Looking Back at My First Year in Panama

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Today, February 27th, marks the one year anniversary of when my wife and I packed up our lives in Tampa, Florida, where I had lived for the last 7 years, and she had lived for the last 3, and moved to Panama. It was a huge life change, but each day I grow more and more confident that I made the right choice. I wanted to write a post to commemorate my first year in Panama, but I didn’t really have a set idea as to what to write about. So I’ve decided to write just a free-flowing post about thoughts from my year in Panama and what I think about the country, the people, the changes I’ve seen to Panama over the last year.

Panama has made it really hard not to constantly troll all of my northeast friends and family about their winter weather. It almost seems too cruel when enjoying another day of 90 degree heat to rub it in the faces of those who are sitting in -10 and two feet of snow.

However, there is a downside of the constant high heat. It can be easy to get overheated if one isn’t really careful. That’s why we usually avoid going outside midday, and usually go either early morning or late afternoon/evening.

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Panama City is the first place I’ve really lived that I’ve been able to enjoy being a tourist in my home city. I’ve lived plenty of other places across the world, but never really enjoyed what they had to offer. In Panama I actually enjoy doing things like going to see the ships pass through the canal and walking through Panama Viejo. It’s been really cool to get to fully enjoy what a city has to offer.

Maybe I’m just spoiled from living in Tampa, but while I like the beaches in Panama, I don’t find them amazing. Florida has much nicer beaches. The one benefit Panama beaches have is that if you go to some resorts, their beaches are basically secluded. We were the only ones on the beach when we went to the JW Marriot in Buena Ventura, and that was really cool.

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On the other hand, we were truly amazed by El Valle. If we didn’t need to be close to the city for work, I could totally see us living there for part of the year. It was just so beautiful, calm, and serene. It was like life’s worries just lifted off of us while we were there. I can’t wait to go back.

Speaking of life’s worries, it’s pretty easy to see why Panamanians are ranked as the worlds happiest people. It doesn’t mean that Panamanians don’t have complaints or stresses in their lives. But overall, they don’t let the little things get to them and just generally try to enjoy life, even if their individual circumstances aren’t the greatest.

In fact, usually the grumpiest people I find in Panama are other expats. Many could learn a thing of two from Panamanians. Gotta stay tranquilo.

I love how even though Panama City is a dense, developed, city, there is still a lot of parkland and green. Parque Metropolitano is a jungle oasis in the middle of the city. Cinta Costera and Parque Omar have miles nicely landscaped parkland with amphitheaters, sports courts, outdoor gyms, and much more. There are smaller parks all throughout the city. And right outside the city, there’s the beautiful Soberania National Forest, which is a huge nature reserve that include the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo, as well as the Gamboa Rainforest resort.

In general, Panama is pretty much a nature lovers dream. For a country that is smaller than the state of South Carolina, there is an incredible amount of geological and biological diversity. Panama has beaches, islands, rain forest, dense jungle, waterfalls, mountains, volcanic craters, and even a desert.

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One of the coolest things I got to do while I’ve been here (and really, one of the coolest things I’ve got to do anywhere), is to tour the construction of the new canal locks. To call that project massive is the biggest understatement in the world. I felt so tiny standing in the middle of the chambers. I even got to go inside the walls (where water the new locks will use will be recycled). I got to tour it while construction was going on, which was rare. It helped to have a really good friend who was an engineer on the project. I can’t wait until next year and the massive post-Panamax ships are going through the new locks.

I still don’t understand how people see Panama as more expensive than living in America. Sure, there are certain things that are more expensive, but I still have a hard time believing that there are many expats here who actually have a monthly budget in Panama that is above what they lived on in the US, unless they’ve greatly improved their lifestyle. We are living for about half the cost of life in America, and feel like we are living a better life.

I go back and forth on how far my ability to speak Spanish has come. Some days I can have full conversations about life with taxi drivers, other days I feel like I just got off the plane and just want to say “que?”  to everything. I’ve gotten pretty conversational with texting/messaging, but I have trouble with real time conversation, especially with understanding Panamanians. I have myself 2 years to become fluent when I moved here, so I have one year to go. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I feel like I have a shot at it. 

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Since I moved here, Line 1 of the Panama Metro became operational. We’ve only taken it a couple of times because there isn’t a stop close to our home, but it seems to run really smoothly. For those who live close to metro stops, I know it is a huge time saver for getting around the city. It won’t be $.35 a ride forever (and probably not much longer), but its a heck of a steal right now.

I got to be here during the Panama Presidential Election, which for a political nerd like me, was really cool. If we think we go all out for politics in the US, they do even more so here. The first couple of months I was here, it was all elections all the time. Panamanians take their democracy very seriously. They only have one election every 5 years (for everything). There are no midterm elections, which I think overall is smart. It keeps voters from getting voter/election fatigue. In my home area in the US, there were 9 or 10 elections in a 4 year period. That’s way to many. Having only one election every 5 years is part of the reason why Panama gets close to 80 percent turnout. They also hold it on a Sunday and make public transportation free.

While I haven’t supported everything he’s done, I’ve been generally positive on President Varela’s tenure so far. He seems to be taking concrete action to protect Panama’s environment, and he’s also doing more to help Panama’s poor. While President Martinelli helped do a lot of things that greatly developed Panama over his tenure, but the environment was largely disregarded and a lot of Panama’s poor were left behind.

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Speaking of development, development in Panama seems to still be going at a breakneck pace. In my one block alone, there are 4 different high-rise projects building a total of 6 towers that should hold over 1000 new apartments when they are all completed. I have no idea how they are going to fill all these apartments, which will probably all rent for a minimum of $1000 a month. 85% of Panamanians make less than $1000 a month, and while is some flow of new expats coming into the country, it doesn’t seem like enough to fill all the new development.

Uber also launched during my year in Panama. While I started out loving the service, I now have a more mixed opinion. In the last year, they’ve raised prices, implemented surge pricing, and I’ve seen the quality of drivers decrease.

On the other hand, I’ve felt like taxis are getting better. Maybe it’s just because I’ve gotten better at managing them, or maybe it’s because they feel more pressure from Uber/the metro, or because of lower gas prices. Taxi drivers have been more polite, have kept their cars better air conditioned, and overall provided better service than they used to. I also can’t remember the last time a driver tried to overcharge me for a ride. In fact, it’s been much more common lately to have a driver volunteer to give me back money that I didn’t think I was supposed to get.

Between the buses, metro, taxis, and even Uber, I’ve been amazed at how cheap it is to get around Panama without a car. My wife and I probably spend $200-$250 a month on transportation expenses. Compare that to about $1300 a month from two car payments, two insurance payments, maintenance, and gas when we were living in Tampa. 

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Speaking of expats, one of the things that pleasantly surprised me about Panama City is what a diverse international population it has. I expected to meet Panamanians and other Americans, but I had no idea that over the past 12 months I would get the opportunity to meet and get to know people from dozens of different countries.

It’s still crazy to me that I write a blog about Panama that people actually read. What was just an idea six months ago to kill some time and get out some of my thoughts on Panama, has turned into a blog that’s been read almost 60,000 times from over 150 different countries and territories. I am incredibly thankful to everyone who has supported this blog by reading, sharing, and commenting.

I am also really excited that I’ve finally been able to get our Expats Give Back initiative off the ground. We will be hosting our first fundraiser on Thursday, March 5th at 7pm at the GastroBar at the TRYP Albrook Hotel. The suggested donation is $20, and all of that will go towards supporting Hogar Rosa Virginia, which is a home that provides safe haven to young mothers and their children. We will have live music, a free door raffle, and 2×1 drinks all night. I really hope that some of you can make it. If you have Facebook, please RSVP and invite friends here

So after a year in Panama, these are some of my thoughts about this amazing country that I have grown to love. I can’t wait to see where the next year (and hopefully many more) take us.

Posted in While You're Here.

5 Comments

  1. Hi, nice blog about Panama! I just left this country after 2 years and I am wondering what your feelings are regarding the safety,which was my reason the leave…

  2. I love your blogs. Not only are you honest about the both the negative and positive aspects but you give real time examples. I lived in Panama for over 30 years before the military bases were closed in 1999. But now that I am retiring I am trying to convince my boyfriend that Panama is the place to retire. I have to admit that one of my favorite things about your blog is your positive attitude. Sure there are things that are different then living in the states, but we complain about stuff in the states too. I really believe that it is all about attitude. Working for the Department of Defense I’ve been blessed to have lived in Puerto Rico, Germany and the US. And there are those who will complain no matter where they are. Keep up the good work. Going to visit with the boyfriend in July. Cross your fingers I can get him to see the country through my eyes and he will think moving there is a great idea!

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