in Virginia, my connection is 30 MB 24/7 with no disruptions). Water is a huge issue. Panama is proud of its abundance of fresh water, but infrastructure that translates that into having it run from your tap reliably is another story completely. Also, learn also what “juega vivo” means. You need to understand this concept if you are going to make it in Panama. Finally, I also lived for a while in Ecuador and they are apples and oranges. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but that they are very different, so don’t assume if you lived in Costa Rica, Mexico, or Ecuador, and liked it, that you will do fine in Panama. You might, but you won’t know without living there first. So, sorry for the long comment. I have seen you post this theme several times before on your blog, but it never gets old, and it bears repeating as you do every so often. It’s great advice and for some reason, other sources tend to try to highlight only the good or the bad, and not the central point, which is that each individual will have to make the conclusion himself/herself — don’t rely on any one, two, or three sources to decide.

  15. Thanks Much for the information! Having recently emailed you, Don Ray, and started asking some of these questions, your recent essay brings things into perspective. As I’ve said, we don’t consider ourselves ‘snobs’ by any stretch of the imagination, but…not having water for 14 days, like your report stated, might get on my last nerve-ha! Certainly food for thought for us. We need to work on our Spanish, no matter what~we don’t get cranky in the States about Spanish or any other language~wish we were still living in a day when learning several languages was an honor and show of broad-mindedness & intelligence (I digress!) Thanks, though, for the honest report and thanks to all the comments, too. We are still talking/thinking/praying about our future as retirees…Keep us posted ~ We sure appreciate the help!

  16. Bobbie’s comment above is the most honest. Yes, Panama will be fine for some, but for many who jump right in, it’s going to be a big disappointment. We get spoiled in the States… yes, there is some corruption, but it is not a daily way of life like here in Panama. Do your homework — most North Americans and Europeans have no idea what it takes to adjust to a third world country where elites make all the rules, the the rest just live with it!

  17. dK – I take exception to a couple of your comments. First, Panama is far from a third world country, try some of the African countries or some of the Asian countries where people live on less than a dollar a day. And I do not think that corruption is a daily way of life in Panama, yes there is a different attitude, but that does not make it corruption. If you truly think that way, then maybe you are one of the spoiled ones and need to return to where ever you came from. Most Panamanians I have met are honest hard working and kind people, they love their families and yes they do love their time off from work, but what’s wrong with that. Are you so jaded that you can no longer have fun!

  18. Gee wizz, quite a lot going on, like a cooking show on TV. But Ive watched miserable people with loads of $$ss having a shocker of a time where ever they go.
    I like the supreme comment above about respect. Im getting out of Thailand, not because of the Thai’s but because of what I see that these clowns come here and do.
    These complete bozo’s leave what ever place they came from, get on a plane to Thailand, get a Taxi to their Thai destination and go home exactly in reverse order.
    Tell their friends to do the same. What do you end up with?.. Well… i think you can know.
    Most have never even been out of their own neighborhood at home, let alone another country or the only culture they can know is their own. I been on the road now for 40 years and I honestly didnt know (according to them) that Swiss and Norwegians are the Gods of our Planet, but when it comes down to something simple (not Banking or Oil)
    they chuck a wobbly like a kid in a pram. And then they get their friends out, then more, then more.All with piles of $$$ss and no cents.
    You start to look at this diaspora and wonder…. “What”??? Thai’s do as well..???
    Any way.. “Hallelujah I’m a bum” thats my credo/mantra and always, after 12 years here, The Expat zoned out whacko’s, thinking they are “cool”, have finally forced me to move some place else because now we are all painted with the same sloppy brush. “Falang”
    I wonder if I visited Panama I could be a “Gringo”, painted,as above, from the same sloppy brush that “Bingo playing, canasta dealing, gated living” types before me could afford me that luxury. “Gringo”… nope… “Falang”

    Take the time to have fun.

  19. “Take the time to have fun” for sure, and do it by making friends among the locals, wherever you are. We’ve been vacationing in Panama for 14 years and have seen huge changes. We’re less, rather than more, inclined to retire there as time goes by, and I grew up in the former Canal Zone so have strong feelings of returning “home” when we visit. But the CZ was a very small bit of the country, confined to a very small area and easy to step away from. Current expat communities are more widely distributed and are having more impact on the local economy and culture. I can’t wait to get out of the city, it’s so Miami South now. Even the airport is totally generic, having lost all the local flavor we used to find for that “welcome back” and last minute gift buzz going in and out. Sigh. All that said, it’s still my favorite place to vacation! 😀

  20. BTW, my husband and I have lived and worked as contracted educators (not military or missionary) in Micronesia, Australia, American Samoa, and Liberia. We’re currently retired in the US.

  21. Quite personally Mimi, I think that most Expats shouldn’t even take vacations.
    They should stay home and watch Discovery channel and just annoy the neighbors that they know. Rather a simple episode in Human relationships, just flick a switch on their tele if they dont feel comfy.

  22. Hi All,

    I am considering retiring in Panama in three years. I currently live in a rural Northern Ontario location. Damn near froze all winter and now that the temperatures have improved mosquitoes and blackflies have devoured me!! It has been this way for as far back as I can remember.

    Can’t imagine bigger bugs than we have here, or temperatures so cold that even with a block heater plugged in all night, your car won’t start. I guess I am hopeful that a warm climate to retire in is not out of my reach. Comments please.

  23. Excellent write up and the information applies to moving to virtually any country in the world. I am Canadian and have had the good fortune to visit a good number of countries around the world and live in Germany for a total of 9 years courtesy of my employment and vacations. One of the things I have noted over the years in travel companions and others is that they tend to think of the country they are visiting or living in is nice and quaint with some interesting customs, but would be so much better if they would only learn English and do things the way we do them at home (wherever that may be). They are also the same ones that get off the plane/ship or other transport and immediately ask where is the nearest MacDonald’s. One of the most important lessons you can learn is if you cross an international border you are subject to the laws, customs and environment of the country you are now in and must learn to adapt to that, or leave. I love your six month idea as a weeks holiday in a 5 star resort, or watch HGTV is unlikely to prepare you for life in-country. Keep it real.

  24. I have lived in San Juan del sur the last 5 years. I am moving to hiland Chiriqui because of the climate. I like the beach but the heat got tiring. I’m not sure if I’ll be closer to Volcan or Boquete. Both have qualities I like. I really don’t want the expense and hassle of permanent residency. The new 180 tourist visa is easy to get used to. In Nicaragua I had to make the border run every 90 days. . Now I will only make one border run to CR and one trip to the states every year. I enjoy vacationing in the states during the summer. I don’t want the hassle of owning and my opinion is rent is so affordable, why buy the cow if the milk is cheap. I’ll rent year round . With a dictionary and google translate and friendly people I have never had much trouble communicating. With direct flights, the only way I go now . It’s less than a day to travel.
    From David to Boston is about the same as driving over the mountains to Bocas..
    I guess what I’m trying to say is Central America is now very user friendly and moving here is not such a big life altering decision to make.

  25. One comment for the road not yet mentioned.. I came to Nicaragua single and hooked up with a local girl. Not a gold digger living off the tourist, but a farm girl , who grew up in the suburbs of Rivas on a plantain farm . I’m a rural guy so we already had a lot in common. She has about 6 brothers and sisters. Who treat me like one of the family. It has been a great benefit to both of us living together. She has taught me a lot and visa versa. I really think it was a huge advantage being single compared to couples that moved here. I’m hoping she can take advantage of her knowledge of English and find good employment and bloom into a independent successful women I know she can be. In ancient times the key to success was the ability to speak Greek. Today English is the new Greek.

  26. Oh, the girl is moving to Chiriqui . We’re a team now. We’ve been together about 4 years now.

  27. David, remember though with the 180 day visa, if you are driving you need to do 90 days instead to keep your out of country license valid.

  28. Thanks for the tip. I suppose I’ll get my road trips in the first 90 days and lay low the second half. It sounds to me like one of the many regulation that isn’t enforced. In Nicaragua I never was subjected to the 72 hour exit rule. I would go to Costa Rica have lunch and come back, every 90 days for 5 years. I never carried my passport in Nicaragua. Only carried it when making the border run. Does Panama enforce the 72 hour exit rule? I assume they have a exit time rule.

  29. David, the 72 hr exit rule is for duty free return. To cross Panama and CR border, the Pana migra is very strict about staying out 3 nites (which usually is less than 72 hrs) and having a paid airfare to the US, if that is where you are from.

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