One of the biggest challenges many expats face when moving overseas is loneliness. Uprooting from all of your friends and family is tough, and it can be hard to know where to begin to look for new friends, especially if you do not speak the local language. Luckily, if you are feeling this, you are not alone, especially in Panama. There are 1000s of other expats like you, who have left everything behind, and are looking to meet other expats in similar situations. Because of that, there are many organizations and groups that help expats get connected with one another.
When I first moved to Panama, I was luckier than most. Since my wife is Panamanian, much of her family was already here, including her mother and an aunt and uncle who really helped us get settled. Even though my wife had been in the US for several years, she kept in close touch with one of her friends from Panama (who ended up being the maid of honor at our wedding), and we were very close with her and her husband before we moved to Panama. Even with that added base here that most expats don’t have, our first few months were pretty lonely. Neither of us are super extroverted people, so meeting new ones was a bit of a challenge, but with some work, and the help of various different organizations, we now have a diverse group of friends from all over the world. If we can do it, anyone can. Here are 7 ways to meet other expats in Panama.
As I mentioned in one of my earlier articles, I consider Internations to be the “gold standard” of expat networking organizations in Panama. This is only based off of my own personal experience, but Internations is how I have met most of the people I now consider to be good friends here. Internations is a diverse community of expats from all around the world, from young to old. They host a number of events each month for expats to meet other expats. They host two main socials a month, which are usually attended by at least 100 people. They also host events from “activity groups,” which their members can create and use to host different events for Internations members. This has lead to a lot of different events. Two mainstays are “Fast Friending,” which is like speed dating but for friends, and “DinnerNations,” where members gather and enjoy dinner together at a nice restaurant. Outside of these two events, other events are popping up all the time, like a poker game, book club, business networking, dance nights, and many others. The events are almost always in Panama City, but it’s not uncommon to meet people who drive an hour or two from the interior to come to them.
There are two things that really set Internations at the top of the pack in my opinion. The first is the diversity of the membership, both in location and age. I meet everyone from those in their early 20s to retirees, and from all across the world. I expected when I moved to Panama to meet Panamanians and other Americans, but I had no idea how many nationalities are represented here. Here are some of the countries that are a sampling of the people I’ve met through Internations: Panama, US, Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Germany, France, Spain, Iceland, Japan, Thailand, Switzerland, Finland, India, Curucao, Greece, the UK, and many others.
The second thing that really makes Internations work is that more than anywhere else, members really go out of their way to try to make conversation with people they don’t know, especially those who are in a corner by themselves and look lonely. Now, no place is perfect, and sometimes, depending on the event and the crowd and the atmosphere, people are more or less accessible. I’ve spoken with some people who have gone to their first Internations event and felt like they didn’t really meet anyone. However, usually when they take me up on my suggestion to give another event a try, they are glad that they did. I know personally it took a couple of events for me to really get to know people, but now that I go regularly, I am always meeting new people.
COST: Internations has two membership types, Basic and Albatross. Basic is free, but it costs $10 to go to one of the main events, and you have limited access to Activity Group events. The Basic Membership is good for people who want to try out an event or two to decide if they want to join. For those who want to attend events regularly, the Albatross membership is the way to go. You pay a small monthly fee, and then all of the events are free (unless of course, it’s something like dinner that carries it’s own cost, but you don’t pay anything to Internations). The fee varies depending on the length of your membership. I signed up for a 15 month membership (12 months plus 3 months free), for about $60 Euros. That ends up being less than $5 USD per month. And since the main events come with a free welcome drink, it usually pays for itself.
2. American Society of Panama
The American Society of Panama (AMSOC) is another good active group with a lot of events and members. AMSOC primarily targets Americans (obviously), but you will always meet a few people there who are not. It also definitely skews older on the age spectrum. While they have a handful of younger members (myself included), most of their members are older retirees.
AMSOC hosts monthly happy hour mixers, and several other events throughout the year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinners, a retreat in El Valle, and more. I haven’t been to any of their events besides the mixers, but I’ve gotten to know several of the American Society members, and even though I am much younger than most, I still enjoy attending and have made some very good connections through the organization. They also have one of the best email lists for information relevant to expats. In addition to emailing about their events, they send out a lot of other events that expats might enjoy, plus the security alerts from the US embassy. So if nothing else, make sure to join their email list.
COST: Their mixers have no cost, and are open to everyone, whether they are members of AMSOC or not. If you would like to become a member, it is $50 for the first year and $40 for renewal years. If you are married, the membership covers both you and your spouse for that price. The membership helps support AMSOC’s charity endeavors, and entitles you to discounts on their events that do cost money (such as their Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinners).
3. Young Expats in Panama
In addition to Internations and AMSOC, the Young Expats in Panama (YEP) is the other major expat organization that is very active and frequently hosting events. As you can guess by the name, YEP targets younger expats, mostly the young, 20-something party crowd. As someone who is 28 and married, I can sometimes feel too “old” for the Young Expats crowd. But that more has to do with me being an old man inside than my actual age. YEP doesn’t have an age cut off, so its events serve anyone who feels they identify with “young,” regardless of where they fall on the actual age spectrum.
My opinion of YEP in the past has been very mixed, and I have been vocal of criticism of some events that I felt didn’t live up to their billing or cost. Particularly in the middle of last year. However, I have given them another try and have been going to more events, and it definitely appears they have made some adjustments and improved over how thing were in the past. They are hosting more free mixers now, and their crowds have diversified both in age and nationality. I’ve been to two YEP events in February so far, and had a good time at both of them. So like the other two groups on here, I recommend that you check YEP out and see if it is for you. If you are younger and looking to meet younger people, YEP is the organization most geared towards you.
COST: Depends on the event. There is no “membership” for YEP, so you only pay for events you go to, and many are free. Some do carry a considerable cost with them, so my recommendation would be to try out some of their free events first, and see if YEP is a crowd you will fit in with.
4. Political Organizations.
For American citizens, you keep your right to vote even after you move overseas. As such, there are organizations that cater to those who are politically inclined. Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad are both active in Panama.
If you are not American, but live in a democratic country that has a large number of expats in Panama, check to see if there is a group in Panama for members of your political party living aboard. If there is not, and you think there should be one, consider starting one yourself. Many expats living in Panama come from countries where they do not enjoy democratic freedoms, so if you are lucky enough to have them, don’t waste it.
COST: There is no cost to be a member of either Democrats Abroad or Republicans Abroad.
5. Charity Organizations
While all of the skyscrapers and fancy new construction projects may be deceiving, Panama is still a country where there is a tremendous amount of need, and not nearly enough people to help with all of that need. So if you want to give back, you can both do something good for the community, and meet other expats in the process. Many service organizations will be in Spanish, but some cater to English speakers. Two I have been involved with is Club Kiwanis Canal de Panama and Footprint Possibilities. the Panama Canal Kiwanis Club is a mixed club of expats and Panamanians, but we conduct our business in English, which makes us the only Kiwanis Club in Panama to do so. We meet twice a month, and have at least one (sometimes many more) service events a month, mostly working with programs that help young children. Footprints Possibilities is a charity started by an expat that works on water construction projects in the community of Kuna Nega, with the aim to provide 24/7 water to thousands of Panama’s poorest residents. They do construction projects every Saturday morning where they need volunteers.
There are many other great organizations out there that serve the community, but it can be hard for expats to find information on them. That’s why I have created the Expats Give Back Facebook group, as a place where expats can go to look for service opportunities or post those that they have themselves. Please consider joining us over there. Also, if you are interested in more information about either Kiwanis or Footprints Possibilities, please feel free to reach out to me through the site or through email, and I can help get you more information.
COST: Depends on the organization. Club Kiwanis Canal de Panama charges monthly dues of $30 a month to help pay for overhead and support the clubs initiatives. Many other service organizations are free, but would love any donations you could send their way.
6. Religious Organizations
If you are a religious person, joining a church, temple, mosque, etc is another good way to meet other expats. I know for sure there are English language Christian Churches and Jewish Temples in Panama, and I am sure that there are other English language houses of worship for other religions as well. My wife and I are members of Crossroads Bible Church, which is a non-denominational Protestant church in Cardenas in the old Canal Zone. They host three daily services on Sunday, with a mix of local and expat attendees. The pastor preaches in English, but they have headsets where it is simultaneously translated into Spanish. I’ve met a number of expats through other pursuits in Panama who attend my church, and its given us something big in common to build a relationship off of. It is not the only English language house of worship in Panama by any means, so if you are looking for something specific, chances are Panama will have it.
COST: I’m not aware of any religious organization that charges to attend services, but I am sure they would all very much appreciate your donations.
Chances are, if you are reading this article, you found it on a Facebook group, or it was shared to you by someone who found it on a Facebook group. Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool for meeting other expats in Panama, and it’s how I’ve gotten most of the information that has connected me to the first 6 items I’ve written on this list. There are a number of different Facebook groups that serve expats in Panama, the three biggest are Expats in Panama (5000 members), Young Expats in Panama (3000 members), and Tropical Cowboys and Cowgirls (1700 members). You can find many other ones by searching on Facebook of “expats in Panama” and more will pop up.
I first found out about Internations and the American Society through an expat I had connected with on Facebook once we realized we were both from the same area in Florida and were fans of the same football teams. When I introduce myself to other expats at events, they often go “oh yeah, you’re that guy from the groups.” A lot of that has to do with the blog (it’s really cool when I get people I never met come up to me at events and go “hey, are you the guy who writes Panama for Beginners?”), but even if you don’t have a blog to write, if you are active on the forums and help people with response to their questions, people will notice you, and it will make them feel like they already know you when they first meet you.
Just a word of warning: We all tend to behave worse on the internet (and I have certainly been guilty of this at times, despite my best efforts to avoid it) than we do in real life, because we tend to not really think it’s a person on the other end of our comments, or think we will never meet the people we are arguing with. Panama is such a small country, especially the expat community, and you will meet people in person that you have interacted with online. And if you are a jerk to people online, that is the pre-conceived notion they will have of you when they meet you in person.
COST: Despite that meme that your aunt keeps sharing, Facebook is and always will be free of charge.