Panama is not for everyone, and not every expat who moves here does well. The first article I wrote was called Is Panama Right For You?, and it talks about some things expats should consider before moving to Panama. However many expats, like myself end up falling completely in love with the country of Panama. After 9 months of living here, I can confidently say that Panama is the place for me. Here is a list of 7 things things that I love about Panama that has made it the perfect fit for me.
1. Cost of Living
For expats coming from the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, or other costly areas, living in Panama can provide significant cost savings. For my wife and I, we were able to cut our expenses to about half from our previous life in Tampa, FL, while actually improving our quality of life. We don’t live an extravagant life, but we are able to live comfortably on $2500 a month, and that includes a great 3 bedroom apartment in a high rise in the middle of the city. Cost of living does vary widely depending on where you live in Panama and the type of lifestyle you choose to live. I’ve spoken to expats who live on anywhere from $800 to $8000 a month.
Not every expat who moves to Panama feels like it’s a cost of living savings, but I find that it’s usually because they are not making an “apples to apples” comparison. Just like in the United States, cost of living in Panama varies widely depending on where you live. Panama City is a major international city, and quality of life here compares to major cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, London, etc. And living in Panama City is absolutely significantly cheaper than living in those cities, but it may not be cheaper than living in rural Kentucky. For example, for our 3 bedroom/2 bathroom apartment, my wife and I pay $1100 a month in rent. Could we live in a similar sized place in parts of the US for that amount or less? Sure. However, could we live in any of the cities I mentioned for that price? Not even close. In Panama, if you want to live out in the countryside, it’s quite possible to rent a house for a couple of hundred bucks a month, and live a simple life on a thousand dollars a month, or even less in some cases. So if you compare “apples to apples,” you’ll find that Panama is cheaper than the US in comparable locations.
For more information of what my wife and I spend to live in Panama, check out my article Cost of Living In Panama.
2. Geological and Bio-Diversity
For a small country, Panama has an incredibly diverse geological and biological landscape. The entire country of Panama is only about 29,000 square miles in size. That is smaller than the US state of South Carolina. Yet in addition to the towering skyscrapers of Panama City, Panama is home to beaches, islands, rain forest, dense jungle, waterfalls, mountains, volcanic craters, and even a desert. As long as you can deal with the heat, Panama will have a landscape for you. Panama also has a beautiful and diverse array of plants, birds, fish, and mammals; many of which can only be found in Panama.
Panama’s natural diversity makes it a great place to travel. No matter where you live in the country, there are a ton of great options for day trips, quick overnight trips, and long weekends. Almost anywhere in the country that is reachable by land can be driven to in 8 hours or less from any other point in the country. Panama also has a countrywide bus system, so you can take a trip to another area of the country for a couple of dollars via bus. Even with trying to keep a tight budget, I have been able to vacation and explore new places way more in Panama than I ever did in the US. If you like a country that has diverse and convenient travel locations, Panama is for you.
For a few ideas on places to vacation while in Panama, check out my Vacation Guide section.
3. Living Car-free
Living in Panama gives me the ability to live a car-free lifestyle, which is a major quality of life improvement I had been seeking. In Tampa, both my wife and I needed to own a car in order to get around. That meant 2 car payments, 2 insurance payments, and 2 gas tanks that constantly needed filling. Between the two of us, we spent over $1000 a month just on transportation, and that didn’t even include car maintenance. Living in Panama City makes it easy to get everywhere you need to go without owning a car. If you live in any expat friendly area, you will always have things within walking distance. For my wife and I, we have a handful of restaurants, 2 major supermarkets, and a Costco-style warehouse club. Other areas are even more walkable, with dozens of restaurants, and even parks and malls nearby. For areas that can’t be walked to, Panama has a fairly well run bus system with frequent service, and it only costs $.25 to travel within the city. Panama is also home to Central America’s first underground metro system, which only costs $.35 to ride. Taxis can be taken most places within the city for $2-$3. Overall, living without a car is not only a significant cost savings, but gives me a lot less to worry about.
In some places outside of the city, it may be harder to live a car free lifestyle, but many expats still do it. For example, in El Valle de Anton, a popular expat town in the mountains, people frequently get around town by bicycle. As I mentioned earlier, there are buses in all parts of the country that go to the city and other areas, so it is possible for expats to make use of those as well.
For more information on how to live car free and navigate Panama’s crazy taxi system, check out Getting Around In Panama City.
4. The Panamanian Mindset
In a recent survey done by Gallup, Panama ranked number 1 as the happiest country in the world. And the race wasn’t even close, with Panama scoring 17 points (on a scale of 100) than Costa Rica, which ranked 2nd. So what makes Panamanians so happy? In my experience here, I would chalk it up to Panamanian’s attitude and general outlook on life. Panamanians don’t take themselves or life too seriously. The little stuff that drives us crazy in the US, such as punctuality, deadlines, when things don’t go exactly as planned, etc, they just choose not to let get to them. This can be frustrating for some expats who are not used to the slower speed of life this causes, but if you can embrace it, it makes for a much more peaceful and relaxing existence. People also tend to spend more time celebrating the good, and not focusing on the bad. As the frequent fireworks displays will show you, Panamanians are always celebrating something. Even those who are struggling in parts of their life seem to always keep a positive outlook, and always try to stay smiling.
There’s a lot the rest of the world could learn from Panama’s happiness, and it’s infectious nature is one of the reasons I love living in this country.
5. Cultural Immersion
Living in Panama gives me the opportunity to fully immerse myself in another culture. I’ve lived in other countries besides the US, including the Philippines and Hong Kong, and it wasn’t the same cultural experience as living in Panama. Part of it is the language barrier, as most in Panama, particularly in the service sector, do not speak much English. This has pushed me to work harder on learning my Spanish, so that I can eventually cross of one of my long held goals of being bi-lingual.
Panama also has very rich cultural traditions. Panama was colonized by the Spanish almost 500 years ago, and many of the traditions that have developed over time still strongly influence the culture. Panama also has a strong indigenous population which has influenced the culture as well.
The cultural immersion aspect of living in Panama makes boring daily tasks, like going to the store or out to a restaurant, a much more enjoyable or exiting experience.
Interested in learning Spanish? Here are 6 Ways You Can Learn Spanish For Free.
6. A Diverse International Population
One of the things I love about Panama City is that it’s a melting pot. Not only do I get to experience Panamanian culture, but I get to know people from all of the world. You will find just about every nationality represented in Panama. In addition to meeting other Panamanians and Americans, I’ve met people from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, England, France, Spain, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Greece, Thailand, Brazil, India, and many other countries I can’t remember off of the top of my head. This diversity has allowed me to not just experience Panamanian culture, but to learn about many others as well.
7. Living a Healthy Lifestyle
In the 9 months that I’ve lived in Panama, I’ve lost 25 pounds, without a strict diet or heavy exercise plan. When I’ve talked to other expats about this, I’ve found out that I’m not alone in my experience. Living in Panama just seems to make it easier to live healthy. Part of it is the diet, which while not full of low calorie foods, is a simple diet. Gone is a lot of the dairy, creams, sauces, and oils that we use in American cuisine that adds a ton of calories to food. And while Panama has plenty of American fast food restaurants, it also has many Panamanian style fast food restaurants, where the food is healthier (and cheaper). Now when I need a quick meal in a hurry, I can walk down the street and get a relatively healthy meal of rice, beans, grilled chicken, and plantains, as opposed to going to the nearest McDonalds and getting a burger and fries.
It’s also a lot easier to get exercise in Panama. There’s an exercise room is every apartment complex, and what seems like a gym on every street corner. If traditional “working out” isn’t your thing (it’s not mine), there are still plenty of ways to be more active. As I mentioned earlier, you will probably be walking more places to go about your daily lives in Panama than you did at home, particularly if you live carefree. Whether that means walking to the grocery store, or walking through one of Panama’s gigantic malls (Panama’s Albrook Mall is the largest in North America), you will be walking more. Panama offers a lot of great opportunities for walking/biking/jogging/roller blading in some of the many parks and trails around the country. For a dense city, Panama City has a tremendous amount of park land. There are miles of walking and biking paths throughout the city, including about 10 miles along the Cinta Costera and Amador Causeway. There are also many great mountain paths to hike in some of Panama’s national parks, like Parque Metropolitano or Soberania National Park. Outside of the city, there is even more natural land for hiking.
Living in Panama doesn’t guarantee losing weight, but it can work wonders greater than any weight loss pill or lose weight quick scheme. With a little bit of effort, your time in Panama can not only be enjoyable, but healthy as well.