Low-Cost Living by Panama’s Diamond Beach


“We don’t have white-sand beaches—we have a black and white one,” Ellen Cook says. “When the sun’s on it, it looks like diamonds, the sparkle on the black sand.”

The beach Ellen is referring to is Coronado beach, located just two blocks from her house in the resort town of Coronado, Panama.

This beach is one of the biggest perks of her life here, Ellen says. And with temperatures in Coronado averaging 85 degrees, she frequently takes full advantage of having the Pacific Ocean on her doorstep. Though a recent leg and knee injury curbed her visits for a little while, she was itching to get back to the beach as soon as her injuries were sufficiently healed.

“I’m out there again,” she says. “I’m swimming in the ocean three days a week… I just climb out of the car, take what we need, go in the ocean and then drive back.”

It’s a far cry from the hectic life she and her husband, John, had before they retired. Running two businesses between them, the couple often found themselves working 16-hour days.

Though they enjoyed what they did, it began to take a physical toll—especially on Ellen. But in that way that life has of making you slow down and take stock of what’s important, being diagnosed with cancer forced Ellen to make some drastic changes.

“I had some medical problems, dealing with lymphoma. We owned a bed and breakfast in Florida and we were over our heads. The insurance was killing us; the taxes were killing us…”

She and John, anxious to get out from under the pressure, sold the B & B quickly—without making much of a profit.

“We kind of gave it away—but it was worth it because I couldn’t have a lot of stress and deal with cancer.”

From there, they began to consider a new life overseas. Having already visited and having been enamored with the laidback lifestyle they found in the increasingly popular expat town of Coronado, the couple decided to buy a three-bedroom house close to the beach—which came with an above-ground pool.

And, after paying $135,000 for the house, Ellen and John are by no means living on a lavish budget. Though Ellen receives $850 a month in Social Security, John has another two years to go before he is eligible for the same payment. Currently, he has an income of $250.

Despite living on just $1,100 a month between two people, Ellen says they have a good life, affording to go out for dinner once a week and enjoying the occasional splurge.

The couple also avails of the pensionado discount, a program offered by the Panamanian government to qualifying retirees. This discount program gives them 25% off both their water and electric bills, as well as money off flights and meals out.

The couple can even afford to pay others to maintain the property.

“I never cleaned!” Ellen admits. “I haven’t my whole life. John would clean if we needed to. But now a cleaner comes for $15. She comes for the day. And she does everything top to bottom—porches, outside areas—once a week. She’s a sweet girl. She’s like part of our family.”

They also employ a gardener regularly.

“The gardener’s $20 and we have a big landscape. We don’t really have to do anything besides watering out there… I grow my herbs and I’ve started growing spinach on my back porch.”

Three years on, Ellen has no regrets about making the move—and has no plans to ever return permanently to the U.S. It’s just a short three-hour flight to visit her son and daughter in Florida and from there, another daughter in New York… but she still finds it hard to leave the beautiful weather in Coronado.

“We’re originally from New York and it used to be dark, like, horrible for at least seven months. We don’t miss it. In fact, I don’t even go and visit in the winter any more. I can’t take the cold. And you know, after you’ve lived in a climate like this, it’s very hard for you to go to a cold clime.”

Though Ellen can just about tear herself away from the 85-95 degree days, John has yet to manage it.

“It’s been three years and my husband vows that he won’t even go back to visit—ever! He loves Panama,” Ellen explains and then corrects herself.

“We love Panama,” she says contentedly.

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