Right Now Could be the Best Time to Come to Panama...the Hub of the Americas
Panama has long been the prime choice for retirees, second-home buyers, and property investors alike. Today you can still find apartments in sought-after areas of Panama City for $80,000 and live well on $1,200 per month.
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- Population: 3,559,408
- Capital City: Panama City
- Climate: Tropical maritime; hot, humid, cloudy; prolonged rainy season (May to January), short dry season (January to May)
- Time Zone: GMT-5
- Language: Spanish (official), English 14%; (many Panamanians are bilingual)
- Country Code: 507
- Coastline: 2,490 km
There are plenty of reasons to retire to Panama, and several reasons I love being a retiree in Chiriqui Province. What are they? Well, there’s the weather and the natural surroundings, the variety of fun things to do, and to top it all off, the low cost of living. In the city of David, where I live, a couple can live very comfortably on just $1,500 a month—including rent. The quality of life you get for that amount is hard to beat.
When Bob and Irma Caragol started looking for their new retirement home, they knew what they wanted. “We were looking for a warm climate at a high elevation, enough land for a garden with a good water source, a safe way to diversify our assets, and an affordable cost of living,” recalls Bob. They found all this and more in Santa Fe, Panama. “We are so impressed by the people of Santa Fe,” Bob says. “They are so friendly and helpful and we feel welcome here. There’s no sense of class distinction as in other places, and almost no crime. The environment is unspoiled, with clean rivers and no pollution.”
If you fancy the rural lifestyle—unbothered by traffic and hurry—but with all of the conveniences of a city close by, there’s a location in Panama that should be on your radar. In the highlands of the Veraguas Province in west-central Panama, you’ll find Santa Fe. It’s a small town that offers all the beauty and comfort of the rainforest, fresh produce from the fertile volcanic soils, and an easygoing lifestyle of bygone days in the States. Nearby, in the lowlands, you’ll find the city of Santiago—and all the convenience and variety of a small city. That includes plenty of shopping and all the options for entertainment and indulgence you could crave. Though only about an hour apart by road, these two are worlds apart in character.
In this article, we outline the best five tropical island paradises for retirees. These places meet all the criteria needed to make them perfect retirement havens. As well as looking the part, all five of these islands—spread throughout the world—are becoming easier to get to as more and more flights open up to and from North America. Many tropical getaways have been consumed by commercialism, leaving them beyond every reasonable budget. But the islands on our list remain affordable, as attested by our expat experts on the ground. On some, it’s possible to live for as little as $1,500 a month including rent.
“Florida was nice but boring,” Maryann Risley says of her retirement to Orlando with husband, Steve. After all, “you can only visit Disney World so many times.” The couple craved some excitement and some new adventure, so they began to research retirement abroad. “I found IL magazine and started to read about the benefits of retiring in Panama,” Maryann says.
Turquoise blue water, white sand, palms swaying in the breeze, and a cold drink in hand…it’s the setting for a new life on one of Central America’s picture perfect Caribbean islands. In a place like this, the cares of the world melt away and you are very much on island time.
“I wasn’t really looking to make a move at all,” says Deborah Gershon. “I came to visit Boquete in Panama’s Chiriqui Highlands a few times in order to decide whether it might be my ultimate retirement spot.” “Somewhere along the way on my last visit, it occurred to me that there really wasn’t any reason to wait, since I could telecommute nearly as well from Panama as I was doing from California.” Born and raised in Los Angeles, 59-year-old Deborah is an attorney.
I live in Boqueron, a small community in the highland province of Chiriqui, an area almost completed overlooked by expats but filled with friendly locals. Here I rent a comfortable, air-conditioned house—fully-furnished—on a pretty little river for just $175 a month. For another $25 a month, someone comes regularly to maintain the yard. I live among great neighbors, manage comfortably on just a little money, and with decent internet connection, can chat to the folks back home whenever I wish.
Anne Gordon de Barrigón didn’t want to come to Panama the first time she was invited. “But it was a period of transition in my life and I was restless,” she recalls. “So my friend convinced me and I just fell in love with the country and the people. I knew it was the right place for me and I’ve been here ever since.” That was in 2004. Today Anne, age 57, lives in the leafy and tranquil Ancon neighborhood of Panama City with her husband and together they own and operate whale-watching and indigenous village tours.
One of the best things about living in Chiriqui Province is the ease with which I can change my environment to suit my mood. I live on the north side of the provincial capital of David, and from my home many of the best places to see and things to do are only about an hour away. Boca Chica, for instance, is a bit more than an hour’s drive east of David right on the Pacific coast. I went there with my husband recently for a brief birthday holiday, a little R&R.
Crackle! Pop! Fizz! It isn’t my morning cereal talking to me. It’s midnight on February 14, and the sound of fireworks has us all running to the balcony. Over Panama Bay, we watch flower and star-shaped formations explode into the night sky, then cascade into the Pacific. Back in the States, Valentine’s Day would hardly be cause for such jubilation, but in Panama it is Carnival season. The dates change every year, so festivities can take place during the four days preceding Catholic Lent. One might say that Panamanians mark their calendars religiously, but Carnival is not about being good or saintly. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Ah yes, another warm, sunny day in Panama is drawing to a close. It’s been just one of many afternoons spent reclining lazily on our terrace watching the iguanas, birds, and squirrels cavorting in our yard. Unfortunately the day did not start out that way. My poor husband suffers periodically from allergies and, after completing some vigorous yard work he had irritated, sore eyes and itchy skin. But after a quick trip to our local farmacia (pharmacy) he was symptom-free.
In Panama, you can choose where you want to live based solely on the climate you want. The fact surprises a lot of people. “Isn’t Panama a tropical country, lying so close to the equator?” Well, yes, it is, but here’s the thing…because of the wide range of elevations, it offers an amazing choice of climates. Suppose you’re a beach lover, seeking the warmth of the sun, balmy breezes tinged with salty humidity, and long stretches of sandy shoreline facing nothing but endless ocean to the horizon.
Since we moved to Panama in 2010, we spend most of our time outside…breathing the fresh air and looking at nature. We eat out on the patio, play games there, listen to music, draw, read, or play darts. In the mornings, my wife and I go to the patio and drink our coffee and look at the garden we have made. We’re keen gardeners and the Panamanian climate is perfect for growing things—all year around. The garden has palms and many other tropical plants. I make bonsai trees and am working on growing more plants to sell to the nurseries. I also have an orchid collection. It’s my first venture into making money from a hobby and I’m looking at a potential $1,000 a month. That goes a long way in Panama.
Coffee plantations and orange groves line the slopes outside of the town of Santa Fe. Sparkling rivers, like the Santa Maria and Mulaba, rush around huge boulders to flow gently between the trees. Giant peaks tower above, one after the other, with names like El Salto, Cerro Tute, El Sapo, and Cerro Mariposa. With an elevation around 1,500 feet, Santa Fe is blessed with year-round cool temperatures, averaging in the 80s F during the daytime and 60s F at night. Clear blue skies yield to misty clouds among the mountain tops and in the low valleys. For nature-lovers, it doesn’t get any better.
“I came to Panama 10 years ago on vacation and never left,” says Carl Conway. “I was drawn in by the sunshine and blue skies…the warm water and sandy beaches…the palm trees and bright flowers…it was a tropical paradise.” Now age 43, Carl enjoys a rich and laidback life in the rural town of Santa Fe in Veraguas Province of central Panama.
When my husband, Gary, and I retired part-time to Panama it was to escape bleak Canadian winters. We spend the summer months in Canada and when the first snows come, we fly south. Panama, with its magnificent beaches and warm climate offers daily sunshine…inexpensive living…and leisurely hours just sitting on our terrace watching the iguanas and the birds. If we want to venture forth we can hop in our car and tour the countryside, walk near the village of Cerro Punta in the high country, browse the marvellous and modern library in Boquete, or attend the delightful flea market near Dolega.
Film editor and producer Sarah Tyler was living in New York when she decided she was ready to say goodbye to grueling winters. “I also wanted the experience of traveling abroad and practicing Spanish,” she says. Sarah now lives in Panama City’s Casco Viejo sector, where she feels at home among the cobbled streets and colonial plazas that she loves. “It’s a neighborhood known for its beauty and historical value,” says Sarah. “There’s a great bohemian vibe thanks to the people that live and visit here—artists, wayfaring travelers, investors, and entrepreneurs from all over the world.”
Residents of the country pay into La Caja. The fee is 7% to 11% of the person’s monthly income, which provides coverage for a spouse as well as a dependent. “After you pay your monthly fee, you receive free care,” says InternationalLiving.com Costa Rica editor Jason Holland. “Anything you need is available through a nationwide network of clinics and hospitals: doctor’s visits, medical testing, prescriptions, major surgeries, and hospitalization,” Holland says.
If you love boisterous, colorful celebrations, folklore, and pageantry you will love retirement in Panama. Panamanians work hard and play hard; they have music in their souls. They’re happy, gregarious folks who love to set aside their cares and woes and “party hearty.” You’ll find arguably more formal opportunities to celebrate in Latin America than anywhere else on earth.
There’s a magical mountain town waiting for you to discover it. To get there, you turn off a busy highway onto an easy-to-miss little road that snakes up into the mountains. A couple hours ago, you were in a cosmopolitan capital studded with skyscrapers…but now you’re enveloped in a green rainforest cocoon. It feels a million miles away from the hurry of the city…
“I love the greens and blues,” says Washington native Deb Crofutt of her new life on a tropical island. “I love the smiles on the faces of everyone I make eye contact with. I like being away from the hustle and bustle of home and the pressure to own ‘things.’ I spent so many years working in the corporate world just to have stuff. This is a simpler, better life.” Imagine the feel of the warm sun on your shoulders as you walk along a pristine white sand beach stretching to the horizon, fringed by palm fronds and the sumptuous blue ocean.
Panama is a small country that packs in a lot. From the vibrant social scene of Panama City—with its multitude of bars and fine dining at affordable costs—to the peaceful mountain serenity of Chiriquí province and the tropical paradise of Bocas del Toro, this retirement haven can cater to any lifestyle and budget. As if Panama’s low cost of living weren’t enough of an incentive to move here, the country’s comprehensive pensionado program enables you to get discounts on just about everything, from restaurants to entertainment to health care.
So you’re retired (or at least thinking about it): now’s when you finally get to do what you want with your time. And there’s no better place to fulfill all of your hobbies, interests, and need for fun activities and events than Chiriqui Province in western Panama. It’s a popular expat destination and, as someone who lives there, I can attest that its popularity is well deserved. We have lush green highlands, tropical rainforests, and unspoiled beaches all within an easy drive, as well as great shopping, arts, and culture. Whatever you want to do, you’ll find it here.
I’m a Canadian. I’m used to long, cold winters. But a few years back, my husband Gary and I had had enough. I refuse to spend my precious retirement years shoveling snow and huddled in front of my fireplace…not to mention donning layers of clothing from top to toe just to venture outside. And so each and every fall, we say goodbye to block heaters…snow shovels…hats, scarves, and outrageous heating bills…and head to Panama’s warmer climes.
Perhaps best known for its extravagant Carnaval celebration, Las Tablas is the center of Panama’s folkloric culture. Though not well known to North Americans, Panamanians flock here regularly, particularly to the two annual festivals that are held each year to honor the pollera, the national dress. But folklore is just the start of what this friendly little town has to offer. In-the-know expats have been coming here for several years. They come from all over—we’ve met residents from Europe, South America, the U.S., and Canada.
When I started apartment hunting in Panama City almost a decade ago, I thought I knew what neighborhood I wanted to live in: the ritzy International Banking District, where the tallest skyscrapers face the sparkling Panama Bay. The area had undeniable cachet, and everyone I knew was living there. The district is in the heart of downtown, where you’ll find the best hotels, restaurants, shops, and more. Since 2009, new pedestrian walkways, green areas, and recreation facilities line the bay. On any given day you’ll see people jogging, buying fruit, or just sitting and enjoying the pleasant atmosphere.
In the 2014 Fast-Track Your Retirement Overseas Package we’ll introduce you to more than a dozen beautiful places in the world where you can live a caviar lifestyle on a hot dog budget.
Perhaps you long for your own cottage on a quiet beach… a grand apartment in a city vibrant with concerts and cafes… a mountain villa where the air is crisp… or even your own vineyard amid gently rolling hills…
Rosalind Baitel, 54, is bi-coastal. And by that I don’t mean she subjects herself to long flights to shuttle back and forth between expensive, crowded cities like New York and L.A. “We go to the beach most every weekend…it’s so close that even if we can’t stay the entire weekend, we can go for the day.” An hour and 40 minutes gets her from Panama City on the Pacific shore to the brilliant blue waters of the Caribbean. What she loves most about Panama City is that it’s a world capital…with amenities and entertainment to rival many of the world’s great cities.
Michael, 55, and Julie Rhoda, 52, traded in full-time jobs, a home in Colorado, a car, and the usual creature comforts for a new life in Santa Fe, Panama. “We moved here on New Year’s Day 2014, so we’ve celebrated one year down here,” Michael says. “We love the slow pace and the locals.” But what really attracted the couple and other expats to the area is its natural scenic beauty and cool highland climate.
One of my favorite places in Panama is a small highland town called Volcan. You’ll find it in the agricultural province of Chiriqui, not too far from Costa Rica. Baru Volcano, which gives the town its name, looms to the east and Cerro Punta, where most of Panama’s produce is grown, rises to the north. The open sky is clear blue this time of year. Blooming bougainvillea bushes of bright magenta and deep purple add a splash of color amid the pine trees. But it’s not just the scenery that draws me and other expats to Volcan. It’s the character of the place and its residents. This authentic farm town is a hub for the surrounding community. While there is often plenty of activity, there’s no sense of hurry. Farmers come to town in their pickup trucks, maybe hauling a load of produce, a few cattle, or hogs. They always have time to stop and chat with friends or to admire a hand-made saddle outside a tack shop.
Living in a sunny, low-cost, laidback destination overseas doesn’t mean that you have to forego good healthcare. In fact, in many countries abroad, the healthcare you’ll enjoy is second to none…and more affordable than you’ve ever dreamed possible. Below are the five countries which received the top scores in the healthcare category of International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index 2015.
For me, and plenty of other Americans and Canadians who have scratched the surface, the capital of Chiriqui Province in western Panama is a retirement location that’s hard to resist. If you’re looking for a convenient hub city that’s a manageable size, David should be top of your list. It’s Panama’s third-largest city and second only to Panama City for shopping, healthcare, services, logistics, education, and just about anything else. And, with a population of about 86,000, (the larger district of David has a population of about 250,000), it’s certainly manageable.
My Panamanian neighbor, Gabriela Pitti, and I share a love of cats. We discovered this when an adorable and affectionate stray appeared one day, a petite calico female. She explored our yards and, finding a welcoming environment, decided to stay. Gabriela and I speculated about where she might have come from, gushed about our love of animals in general and cats especially. Gabriela adopted the kitty, named her Mini, and together we took her to the animal clinic to have her spayed. Since then Gabriela and I have shared many cat-related and other experiences and it’s a great comfort to have her for my neighbor. But Gabriela doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s my ability to talk to her in Spanish that has enabled us to form a bond as neighbors, friends, and cat lovers.
This morning, from my hotel’s terrace, I sat and watched the sun come up over the peaks of the Cordillero Central Mountains. It’s my first visit to Santa Fe, about an hour north of Santiago in Veraguas Province, Panama and I’m excited by what I’ve found. It’s a place where you can’t help but stop to take in its beauty: its angular slopes layered on top of each other, rocky formations jutting out of the forest, and jagged summits reaching into the clouds.
I’m walking barefoot on volcanic sand that sparkles like diamonds in the sun…and the only sound I can hear is the soothing crash of waves on the shore. There’s no music or shouting from vacationers or revelers to break the silence…and I don’t have to step around chairs or towels or anything else. In fact, I have the beach almost to myself. There’s a girl jogging up ahead, and that’s it for today. You see, on Panama’s Coronado Beach, huge resorts don’t line the shoreline. There’s a small one a few minutes’ drive from the water, which also serves as a country club for the golfing enthusiasts who live here. But besides that, there are surprisingly few inns and hotels to be found.
I’ve worked with International Living for 14 years, and I’ve seen a lot of lists of the best places on earth to retire. I don’t remember a single one that didn’t have Panama either at the top or in the top five. Of course, for my wife, Suzan, and me, Panama has some special appeal. We lived in Panama City for a while and toured most of the country. Also, our granddaughter’s mother is Panamanian, so an entire side of our family is there.
Panama, Ecuador, Belize and France offer the best retiree benefits in the world, according to International Living’s just-released annual Global Retirement Index 2015. In a bid to entice expats, these countries have assembled attractive benefits packages, which offer huge savings for foreign retirees on everything from travel to utility bills to medication. Topping the “Retiree Benefits and Discounts” category in the Index is Panama, which offers the best incentives for retirees in the world.
Panama’s most popular expat town rests on the eastern-facing slope of the Baru Volcano—Panama’s highest peak, at 11,400 feet—in Chiriquí Province, western Panama. The elevation is a big part of the appeal. For one thing, located at around 3,900 feet, this town enjoys a spring-like climate year-round with average daily temperatures of about 70 F. For another, you’ll find plenty of picturesque views. Boquete (pronounced Bow-keh-tay) is home to thousands of retired North Americans. Apart from the climate they come for the low costs and the natural beauty.
On the balcony of a Swiss-style cottage in Cerro Azul, I’m looking out over the mountains. The air is damp and cool—about 70 F—and there are thin wisps of mist around the hilltops. The land is densely populated with trees, most of them evergreens. It’s surprising, since I’ve just come from Panama City, where you’ll find tropical palms. So far I’ve seen hummingbirds and owl butterflies, smelled resinous pine and exotic jasmine, and heard the roar of howler monkeys in the distance. It couldn’t be more different from the sea-level city just under an hour’s drive from here. In fact, I’m reminded of where I grew up, in Oregon.