Many ExPats who move to Panama consider it one of the best decisions they ever made. I know in terms of places I’ve chosen to live in this world (and I’ve lived in a bunch), this is definitely true for me. However, this is not everyone’s experience. Some Expats come to Panama and find out it’s not at all what they expected, and burn out quickly. When I witness ExPats burning out in Panama, it’s usually because they didn’t come prepared for their move with a correct understanding of what their new life in Panama would be like. This article is meant to be a basic overview of some of the things you should consider before moving to Panama, to decide if it is right for you. Many of these topics will be expanded on in their own articles in the future.
Figuring Out Your Why
This is your most important decision to prepare for moving to Panama, and it’s one only you will know. What motivated you to wake up one day and say “Hey, I want to move from a country that I am familiar with, to a small Central American country of less than 4 million people?” I’ve found that people’s motivations for moving here are as varied as the people themselves. Many come for retirement, because they read in the news that it’s a good ExPat retirement destination. Others come for a job opportunity or to start a business. Others, like me, come because they married a Panamanian and wanted to be closer to their culture/family. Some others just come because they are looking for a fresh start or a new adventure, and Panama sounds as good as any.
There really is no wrong “why,” but it is important to consider if your “why” is realistic to the realities of Panama as you read the rest of the article. For example, if you want to move to Panama because you want to live in a place that’s right on the beach and has access to great nightlife, you will likely find that Panama does not match up well with your “why.” There are many great beaches in Panama, but they are mostly sleepy towns without much going on after dark. Likewise, Panama City has a vibrant and diverse nightlife, but is an hour or more drive from all of the good beaches.
To City or Not to City?
Anyone living in Panama can tell you that there really are two very different Panamas: Panama City and everywhere else. Approximately one third of Panama’s almost 4 million people live in Panama City and the immediate area around it. The other 2/3rds of Panama’s residents live in the rest of the country, which is a fairly massive area of land and sparsely populated. The population density of Panama City is almost 8000 people per square mile, while the population of the rest of the country, excluding the city, is less than 100 people per square mile. Because of this, your lifestyle will be very different whether you choose to move to Panama City, or somewhere else in Panama.
If you are looking for metropolitan living, Panama City is really the only place in Panama you will find it. This is the land of 70 story buildings, massive mega malls, and spiraling bank towers. This is where you will find that vibrant nightlife where people are dancing salsa to 4am or later. So if you are looking for that kind of lifestyle, than Panama City is for you. However, with everything comes it’s costs. Panama City, particularly the rents, are significantly more expensive than the rest of Panama. There are also a lot more people, traffic, and noise. That can either be a pro or a con depending on your point of view. Think about it similar to the US. It is more expensive to live in New York City than it is in a small town in Kansas. Expect the same here.
If you are looking for a quieter, cheaper, more relaxed life, then the rest of Panama has a lot of options for you. Panama pretty much has every different type of land you can think of: islands, beaches, mountains, countryside, volcanoes, and rain forest. I’ve even been told there’s some desert here. The pros about living in these areas are that you’ll have more space, better access to nature, and usually be able to live cheaper. However, there will be less things to do, it may be harder to find basic items that you are used to back home, and you may even have less access to basic services like hospitals and reliable water/electric. There also are not many job/business opportunities. There are some areas geared towards ExPats, such as Coronado and Boquete, which have more infrastructure and access to the comforts of back home. However, they also have higher prices.
Figuring out where you want to live is key to a successful relocation to Panama. The city and the countryside both have it’s benefits and drawbacks. Make sure to pick the one that suits you best.
Culture shock is the number one reason why ExPats flame out in Panama. Many ExPats seem to come here with this idea that moving to Panama is like moving to America’s 51st state. That it will be like living back in the US, but cheaper. Once they get here, they realize that Panama is a completely different country with it’s own culture and own way of doing things, and then they realize that they really didn’t want a new culture at all.
Simply put, if you are impatient, or easily frustrated, Panama might not be the place for you. Things here very much operate on “Mañana (Tomorrow)” time. There is no rush to get anything done. Things move much slower. This is in all areas of the culture, particularly in the business/service culture. It is very common to have to wait a long time to pay for your purchases in a store, even if you are the only one there. My wife and I purchased new beds at two different times this year, and both times, despite being the only people making a purchase at the store, it took 5 people over an hour to finish our transaction. That’s just how things work here.
The difference is especially noticeable at restaurants. Service is generally not close to the level you will find in the average American restaurant. I have had some truly great service here in Panama, but it is the exception, not the rule. Normally service is very slow and impersonal. You can find yourself waiting 20 minutes for your order to be taken, even though you’re the only one in the restaurant, and there will be a half dozen waiters standing in a circle, looking over at you and not moving.
The one part of Panamanian culture where the mañana attitude does not apply is on the roads. In fact, it’s the opposite of mañana culture, on steroids. People here can drive a little like maniacs, particularly the many taxis you’ll see on the streets. Making their own lanes, cutting each other off, and treating stop signs and traffic lights as “suggestions” are common place. One of my friends says it’s how people try to make up for being late everywhere. Taxi drivers have a special incentive to drive crazy, since they are only paid by the location they are going to, not the amount of time it takes, so they have a financial margin for getting places as quickly as possible.
If these sound like things that will make you pull your hair out, then weigh this against the positives when coming here. For many of us who enjoy Panama, the mañana culture is tolerable or even enjoyable. While I can get frustrated with the level and pace of service at times, one of the things I love about Panama is that people here just don’t have the same obsession with stressing over time and everything as we did back in the US. I find that to be a much more peaceful and relaxing existence.
This ties in with culture shock, but your ability to learn Spanish or deal with the language barrier is also going to factor into whether a move to Panama will be successful for you. Just like some people seem to treat Panama like America’s 51st state with regards to culture, they do the same with the language. And it’s not entirely their fault. Certain retirement sites, which shall remain nameless, have pushed the myth that everyone in Panama speaks English. This is simply not true. Nor should it be. Just like we shouldn’t expect Panamanians to adapt to our expectations of their culture, we shouldn’t expect them to have to adapt to speaking our language in their country. I’ve found while there is a wide range of English skill among the professional Panamanian class (from none at all to fully fluent), that there is little to no English spoken in the service sector. That means that while occasionally you will find someone who speaks some English, when taking a taxi, shopping in a store, or going out to eat, expect the person you are interacting with to only speak/understand Spanish.
I would recommend for every ExPat who plans on moving to Panama to learn at least some basic Spanish. My Spanish is definitely still a work in progress, and it’s one of the areas I struggle with when it comes to getting around here. Having a wife who is fluent is Spanish certainly helps me adjust. But when I need to get around on my own, I certainly struggle with it. You CAN survive in Panama without speaking much Spanish. I know ExPats who have been here for many years and barely speak a word. They get by with a lot of pointing, speaking slowly, and patience. I just think you’ll have a better overall experience if you are willing to learn the language. My goal when moving here was to be functionally fluent within 2 years, so I have 18 more months to accomplish that goal. In a future post, I’ll talk more about ways to learn basic Spanish while in Panama.
Cost of Living
Most people move to Panama at least partially for financial reasons. This is also pushed heavily by retirement sites. So is it true? Can you really live in Panama for a lot less than the US, or other “Western” countries? The answer is “most likely,” but it depends on what your previous lifestyle was, and the lifestyle you try to live in Panama.
I’ll start off by saying that the cheaper cost of living is one of the big reasons my wife and I decided to move here. And so far, that decision has worked well. We live a better quality of life here, for about 40% cheaper per month than our old life in the US. I’ll break down how we were able to do that in more detail in a future post, but it did involve certain lifestyle changes.
As far as your own personal cost of living in Panama, a lot of factors will go into determining what your cost/benefit will be. The biggest factor will be where you previously lived vs. where you are planning to live in Panama. As I mentioned earlier, there is a big cost difference to living in the city vs. the country side, particularly when it comes to rent. If you plan to live in the city, expect to pay $1000 or more for a two bedroom in a high rise in a good, ExPat friendly area. We currently pay $1100 a month for a 3 bedroom 2 bathroom condo in a good area on the 18th floor of a highrise with a great view. Our building has 24 hour security, and is within walking distance of two major supermarkets, and is a short cab ride to pretty much everywhere else in the city.
So is that affordable? Your answer probably depends on where you are coming from. If you are moving from New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, London, Paris, or any other major metropolitan, compact city, you are probably doing happy dances at your computer reading this news. And you should be. The truth is at these prices in Panama City, you get an experience similar to living in a good neighborhood in one of these international cities. The apartments have fantastic views, good amenities, are in a walk-able city that has accessible and affordable public transportation, so you are getting a New York type lifestyle for a fraction of the cost.
But if you are coming from a different part of the United States, or other parts of the world where rents are not expensive, you may be looking at an increase in rent. This is especially true if you are coming from an area where a typical two bedroom apartment can cost $500-600. However, that type of rent, or cheaper, is absolutely manageable in most areas of the country side.
Outside of where you choose to live, there are 4 other factors that will primarily impact your cost of living in Panama. That is where you buy your groceries, where you eat, how you get around, and whether you have kids.
Your cost of living for these items will largely depend on how much you embrace living like a local, or clinging to your old ways. Will you eat at local restaurants, or at trendy pubs and fancy restaurants? You can get a good meal for a couple of dollars at cafeteria style restaurants that locals frequent, but you can also pay $15 for a cheeseburger or $30+ for a steak at fancier or trendy establishments. Will you shop at local markets for groceries, or will you insist on buying imported items from home? Meat and produce, particularly if it’s bought at local markets, is much cheaper than it is in the United States. The same goes for most other basics. Eggs, bread, cheese, local items like empanadas and corn patties also are much cheaper. In fact, many basic goods are price controlled by the government, so they are locked at a price that is affordable to the average Panamanian. On the flip side, any goods that is imported from the US is likely to be more expensive, sometimes significantly more, than it would be to buy it back home.
Will you need a car, or can you get by with taxis, buses, and the metro? Buying a car here will be at least as expensive as a comparable car in the US (although somewhat cheaper to insure), and gas is either the same price, or a little more expensive, depending on where you came from in the US. However, taxis here are very cheap ($2-3 most places in the city), the bus costs $.25 and the Metro costs $.35. Living a car-less lifestyle is one of the main ways my wife and I safe money, compared to owning two cars in the US.
Kids are a wildcard when it comes to the cost of living in Panama, because of the cost of private, English language education. There are really only a handful of private schools in Panama that give a strong, English language education that would meet international standards for Western education. These schools often cost $10,000 or more per child per year. So if you move here with 3 children and plan on sending them all to private school, but we’re sending them to public school back home, that can quickly change Panama from being affordable to unaffordable.
When all is said and done, I do believe that ExPats who live in Panama and exercise financial restraint will see significant cost savings compared to their old life. On average, I would say an adult couple could live well, but not extravagantly, for $2500-$3000 a month in the city, and $2000 or even less in the countryside. However, if you’re not careful, you could easily see your costs jump significantly.
Try Before You Buy
The best piece of advice I can give is that before you move, schedule a visit of at least one week to scout out Panama and see for yourself if it’s right for you. I was shocked when I talked to other ExPats and heard how many had never visited Panama before they got off the plane to start their new life. For some of them, that worked out great. But it is definitely riskier. Visiting will give you the best idea of what your life in Panama will be like. The idea of Panama, romanticized from pictures seen on websites and the narrative you’ve constructed in your head, may be nothing like what you experience when you actually set foot here. Even all the advice blogs in the world are no match for actually being here and looking for yourself. Even if you have been before on vacation, before you were considering a move, I would recommend coming again. My wife and I did that, and it definitely helped us get better prepared for the move.
In summary, for many ExPats who decide to make the leap to Panama, it is a great decision that truly changes their life. However, that’s not true for all ExPats, and many fail because they did not have a realistic understanding of what life in Panama would be like, or even why they wanted to move to Panama in the first place. Many of the topics discussed in this post will be expanded on in future posts, but hopefully this gives you an understanding of some of the things you need to consider before making a move to Panama.