My first year in Panama City, I started my mornings with a $0.15 cup of strong, dark coffee. (That’s how the locals drink it, and the only way it’s made at food stalls.) I would also usually buy a little bag of corn fritters, or torrejas de maiz, for $0.25. Very greasy and very tasty.
The food-stall cook didn’t speak English, and I was still learning Spanish. But with my limited vocabulary and some pointing and smiling, I got by ok.
Coffee in hand, I would hop on a bus full of locals chattering in Spanish. It took me the better part of the year before I could understand those conversations. But I had fun learning. And looking back, I can say I experienced the real Panama.
These days, I’m settled and my life has changed. I finally got over my fear of driving in the busy city streets, and bought a small car. I became fluent in Spanish and stopped taking classes at one of the local schools. These days, more of my friends have international rather than strictly Panamanian backgrounds. We enjoy planning dinners at the city’s ritzy restaurants (and drinks at trendy new hotels). And yet I still live in the same part of town.
You see, Panama City is the kind of place where you can live pretty much any lifestyle.
There are so many places in the world that attract expats. Some offer modern conveniences and affordable health care. Others offer a very low cost of living and opportunities to delve into local culture. And a very few offer all that and more.
That’s what Panama City is to me—a true “have it all” destination…with high-speed Internet, top-notch roads, quality health care…and a rich cultural landscape.
Say you choose to live like a local. You might buy or rent an apartment on or near Via España (one of the city’s main arteries). Your rent would likely cost you $500 to $800 a month. You might shop at the city’s best bargain stores…Super 99 or Extra for groceries and household products. Or Saks for inexpensive clothing, bedding, knickknacks, and more. Dinner and a beer at popular eatery La Inmaculada would cost you $10 at most. And at small clinicas near your home, you could see a doctor for as little as $6.
On the other hand, apartments in elite Bella Vista rent for $1,200 to $2,500 a month, depending on size and proximity to the waters of the Panama Bay. In this neighborhood, trendy restaurants abound. You could spend $45 on an appetizer, main course, and a couple glasses of wine at Barcelona, in the Trump Hotel. Doctor’s consults at the nearby Punta Pacifica Hospital cost around $50. It’s the only Johns Hopkins affiliated hospital in Central America (and the region’s most technologically advanced medical facility).
And as for shopping, familiar brands line the shelves at El Rey and Riba Smith supermarkets. You’ll pay full price for imported goods, but everything you could possibly want is available. There are soy and Gardein products for vegans and vegetarians, specialty cheeses from around the world, and all kinds of luxury items, from caviar to salmon.
The malls are just as varied, with Albrook Mall housing familiar brands like Gap and Guess. MultiPlaza Mall has an entire designer wing, where Hermès and Louis Vuitton storefronts cause many a tourist to stop in her tracks. All this in a city where you can buy a pair of jeans for $1.99 (I kid you not…try Saks or Dorians).
And, don’t forget, with the Pensionado residence program you get discounts on everything: hotel rooms…meals in restaurant…movie and concert tickets…doctors’ visits…and more… To qualify, you need only provide proof of a guaranteed pension income of $1,000 a month from a corporation or government agency. That requirement drops to $750 a month if you buy a home for $100,000 or more.
At the end of the day, the choice of how much you spend here is yours. You can live very well here on $2,000 a month…though if you want a more extravagant lifestyle, it’s very easy to spend double that.
At city events and festivals you can learn as much as you want about Panamanian food, dances, and traditions. You can take buses, taxis, or the metro and rub elbows with locals (this is one of the best ways to improve your Spanish). You can also join in the many expat or international activities, patronize the arts, and meet like-minded individuals from here and elsewhere.
Panama City…called PTY by its residents…is multi-faceted. Each neighborhood has a different feel. There are areas where you won’t see a single skyscraper. Where salsa music spills out onto the streets from behind thin wooden doors and ladies walk to the corner store in curlers.
People may try and tell you that the city is one way or the other. But you know as well as I do: the truth is always more complicated than stereotypes. That’s especially true in good old PTY. So if you’re tempted by modern city conveniences, but concerned you’ll miss out on local culture…don’t be. It’s all here: the very best parts of life in Panama.
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