Living the Dream
From the Hills to the Beach: Retire in Panama
“The Best Decision I Ever Made”
Name: Louise Orr
From: South Carolina
Living in: Boquete
Louise Orr finds it hard to stay in. Though she retired early at the age of 53, she doesn’t have much free time. “There are days when I say, thank God I don’t have to be anywhere,” she says. “Days when I can just work in the yard, or read a book.” It’s not that Louise is tied down to a business or a job…it’s just that there are so many fun and worthwhile things to do.
“I was working in the wine industry when I decided I was ready for a new chapter,” says Louise. Though she considered other countries, Panama kept “popping up” on her radar as a good place to live. Panama offers excellent flight connections, which appealed to Louise’s desire to travel. “I just flew direct to Amsterdam via KLM,” she says, as she enthusiastically describes her visit to Europe. “And Panama uses the U.S. dollar, which makes it a bit easier for people from the States.”
Panama’s stable government was also a plus in her eyes. She read about areas like El Valle, a valley town near Panama City, and the pristine beach of Boca Chica. But once she got boots on the ground in 2005, it was the mountain hamlet of Boquete that grabbed her attention.
“My first impressions were very positive,” she says. “I found Panama City’s heat and humidity to be too much for me, since I was more accustomed to Charleston, where I had lived last.”
Boquete, on the other hand, is relatively cool, with spring-like temperatures in the 70s to low 80s F on most days. Though she wasn’t initially looking for a gated community, Louise saw quite a few “up-and-coming” developments that caught her fancy. Eventually, she settled on a mountain-view community called Los Molinos. “I moved in exactly five years ago this week,” she says. “And it’s one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.”
Louise has thrown herself into the community and has both expat and Panamanian friends. Today, she is chairwoman of the local branch of a charity called Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors) that provides food to over 100 families a month. Her charity and several others benefit from an annual fundraiser called Bid4Boquete.com, in which she is involved a good eight months of every year. The initiative is a two-day affair, with wine tastings, live and silent auctions, and a fair. “Last year we raised $68,000,” says Louise—a real feat, considering the average salary in Panama is about $400 a month.
There are plenty more charities to get involved in, but that’s not all by a long shot. There’s a yearly jazz festival, a new theater and community center with shows in English (where you’re likely to see Louise on stage), a single expats club, birding clubs, golf greens, beach trips, and more.
“We call it playing in the sandbox,” jokes Louise. “We have a lot of fun.” And yet she manages to live on an average budget of about $2,000 a month. “I keep close track,” she says, “and I account for everything, from a glass of wine to my car maintenance to my monthly homeowner’s fees (she has no mortgage debt). You could live here on less, but I am used to a certain lifestyle,” she explains. “I like to dine out and entertain, so I keep the bar stocked.”
Factor in the cost of cable television, Internet, occasional games of golf, a gardener twice a month, and maid service once a week, and you get the picture…the lifestyle is pretty sweet.
With so much to do at a low cost, it’s no wonder the 63-year-old is hard-pressed for free time. And when a new expat asked her, “Will I be bored here?” Louise’s answer was simple and straightforward: “Ma’am, if you are bored here, that is your fault!”—Jessica Ramesch
“We Love Our Time Spent Here”
Names: Judi and Mike Barbier
Ages: 60 and 61
From: Toronto, Canada
Living in: Coronado
Judi Barbier, 60, is a snowbird. And just like the feathery fliers that escape south when the weather grows cold, she divides her time between two locales: her hometown of Toronto and her new part-time residence in the beach town of Coronado, Panama.
It was International Living that first put Panama on her radar. “The reports we read helped convince us to explore the idea of a retirement home here,” says Judi. Now she spends every December to May in Panama.
It’s the perfect snowbird set-up: eternal summer. “In a couple of years that will change to more time in Panama. We will always maintain our principal residence in Canada, but we love our time spent here,” she says.
Judi and her husband Mike had looked to Costa Rica as a possible investment and part-time residence. But Panama’s modern infrastructure got their attention. “We started to vacation in Panama in 2006,” she says. Four years later, Judi and Mike bought their home in Coronado, only an hour from Panama City…a big plus for anyone who needs to pop into town for work (or who enjoys the city nightlife from time to time).
Coronado is in the region known as the Arco Seco, or “dry arc,” which gets little rain compared to other parts of the country. Whereas Panama’s “wettest” areas (mostly on the Caribbean coast) can receive up to 129 inches of rain a year, the Arco Seco gets less than half that, typically about 69 inches at most. So during the eight-month-long rainy season, on average, you’re getting much less than an inch of rain a day. Most days start out sunny, with only an hour or so of rain in the mid- to late-afternoon.
It’s also known for its fun-loving, active expat community. Though on the surface it looks like just another cute beach town, deep down Coronado has a great deal to offer. From business opportunities to countless options for entertainment, volunteerism, and more, it’s the kind of place where you can be as busy as you like. Hold a charity event at restaurant and community hangout Picasso, teach underprivileged kids at expat-initiative Finca La Maya, or focus on one of the many business or social niches that have yet to be filled.
“What do I like best about my time here? I have to say the obvious: the weather, the beach, and the people,” says Judi. She is also enjoying learning about the culture and the language. “I have focused a lot of time in the past four years on studying Spanish,” she says. “I believe it is disrespectful to not try to communicate in the language of the country where one has chosen to reside. It’s a process, certainly, but poco a poco I am getting there. I’m grateful that this experience has forced me to challenge myself,” she adds.—Jessica Ramesch
“I Pay Less for Everything”
Name: Joyce Perrin
Age: It’s a Secret!
From: Edmonton, Canada
Living in: Panama City
“On an ideal day, I get up, sit on my balcony, and read a bit. Then I exercise or take a swim in the pool, and come back for breakfast. I might check my email or go for coffee with a friend. Later I might play bridge, or go to the National Theater, or meet with one of my clubs. There are just endless things to do,” says Joyce Perrin.
The Canadian transplant traveled the world before settling on Panama. After stints everywhere from the Mediterranean to Asia and then South America, she had seen 200-plus countries. But as travel became more of a hassle and less fun, she decided she was ready for a change.
“I was ready to settle down,” says Joyce, “so I put some thought into the criteria that mattered to me.” On her list were drinkable water, proximity/easy travel to North America, and good medical care.
“After volunteering in a lot of remote locations, I also wanted a good-sized expat community,” she adds. She traveled all the way through Central America, but only Panama fit all her criteria. “Having traveled so many countries before, I knew what I wanted. It didn’t take me long to decide that Panama was it,” says Joyce.
Panama City’s large, active expat community appealed to Joyce, and she settled in El Cangrejo, a city-center neighborhood dotted with little cafés and restaurants. It’s a walkable, bustling area that draws young backpackers and bohemian types, artists, musicians and expats from around the world.
Joyce also works here. She has written for her home paper in Edmonton and is currently working on an e-book about her travels. The flexibility of writing allows her to take advantage of all Panama City has to offer, while still making an income.
“I like it very much,” she says. “My neighborhood is very homey and friendly, and, in the past four-and-a-half years, I’ve really seen Panama grow. More so now than before, we have all kinds of art exhibits, top entertainers, foreign-film festivals…there are so many cultural activities.”
Plus, she adds, it is easy to make friends. “There are Canadian and U.S. organizations here that can help you meet people, and all the other nationalities here seem to have something, too.” The Alliance Française offers French classes and film festivals…the Spanish club has helped make flamenco popular in Panama…and the Lebanese community boasts some of the city’s best restaurants (belly dancers, hookahs, and all).
“Overall, this is a fun place to live! People here are always interesting. And the low cost of living and discounts for retirees are very helpful.”
As a retiree resident, she has only to flash her local ID and she pays less than her younger friends. “The discounts are for Panamanians and residents, and I’ve never had any trouble using them as an expat,” says Joyce. She gets 50% off admission for movies and theater performances…25% off domestic flights…30% to 50% off hotel stays. There are discounts for everything from medical treatment to mortgage closing costs.—Jessica Ramesch
Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. To get full access to all past and future articles and to receive the magazine in the mail or online each month, simply click on the below button to subscribe to International Living magazine at the special introductory price of $49. You will get instant access to the current issue of the magazine as well 10 years of back issues. As an added bonus, we will also send you a FREE report – How to Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day. (You can cancel your subscription at any time.)