Let’s Get Real About Retiring in Panama

This morning I happened on one of the blogs I read called “Rewired and Retired in Nicaragua”.  I enjoy reading blogs from other Latin American countries for comparison. The current post was called “Let’s Get Real About Retiring in Nicaragua”.

While I do not believe that Retiring in Nicaragua and retiring in Panama are the same, one thing is glaringly the same. The portrayal by many sources, such as International Living, leaving the reader with a very rose colored illusion of paradise. That may be the grass is greener on the other side of the fence syndrome.

“Let’s Get Real About Retiring in Panama” would be a good name for a book. I have worked on a book for the last two years and every now and then I open it up, reread what I have written, correct some punctuation and spelling and maybe add a few more lines. Then I close Scrivener and let it cure for a while more.

I have searched for a title for what I have written and “Let’s Get Real About Retiring in Panama” may represent it as well as anything.

There are plenty of books out there and many more I am sure in progress on retiring in Panama. I have a hunch most are done for some sort of profit motive.

You might ask why write a book if you don’t intend to to make some money off it. Well, I doubt if I would make much from a book. I am not sure what my ovation is, and that may be the reason, I haven’t completed the book.

I think some are written to promote the country so that the value of their purchased property increases rather than expecting to make any real income from the book. I have no property to increase the value of.

I have lived here long enough that I have seen people on the Yahoo groups telling how great Panama was right up until the sold their property and moved back to the U.S. I have also seen some of the same people, now in the U.S., write on the same Yahoo groups and now say a person has to be a fool to move to Panama.

The fact is that Panama is not for everyone. I get email almost on a daily basis asking what my opinion is on this or that. If I have an opinion, based on some experience, I will try to respond. However, I also try to tell people that the only opinion that counts is their opinion.

Their opinion will not be forged by spending money on a tour sponsored by many of the companies having lectures and tours for potential retirees. It will not be obtained from reading an outdated book by someone that may not live here or spends most of their life outside of the Panama.

It will be had by spending some real time here living in the real world situation.

I was recently asked about a new retirement development close to the Costa Rica border. I know nothing about it except from its website, I could see that it was pretty close to Paso Canoas. The website obviously created a very positive impression of the new development. I did notice that the pictured rental was on a second floor and didn’t have secure windows and had a sliding door to a back patio.

Many might think that a second floor would naturally be secure. My experience says something different.

Before our current house, Lilliam and I lived in her 3rd floor apartment. One day, the maid that was cleaning the apartment came to me in the living room and said, “Señor Don, un hombre está en el balcón atras.” (Mr. Don, there is a man on the back balcony).

I went to the back balcony, and sure enough there was a young man that was working on the opposite end apartment and had gone downstairs and had been locked out of the building. He had climbed up to our apartment and wanted to walk through the apartment to get to the apartment he was working on. Lilliam was furious when she came home from teaching and learned that I had let the man go through her apartment to the other apartment. I can still remember that heated conversation.

Well, I was still in a learning phase and this was one of my learning lessons. Two things were in this lesson. One, never let anyone you don’t know into your house. Yes, I heard you Lilliam.

Two, a third floor apartment is no more secure than a first floor apartment.

I know a lot of people come here because they think living is cheaper. Well, that can be debatable too. On the last two trips Lilliam and I have made to Texas, Lillian has taken a hard look at the prices in the grocery stores. She hasn’t found anything to be cheaper when it comes to food products in Panama. Plus, there is a much greater variety of everything there.

Some may think that it will be cheaper because they won’t need a car. There is plenty of taxis and buses and the fares are cheap compared to the U.S. It is hard to live in Texas without a car.

Yes the bus and taxi fares are cheap. They will be an adventure for newcomers. They are plentiful and go to almost anyplace you want to go. A bus trip to Panama City from David will only cost about $12 or so.

Two examples of cheap bus rides. A few months ago there was a very bad traffic accident on a bus running from Boquete to David. The bus driver was texting and lost control of the bus. Many were hurt and if I remember right there were some deaths. The price for these passengers was a trip to the hospital or to the morgue.

There have been a couple of recent occasions of armed robberies happening on these local buses. The young man that takes care of our pool was robbed on his bus to David and lost his cell phone and all the cash he had on him.

While I believe there is much less crime in Panama than most of it’s Latin American neighbors, there is more crime than gets the appropriate press. Most gringo and gated communities don’t want crime mentioned. The mention of crime seems to have a negative effect on property value. Imagine that.

I do spend less money on my cell phone than I would in the U.S. My monthly contract costs me about $33/month with unlimited usage. I will qualify that by saying I have never hit a limit.

I spend less on gasoline, but then I drive less in Panama than I would have to in the U.S. That is one of the reasons I live in David. I can get to anything I want in about 15 minutes at the most. If I lived more remote to David, it might be different because gasoline is more expensive in Panama than in the U.S.

I could not live in Panama City. I bet it would cost me double to live there and I would hate it.

I pay about $69 for my Cable TV, land Line telephone and 6MB Internet. That is 6 MB when I get it. I just noticed that the music on the Internet is cutting out. I tested my speed and it was 1.43MB.

Not good enough currently for Internet radio, so obviously right now not good enough for VOIP phones, Skype, NetFlix, etc.

The climate of Panama is great. The country landscape of Panama is beautiful. Those are the parts created by God. However, like Nicaragua, there is plenty of trash strung around and it seems the culture of Panama has not chosen to make it trash free.

You may be thinking that this is a fairly negative post and wondering why I live here. Well, I am happy here. It took a while. I like the climate. I love the people. I like the slower pace of life. I understand Panama now. I also found my Lilliam here and she makes me happy.

Will you like it here? I don’t know. You will have to find your Lilliam. By that I don’t mean a person, however being here with the right person helps. I really mean finding the thing you can point to that makes you say “this makes me happy living in Panama”.

I always recommend that people live here for a minimum of 6 months (at least 3 months in the rainy season and 3 in the dry season) before deciding to make a permanent move. If you are more frustrated than happy during that period of time, then I suggest you will not like it here. I have lived here over 12 years and still find new challenges every month.

Please take your time making your decision to move here. I hate it when I run into unhappy extranjeros.

11 thoughts on “Let’s Get Real About Retiring in Panama

  1. Right On Don! There are too many people that move here and gripe continually about so many things, things that are NOT going to change. TIP – This Is Panama, not the United Staes, Not Canada, Not Australia, Not England, TIP! Panama is what you make of it and it will only be as good to you as you are to it. We say that Panama has given us the opportunity to retire in dignity. Is it perfect, no, but then is the U.S. or Canada perfect, NO, they are not. Please do write your book, I for one, will help you promote it everywhere I can.

  2. Really appreciate this honest assessment of life in Panama…we have spent the last four winters there….in the Farallon/Rio Hato area….Dec. through April….I too have loved the climate, the slower pace, the people….but have not spent time in rainy season or experienced any crime….although this year there were robberies(one of which I witnessed) on the beach in front of our rented condo….We have not made the decision to retire to Panama full time….something does seem to hold us back from giving up the security of our life in Canada…and investing the bulk of our assets in Panama….And now with the tanking of the CDN$ we are even less likely to make it our full time home….but I have been influenced by the rosy picture International living paints of life in many central American countries and I sometimes feel I am missing out on my “dream ” life….but for now need to be content with spending winters in Panama and back to Canada for the summers….really not a bad gig!


  3. Thanks for such a candid outlook on retiring to Panama. I am in the process of doing so myself. Am a very practical and pragmatic person and very much appreciate the view presented. Bottom line it really is about each individual and how they want to live their life…in Panama or elsewhere.

  4. I may have mentioned it before but I recently re-read, “Residential Tourism: (De)Constructing Paradise” by Mason R. McWatters. His was a study of Boquete in 2005 and the effects caused by large numbers of expats concentrated in one area.

    The main lesson was that such a large influx of expats to any area results in the area losing the characteristics that brought the expats there initially. The study is now 10 years old and most of what was forecast has occurred. Still, the resident tourists there continue to tout the “perfectness” of their paradise for all their various agendas.

    I’m watching the reruns of “The Millionaire” on the classic TV channel and I wonder what would happen if an expat were to receive his million dollar check? The USA is a huge country with lots of different places to live especially with a million dollars tax-free (that was part of the program). For us, visiting Panama any time we want and living in the USA works great.

    Put me down for a copy of the book! Heck, we have read everything else you have written!! hahaha

    jim and nena

  5. I’d buy your book, too! All your info is great. We are just 2 months away from our move to El Palmar, which we hope is permanent, but there’s no way to know until we are there and we aren’t assuming anything. As for prices, every time I visit other areas of the US I get a bit of sticker shock – everything seems cheaper compared to Seattle (where we are coming from) so maybe we will get some relief from a higher cost of living. Either way, we are moving for better weather and a slower pace of life with the hope that it won’t cost us more to live in Panama. Like another person posted, we really want to live in Panama, but if someone wants to base where they live solely on cost of living, I’m not sure that they will ultimately be happy, but that’s up to them to figure out.

  6. Good read, Don. I spent 4 months in Texas last year, and if we could sell our house for what it’s valued, we could move to Texas and live cheaper.

  7. Be very wary of “confirmation bias”. Look it up. I just read a quote from a newbee that said “you will love it here”. Yikes. Whether you will love it is totally dependent to your resilience to severe water shortages, among a host of other things. Find out what they are first.

  8. Thank you so very much for your personal candor. I value what you have to say. I agree that International Living paints all the retirement havens to be virtual paradises. Continue to write your book as I know many would purchase it.

  9. Don Ray,

    I’ve always thought that you paint a good picture of what it is really like living in Panama. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who come to Panama with false and some times, dreamed-up impressions of what it will be like living here. If you live a sheltered life in the U.S., living in a gated community in Panama will eventually start feeling the same as living in a “white-collar” prison. At some point you’re going to want to break out, and when you do, you may not like what you see on the outside. I don’t want to sound negative, but facts are facts. If you move to Panama, get used to seeing trash everywhere. Crime is on the rise, especially robbery and home invasions (happened to my sister-in-law last month). Take my advice; do your homework before moving to Panama. Don’t waste your money on false hopes and dreams. Make sure Panama is for you.

  10. The International Living spiels via Kathleen Peddicord and others of her ilk are pretty unrealistic and paint a picture of a paradisaical life in Panama that has little basis in fact.

    The deal is, is that you will be disillusioned and disappointed with such expectations from such travel and relocation entrepreneurs. Panama is, and will be, a third world country, and will maintain this status well into the future. Many Americans, for instance, who come down here fed up with the many changes in their lifetimes in the States, will get the opportunity to re-think their decision process after spending some time here and experiencing the cultural differences.

    One of the biggest adjustments here for me, is to find out that so few are worthy of any trust. In my business career and life experience in the U.S., I found that I could trust upwards of about 90% of the people that I dealt with… in the Midwestern United States.

    Here in Panama, it is nearly opposite. I have found that I can trust about 20% of the folks here. Misrepresentation and dishonesty are rampant, particularly in the form of what is called juegos vivos. I am not sure how psychologically healthy all that this is, but at any rate, the locals are somehow used to it although they do complain a good deal about it.

    As Don correctly says, repeatedly, Panama is not for everybody.

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