7 Things Retirement Websites Won’t Tell You About Living in Panama

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I think it’s pretty clear from my other posts, but I love living in Panama. If I didn’t love living here, I wouldn’t live here. I really do feel that I live a more affordable, more exciting, and overall more content life here than I did while living in the US. With that being said, the main reason I started this blog was to paint people a realistic idea of what living in Panama is like. The reason for that is because many retirement websites oversell Panama and paint an unrealistic picture of what life here is like. Sometimes they do this because they have a financial interest in selling real estate to expats, other times it’s just because they think painting rosy pictures is what gets readers.

Overselling has a real, negative effect on people’s lives. People often uproot everything, and make irrevocable changes to their life in order to move to Panama. If someone sells their house and all their things to move to Panama in retirement and finds out it’s not like they were promised, there’s no going back. So with that in mind, I want to make sure that people considering Panama have a realistic idea about what it is like. So here are 7 things that retirement websites won’t tell you about Panama.

1. It’s probably going to be more expensive than you think

I’ve passionately argued on this blog before that cost of living in Panama is cheaper than cost of living in the US, and I think the data backs me up. However, there’s a real difference between “cheaper” and “you can live a luxury filled life for $1000 a month.” My wife and I live for about 50% less in Panama than we do in the US, and I breakdown how we do it here. But 50% less is still almost $2700 a month. And most of our savings are because we made lifestyle adjustments that allowed these savings. For example, we dine out significantly less, and we live without a car (vs. having 2 in Tampa). While item to item costs are cheaper, to save, you are going to need to significantly adjust your lifestyle.

Now if you want to live outside of Panama City, it is definitely cheaper than living inside the city. And it is possible to live on around $1000 a month in certain places. Kris from The Panama Adventure has great cost of living guides on how her and her husband live in David, Panama on between $800-$1200 a month. So it can be done. But it’s likely going to be for a much simpler life than you’ve come to expect in the United States. And if you try to do it in Panama City, or popular expat destinations like Coronado or Boquete? Forget it.

Overall, most expats find that life in Panama ends up being more expensive than they thought, particularly if they trusted a retirement site for cost of living estimates. There are many different lifestyles that can be lived in Panama, including affordable ones, but things are not always cheaper, and if you are not prepared to make changes to your lifestyle, do not expect big cost savings.

2. To live very cheaply, you’re going to need to forgo Air Conditioning (and other basic luxuries)

To highlight my previous point, air conditioning is a good example of what most expats who are trying to live the ultra cheap ($1000 a month) lifestyle will have to give up, for two reasons. The first is that while there are houses that rent for a few hundred dollars a month in some towns, they are going to be very basic houses that will almost certainly not have air conditioning installed, along with other basics like washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc (although dishwashers are uncommon anywhere in Panama, regardless of cost of rent. We don’t have one).

The second is that even if you do get a place with AC or decide to purchase and install one yourself, you won’t be able to afford the electric bill to run it. Electricity is very expensive in Panama. It varies depending on location, but where I live, it costs $0.26 per kilowatt hour, which is more than twice the cost of what I paid in Florida. Now most places get some electricity subsidy that’s partially based on where they live and how much electricity they consume. We get about 25% subsidy. Still, that’s very expensive, and if you run AC regularly, expect $150-$200 electric bill.

Some locations (particularly mountain locations) are better suited to live without AC than others, but it’s still going to be hot most places. For Panamanians who have grown up in this heat, it’s no big deal. My aunt and uncle, even though they had the money to afford a place that has AC, live without AC (and hot water showers) in Panama City, because for them, this wasn’t that big a deal. But if you’re not used to the temperatures, it can be a huge adjustment.

3. Getting by without knowing some Spanish is difficult

Any website that tells you that “most people in Panama speak English” is flat out not telling you the truth. A lot of the Panamanian business community does speak at least some English, and I have many Panamanian friends who are fully bilingual. However when it comes to most people that you will interact with in day to day life, such as store clerks, wait staff, taxi drivers, repairmen, etc, they will speak little to no English. So if you don’t have at least some basic knowledge of Spanish, or aren’t willing to learn, you can find yourself getting frustrated quickly.

I know some expats who have lived here for years without any Spanish, and they seem to be doing just fine. But personally, I couldn’t imagine it. I do speak some Spanish, but still get frustrated a lot with basic communication. And I have a fully bilingual Panamanian wife with me most places. So I don’t know how people make it here without at least some Spanish in their household. You don’t need to know right when you move here, but you should be willing to learn.

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4. You will experience culture shock, and it will frustrate you sometimes

Outside of the language barrier, anyone moving to Panama should understand that the culture and lifestyle is very different, particularly the pace with which things move. Things move a lot slower (expect for driving, which everyone moves crazy fast), and generally at a more relaxed pace. Overall, on a whole, this is one of my favorite things about Panama, and it leads to a much more relaxed lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without frustrations. Expect things not to be done when they are supposed to, things to take much longer than expected, needing to speak to multiple people to get the thing you could’ve gotten done through one. Panamanian culture is not known for its service, so expect service at restaurants and businesses to be slower and less friendly than you are accustomed to (with obvious exceptions).  

5. If you live outside the city, infrastructure is lacking

Panama City and its surrounding suburbs are home to half of Panama’s 3.5 million people, and as such, the city is home to most of Panama’s infrastructure. All of those pictures you see of skyscrapers and metro trains and big malls and hospitals? That’s Panama City. The rest of the country, particularly areas that are the cheapest to live, doesn’t have the same infrastructure. This can mean different things. It can mean that some of the roads aren’t as good, to needing to drive a while to get shopping done besides food shopping, to lack of reliable medical care. 

Medical care is definitely a big issue for retirees, and one that needs to be considered carefully when choosing a place to live. Panama City does have first class medical care, with world class doctors and high end hospitals (for much cheaper than medical care in the US). Outside of the city, your options become lesser. Many towns have clinics or small hospitals, but not major hospitals. Or they have public hospitals, which may not be the same quality as the private hospitals in the city. These may be fine for small-medium sized health issues, but for major issues or emergencies, you may need to be transported to the city. 

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6. Get used to living with water and power outages

No matter where you live in Panama, occasional power and water outages are a way of life. A few high end places that have excellent back up water tanks and generators that will fully cover their buildings in the case of outages, but other than that, everyone else is affected. In Panama City, this usually isn’t too bad. I wrote about my own experiences here. We usually have either a power or water outage every 1-2 months. They usually only last an hour or two, but occasionally, we get a big one. Last June we lost water for 4 days. Our building has emergency generators, but they only power elevators and common areas. We also have reserve water tanks, but they only last so long before running out.

Outside of the city, you can be faced with more frequent outages, depending on where you live. Again, this has to do a lot with the area you live in and your cost. If you are trying to live a super cheap lifestyle, it may be in a place that deals with frequently issues with water and power. My mother-in-law lives in Arrijan, and while her power situation is pretty good, her water situation is not. Particularly during dry season, she is often limited to only a few hours of water a day. Some areas on the beaches also have significant water problems as well. 

7. If you need to work, you may not be able to, and will work for significantly less

This doesn’t apply for anyone retiring entirely on their social security/pension, but for anyone who is partially retiring, or has a spouse or partner who needs to work, this is something to definitely take into consideration. The Pensionado visa, which is the most common visa that retirees use to move here, does not authorize you to work. You will need to get authorized separately to work either through the friendly nations visa or getting a work offer by a company.  Opportunities to work in smaller towns will also be limited. Even if you can land a job, Panamanian salaries are significantly less than in the US. 85% of Panamanian workers make less than 1000 a month. So unless you can land an international work offer, than is what people should expect.

Now, if you are entrepreneurial, Panama does offer good opportunities to open businesses. I talk a little more about that in my earning a living in Panama article. 

Conclusion

I write this article not to scare people away from moving to Panama, but to simply take off the blinders that are given to people, and paint a realistic picture of what people can expect when moving to Panama. I recommend to everyone that before you seriously start planning a move, visit first, particularly the areas you are thinking of moving, and see if it is right for you. Many of us love living in Panama, but some people burn out here, and it’s usually because they came here with unrealistic expectations. To see why I love living in Panama, you can read my article 7 Reasons Panama is the Place for Me.

 

Posted in Before You Move.

17 Comments

  1. Michael,
    I appreciate the information you’ve provided. Would you have any thoughts as to the infrastructure and medical in David? We’re going to be in country in 2 days and will be spending time in Panama city and David as we investigate which place might be a good fit for our family. Anyway, would be curious to see what you have to say.
    Best Regards,
    Chris

  2. Thanks for the mention 🙂
    Good article! What you said is very important to understand before making a decision to live here.

    Chris – I live in David so maybe I can help with your questions. We have found the infrastructure and medical care here more than adequate except for water. The water doesn’t flow sometimes especially in the dry season, but almost never for more than a half day unless some big repair is underway. We keep stored water on hand so it’s inconvenient but not a big problem. The power and internet go out very rarely. There are good doctors here, and two private hospitals in addition to the public one. Doctors here will give you all the time you need, share their cell phone number, and practice medicine (not paperwork like in the US), and an appointment is usually $30-60 depending on specialty. Of course nothing works perfectly all the time, but I’d rather rely on the medical care here than in the US.

    • Happy to give the shout out! I get a lot of questions about David which I struggle to answer, so I always pass them your way!

    • Hello Kris,
      I was in Panama back in Sept. of this year and I really enjoyed myself there. I stayed at the Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort in the Cocle Province, I was there for 10 days. I had a chance to get out and see some of the sights there.
      I retire in Nov. 2019 and I plan on moving to Panama.

      I see that you and your husband live in David, that is one of the areas I want to check out as far as living retiring there. I will be coming back to Panama next year. in Sept. for 13 days this time.

      I would interested in talking with you or your husband about the cost of living there and the over all life style there. I would appreciate any advice you could give me about living in David.

  3. Hello dear

    your article is just brillant as its resumed perfectly the feeling i do have when am in Panama ; still actually working and living in France but hopefully very soon in Panama , your point of view is reflecting the actual situation of the country . Congratulations and take care ; all the best Fab

  4. I am Panamanian, not retired, and I so agree with your post. I guess retirement websites are still promoting life in Panama 10 years ago, when it indeed was cheaper and you could get by with $1K a month. That thought is so farfetched today it is ridiculous. And I believe culture shock is truly a serious matter. I find myself wanting to kill people on the street and in government offices at least once a week, and this is coming from a Panamanian born! Mind you, I love my country, but sometimes getting by takes a lot of ohmmming!

  5. Good article. I lived in Panama for many years, part of the time in Panama City and part in the Canal Zone. I returned to the U.S.in 1990, but still have friends living in and around the city. While I was living in Panama my biggest frustration was in getting things done through the Government (i.e. reporting a burglary, trying to get a landslide cleared in front of our home, getting my son’s birth certificate). I had friend who retired to Coronado and had to move back to the City or the US as they experienced health issues. But… you can find someone to take care of you for a much more reasonable price than in the US. All in all, Panama is a beautiful place, and the people are friendly.

  6. I appreciate your truthfulness. As an environmentalist, I would also like to add the casual relationship that most people in this country have with garbage. There really is no infrastructure in place for waste management so the dumping only gets worse as the population and consumption of plastic and plastic packaging continues. I thought the pacific coast was bad but I was wrong just having returned from the Caribbean.

  7. Actually, my wife and I do live on $1600 (rest goes into savings for splurges etc.). Our electricity, insurance, gasoline, food etc. is exactly that, with no frills. We spend another $500 eating out, staying overnight up country and just enjoying ourselves. Before moving to Las Palmas de Gorgona, I toured the area talking to the local Panamanians about water and electricity. Because of that a well was put in before anything else was done (most of them used storage tanks but admitted that water was out for three days running at various times), but that has improved somewhat. San Fernando has a clinic in Coronado for but major problems they still send people to the major hospitals in Panama City (not by ambulance in most cases). Ambulance service plans do not apply to the Coronado/Gorgona area per our phone conversations in that area. Per conversations with the local police, they don’t have sufficient manpower or vehicles to do regular patrols of the area and thus promote the neighborhood watch program (problem there is some people don’t even trust their neighbors or do not speak spanish, so there is no communication or “real” neighborhood watch. Thus my recommendation that people put in their own systems, even a simple system can call their cell phone (Ademco 20P) and are cheap on ebay but you will pay around $35 to $50 to get the alarm module programmed and sensors are another costs. Thus I suggest that people use a local install/monitor service. They install the alarm, maintain it, monitor it, and after (use to be three years) a time the alarm is yours so the only monthly fee you pay is for monitoring. BUT if the alarm is programmed to call your cell phone (won’t get a message but you will know you have an alarm) you might not need the monitor service.

  8. Hot Water: Forgot to mention that those wanting hot water would be best to use an on demand hot water heater. It works off a C cell battery, is very reliable, dead battery no gas flow. It uses propane gas to heat the water, no pilot light. This unit costs around $189 but prices go up and best to do come investigation before purchase to get a well known unit. Another issue is electricity. If you can afford it, investigate solar panels with backup batteries. It is far far from cheap but with increasing electricity rates every year, it is becoming economically feasible. Solar panels have a guarantee of 20 years and batteries of 10. The new TESLA batteries (no information as of yet) are suppose to be cheaper and longer lasting. So a loan paid off in ten years (with the same monthly payment as your electricity bill if you use A/C) you then get 10 years of almost free electricity (need to replace the batteries and even that depends on the usage, no deep discharge, they will probably last longer). For example, a recent price quote received for a 10000 watt system was $28,000 for a system as described, it about half that price in the USA. Now that is a system that is capable of putting out 10kw daily. You can compute your maximum load (daily usage) by dividing your monthly KW hours by 30 (30 days in the month). BUT should have a system that is 150% of your maximum load. I am no expert but have worked with solar panles for many years installing them in electronic remote sites that have no electricity except for solar panels and wind generators (home use type generators).

  9. I have been living in Panama for 39 years. I worked in the Canal most of that time. Over time one adapts to the system and situations. I believe this article is straight forward and truthful, and not distorted ($1000 dollar a month local wage might be a bit high as minimum wage is around $300 a month and the poverty rate here is around 40% per estimates of international organizations and not the Panama Government). I obtained an immigrant visa, which had to be renewed every three months ($100 a pop) but did it through a lawyer that has worked in immigration before she got her law degree. She was recommended to me by a friend and she is very very diligent. After one year, I obtained my temporary resident visa which had to be renewed every three months for one year. Upon receiving my permanent resident visa, I applied for my work permit which allows me to perform work or have my own business. Again, I had to wait about six months before it was approved. WARNING, there are specific jobs or fields of work that are only open to Panamanian nationals, most of them are professional positions or there are ways to work around the law, consultation with a lawyer is best for that. Some have offered their services as electricians, plumbers etc. but realize you would be competing with local labor which is expensive so don’t expect big returns. Auto mechanics just about name their price as long as they are good at what they do and their prices are not overly exaggerated.

  10. I really like this article because it is not overly – unfairly critical. It is simply truthful and honest. As I manage the Spanish school (SpanidhPanama) in El Cangrejo I’ve had many contacts with newcomers to Panama over many years. Sometimes it’s disheartening to see some things that happen (when things do go wrong).
    Just one example : when people get tangled up with the wrong lawyer for their “pensionado” visa or work visa. Many are incompetent or dishonest. No matter what may be published, there is no real system of complaining about your lawyer. I’ve known expats who’ve paid 2 to 3 times the proper price, waited 2 to 5 times more than the proper waiting period, and then only to have to do the process again… Or give up.
    I could go on, and on, with many other examples… But this author is right, there’s not much sincere advice or warnings out there.
    Panama can be your Paradise only if you do your homework.

  11. Could not agree more… I’ve lived in Panama for 2 years and 2 months and have a relationship with a Panamanian for 5 years now, we often visit his family. I speak Spanish and mostly had Panamanian friends during the time there. I’ve lived in 4 other countries and now live in Colombia. I think i learned a lot.

    Let me first say that i met many great people and that the cultural differences are enormous. Websites such as International Living are funded by realtors and property managers. This is the reason they are overselling Panama.

    I’d like to add a couple of things:
    1. Panama has more of a Caribbean culture than most other Latin countries. This translates to more machism (stricter division between male / female roles) and more LGBTI discrimination amongst other things. You will find that most LGBTI are closeted and married with children. In job advertisements you will often read “Looking for female assistant, buena presencia (= needs to look good), between 18 and 27 years, education level: not important. This says a lot about gender equality.

    2. Upon arrival you will learn the meaning of the term “Juega Vivo” (literally “the game of life”). Juega vivo is everywhere, it means that taxi drivers will make you pay double, restaurants will overcharge you and apartment owners will charge extra, depending on who they’re dealing with…. Uber Taxis will take an extra long route to overcharge. If you are a foreigner, you will have to live daily with “Juega Vivo”, which is worse in Panama City than outside the city. It translates to corruption too (Panama is one of the most corrupt countries in the world). The meaning of this term goes pretty far, the vast majority of Panamanians say they are against “Juega vivo” but most still do it. It’s really deep in the culture to try and profit from others in an unethical way. It doesn’t stop at overcharging, a lot of people also want to be friends with foreigners to try and get free stuff. Often it works, because many of us feel guilty about being privileged. This does not count for all Panamanians, it’s just characteristic for quite a few. Most Panamanians agree that “juega vivo” is an issue.

    3. The famous “doble moral” which is similar to having “double standards”. For example, you’ll notice drinking, (drugs and sex too) are taboo topics. Most people take this really seriously. If you have to believe some people, they never drank or did any type of drugs, ever. When you go out though (some nightclubs, not all), you will notice many people using drugs and drinking way too much, while criticizing others that do the same. The list with taboo topics is long.

    4. Before i came here, i heard that Panamanians are generally open and extravert, this is not the case in my opinion. They might be loud, but generally they do not speak their minds. This is a good exercise for us as foreigner (at least for me it was) to pay extra attention to body language and small details. I found that Panamanians generally do not say “no” to an invitation are any other proposal, but they will make you feel that the intention is to say “No thank you”, picking up these signals can take a while.

  12. And in regard to retirement — I was in the hospital many times even though i was careful with where i eat. I live a very healthy life and lived in an upscale area, i took most recommended vaccinations before i left.

    If you have a certain age, i would never think about retiring to Panama due to increased medical risks.

    I had typhoid fever, salmonella and a severe bacterial infection that nearly killed me. This is something i never had in Europe. Nearly half the people i know have gotten Dengue at some point (or now H1N1). The government does a poor job in controlling epidemics. Panama City has “okay” hospitals but they lose documents all the time, if you make an appointment with a doctor, the doctor often just takes a 2 hour lunch break and keeps you waiting. In Western-Europe this hardly ever happens.

    • Damn, I am glad you left Panama and hope you never come back. If it was such a bad experience for you, why in the world did you spend two years and two months here? and what are you doing with a Panamanian as a bf if we are such bad people? Hmmm this doesn´t make any sense at all.

  13. Omg I have moved to a new province in Canada almost a year ago and have finally been granted a “meet and greet” with a new doctor in my new province. I remember having a problem in Panama City where I saw an orthopediuc surgeon in 20 minutes, got a prescription and it cost me $20. My house is sitting empty waiting for me. What the heck am I waiting for.

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