If you’ve read other articles on this blog, you know that I am a big fan of living in Panama (after all, it would be pretty silly to have a blog about Panama if I didn’t enjoy it here). In fact, my last article was called 7 Reasons Why Panama is the Place for Me. However, I know that Panama is not for everyone, and not all expats have a good experience when they move here. When I decided to create Panama for Beginners, a big reason was because I felt that major international publications were selling an unrealistic picture of what living in Panama was like, and that potential expats should get to know all the good and the bad. So in that spirit, I spent the last couple of days speaking to a number of expats about why their move to Panama didn’t work out like they had hoped. Here are the top 5 reason why, as well as some advice for how to combat these issues should you be experiencing them.
The climate in Panama is either love it or hate it. For some, it’s a big reason that they move here. For others, it is so hard to take that it forces them out of the country. Panama is hot and humid, all of the time. Brutally hot. I lived in Tampa, Florida, and even for me, Panama heat can still be hard to take. Panama has very little temperature fluctuation year-round, and is consistently between 80-95° F (27-35° C) during the day, and with the sun and humidity, the heat index can get to 115° F (46° C). Panama only has two seasons, rainy and dry, and it’s rainy for about 8 months of the year, and dry for about 4. During the rainy season, it rains almost every day for part of the day. It is definitely an intense climate, and not for everyone, particularly if you are used to living in a moderate climate, or enjoy the changing of the seasons. I have had a number of expats tell me that they hate living in the air conditioning, which is basically a 24/7 requirement when you are indoors in Panama. So if dealing with the heat and humidity is something you will struggle with, Panama may not be for you.
Recommendations for coping: If you are still considering where in Panama to move, consider areas like Boquete and Volcan in the Chiriqui province. Because those areas are mountainous and high above sea level, the climate is much cooler and more moderate than the rest of Panama. If you already live here, try to enjoy Panama after dark, particularly if you live in the city. My wife and I always try to avoid going outside at peak sun. But since Panama is close to the equator, it gets dark pretty much the same time the whole year, which is around 6pm. In Panama City, the major parks such as Cinta Costera and Parque Omar are open until late at night and are well lit and secure, so you can still enjoy plenty of nature, even at night.
2. Service/Business Practices
Dealing with Panamanian service/business practices can definitely be an adjustment for expats who move to Panama, particularly if you come from the United States or Europe. Simply put, the customer service in Panama is not good, especially at restaurants and retail stores. Service can be slow, rude, and unfriendly. It’s just the way it is. It can either be a minor annoyance or drive you up the wall, based on how much this type of things gets to you. For most of us here, we adjust. But for some, it can be a deal breaker.
Bad service can also carry over into business practices as well. Simply put, Panamanians are also not known for doing the best business. Contractors can show up late or not at all. Things that are supposed to take a day can end up taking much longer. Panamanians are not usually known for being punctual or working quickly. It can also be hard to get a business to get back in touch with you when you inquire with them, even if you are trying to hire them for a service. Expats have also complained to me about “honesty” in businesses here, when they were told one thing, but then had another happen. My wife and I had this happen when we first moved to Panama, when the store that we bought our mattress from tried to deliver a clearly stained mattress to us as “new.”
Recommendations for coping: First, take a deep breath, and try to relax. At the end of the day, these problems are minor in the scheme of life. If this is the worst we have to deal with, we all have a pretty blessed life compared to most of the world, and especially compared to a lot of Panamanians who live in severe poverty. After putting everything in perspective, take comfort that if you know where to look, you can find pockets of really good service in Panama. Part of that is trial and error, and making sure to remember the places that you deal with where service is good, so you can frequent them. Also, Panama is very much a word of mouth economy, especially in the expat community. If you are looking to do business with someone, make sure to ask around and solicit advice. The Expats in Panama Facebook Group is a great place to go to ask for recommendations on vendors. Also, if someone does do bad business with you, your best tool can be to threaten to report them to ACODECO, which is the consumer protection bureau in Panama. Businesses are scared of them (they do levy heavy fines for bad business). Often the threat of reporting can get a business to make right. It’s how we got the business that sold us the bad mattress to take it back and fully refund us.
3. Adjusting to the Move
Moving overseas is a huge adjustment, and one that some expats struggle to make, particularly those who have strong roots in their current community. Moving thousands of miles from home and leaving behind parents, kids, grand kids, friends, etc can be tough. Some expats also reported having difficulty meeting new people and felt like they couldn’t relate to anyone. The language and cultural barriers can be tough for some expats, and if you miss the people from home and haven’t met new ones here, it can definitely be hard to adjust. Homesickness is common among expats who struggle in Panama.
I have also heard from several expats that they believe Panama to be “uncultured.” I would strongly disagree with the assessment. In my opinion, Panama has a truly rich culture with customs that are rooted in hundred or even thousands of years of tradition. If you can’t find culture in Panama, you either aren’t looking very hard, or your definition of culture is “my culture.” But it is important to understand that Panamanian culture is different, and sometimes very different, from the culture you may be used to. That can be hard for some people to adjust to, particularly if you are used to things being a certain way. If adjusting to a new culture that is different from your own will be challenging, then Panama may prove difficult for you.
Recommendations for coping: There are many organizations that work to connect expats with other expats. Panama can be an adjustment for everyone, and usually other expats are more than happy to be your friend and help share their knowledge about living in Panama with you. If you live in Panama City, there is no shortage of organizations to help you meet other expats. Internations is the gold standard of these organizations, and they have 7000 members within Panama. They host at least a half-dozen events a month. These events range widely in interests and size, from about a dozen to 200 or more people. If you are struggling to meet people, I strongly recommend joining them. The American Society of Panama and Young Expats of Panama are also two good groups. The American Society skews older and is mostly retirees, and Young Expats is more for the 20-something party crowd. If you live outside the city, there are always plenty of expat networking and meet and greet events going on as well. I always see them posted in the Expats in Panama Facebook Group. All it takes is a little research and you can find them.
Safety for expats in Panama is a highly debated topic, and I wrote over 2500 words on it in my Safety in Panama article. Overall, I think Panama is a pretty safe place, and I feel safer here than I do in most US cities. Crime can happen anywhere, and where you’ve had experiences with crime will likely color your perception of how safe an area is (the month before I moved to Panama, a friend of mine was the victim of a double homicide in Tampa, FL). However Panama does have some safety issues, and some expats have told me that they don’t feel safe here.
The first thing you’ll notice in Panama when it comes to safety is that safety measures are a lot more visible. There is armed security everywhere, from the apartment complexes to grocery stores. It is also common for houses to have large gates fencing in their yards, and for all of the windows and doors to have metal bars on them. This can be a shock and adjustment if you are coming from an area where there is little crime and you don’t see many of these precautions. Some expats have told me that it actually makes them feel unsafe to see all these precautions around, since it’s a constant reminder to watch out for their safety.
Violent crime like assault and murder against expats in Panama is rare. But property crime is more common. It is not uncommon to hear from an expat who has either been mugged (sometimes at gunpoint), or had their house broken into. When these things happen, the thief is almost always after your stuff, so there is rarely physical violence that accompany these crimes if you comply. But it’s understandable how having a crime like this, particularly with a gun involved, can scare expats off of Panama. People have also told me that they don’t find the police trustworthy, and don’t feel like they will do anything when a crime happens. For what it’s worth, my wife has lived in Panama for about 80% of her life, and never been robbed, but the 20% she’s lived in the US, she’s been mugged twice. So again, it’s all about your own personal experience.
Recommendations for coping: It’s important when you are in any new scenario to know your surroundings, and learn from others the areas and places you should not go, particularly alone. I would recommend not carrying a lot of cash or valuables on you. I always carry less than $100 cash on me, and my wife never wears her engagement ring out in public, so if we do run into a situation, we do not have that much to lose. Also, if you are living in a home, make sure that you secure it properly with window bars and an alarm system. Thieves look for easy targets, and if you don’t make yourself one, you will be less likely to be targeted. Also, if you do find yourself in a situation where someone is trying to steal from you, don’t try be a hero and put your safety at risk. At the end of the day, possessions are only things, and can be replaced. They are much less valuable than your life.
5. Employment Issues
If you are coming to Panama to retire on a fixed income, then this will not apply to you. However, many expats who move to Panama need to earn a living, and sometimes they come to Panama not always prepared to do this. It may sound amazing, but some people move to Panama without realizing that as a foreigner, you need a work permit in order to work legally. Companies can hire you and sponsor you for a work permit, but this costs them time and money, so if you don’t have a valuable skill you can offer, it will be hard to convince them to hire you over a Panamanian. Expats also sometimes move to Panama without a good understanding of what local salaries are like. Most jobs pay less than $1000 a month, and if you move here to try to live and work as a local, but haven’t budgeted properly based on local salaries, you are in for a rude awakening. While some expats are successful in moving down here and figuring out their employment situation, many who do this find out that Panama was not what they had hoped.
Sometimes people move down here with a job and still have issues. Some companies can have trouble/delay getting the paperwork. Others can cut short contracts, leaving people here without the job and financial security they thought they had. I have spoken with a few expats who this happened to. A friend of mine, who loved Panama, had to move out of it because the company that brought him here eliminated his position shortly after moving, and he couldn’t find another job at an international salary.
Recommendation for coping: Before you move, it’s important to have a good idea of how you will make a living to support your lifestyle in Panama. There are a lot of opportunities for expats, but those who come here with a plan will end up usually being more successful than those who don’t. You can check out my article Earning a Living in Panama for more advice. If you are coming down here on job offer from a company, make sure to do some research that they are reputable and that other expats who have worked for them have had good experiences. Also, if you are entrepreneurial, Panama provides a lot of opportunities for expats to start and own successful businesses. Because of some of the issues in the business culture I mentioned in item 2, expats who come here and do good business can thrive, because they stand out in the market.