Right Now Could be the Best Time to Come to Panama...the Hub of the Americas
Why do so many expats choose Panama? Often the intangibles…the feel of a place…play a big role. But there are also a lot of concrete, quantifiable reasons Panama is so appealing, starting with its modern infrastructure.
Panama’s cosmopolitan capital, Panama City, is the only true First World city in Central America. The beautifully maintained Pan-American Highway runs the breadth of the country, making travel easy. High-speed Internet and cell coverage are remarkable…as are the power, air, and water quality.
For expats from the U.S., Panama is also convenient because the currency is the U.S. dollar. No matter where you’re from, you’re likely to appreciate the fact that there are many English speakers in Panama, especially among the well-trained medical community. The hub that is Tocumen International Airport makes it easy to fly from Panama to nearly anywhere in the world…often with no layovers.
Choose From a Varied Landscape
Many of the expats here also cite Panama’s geographical diversity and location, with proximity to North America being a major factor. In a country roughly the size of South Carolina, you’ll find mountains and beaches within an easy striking distance—no matter where in the country you are. Wake up on the Caribbean and have lunch overlooking the Pacific…they’re a couple of hours apart at the isthmus’ “skinniest” sections. Choose your preferred climate, topography, population density and more in Panama’s varied landscape.
And then there are factors the lists and indexes can’t quantify. For instance, the people of Panama are beautiful, inside and out. Get to know them just a little and you’ll see they have big hearts and an even bigger zest for life. They’re welcoming to foreigners, who in turn feel safe here. Increasing numbers of North Americans, Europeans, and others are moving here and contributing to the burgeoning economy.
Panama: A Convenient, International Hub
Some expats come in search of adventure or a quality retirement destination, while others seek to take advantage of all Panama has to offer as a business destination. There are well-established expat populations (and many clubs and organizations) in Panama from all over the world.
And though Panama has always been a busy little hub (thanks in large part to the Panama Canal), it’s experiencing something of a heyday. In 2007, Panama’s economy was hailed as the fastest-growing in the hemisphere. Despite the 2009 global financial crisis, Panama’s economy has continued to grow faster than nearly any country in the region. Mega-port projects and major investment in infrastructure will continue to fuel the economy into the next decade.
There’s a palpable excitement as the country is coming into its own. You can see it in the exciting food and culture scenes and the flashy, innovative architecture and the new industries that are adding to local offerings. New laws to encourage filmmaking paved the way for Panama to get its very own International Film Festival. The annual jazz festival is a renowned event. Major international summits are held at Panama’s large, modern convention centers.
You’ll find golf, tennis, sailing, fishing, surfing, birding and every other activity imaginable—with the exception, of course, of snow-skiing. With so much going on, expats here will tell you that it is extremely easy to make friends, regardless of age, gender, or marital status.
Moving to Panama is Easy
For those looking to move to Panama or live here part-time, two new residence options make moving here even easier than it was before. (Quite a feat, as the Pensionado residence program has already helped thousands move here with relative ease.) These days, there's a visa for everyone.
The international community here has always been strong, but thanks to the new residence programs, it’s growing faster than ever. And new arrivals are introducing locals to new foods, activities, methods and more. It’s been great for Panama.
These days, you can get trendy food items like kale and chia seeds…indulge in clothes from Banana Republic and Gap…and buy specialty items, from kitchen and barbecue gadgets to sports and hobbyist gear. What other country in the region can boast such convenience?
Then there’s the cost of living. Panama is not the cheapest country in the region, but it is often cited as the best overall value for your money.
If you daydream about sunshine, tropical beaches, and welcoming locals, then Panama may be for you. A couple can live well here for $2,500 a month or less, including rent.
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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
A garrison flag flutters on the peak of Ancon Hill. When you can see that flag, you know you’re in Ancon, the massive district formerly referred to as the Canal Zone. It’s filled with greenery and quiet neighborhoods—a far cry from the nearby city center, known for the skyscrapers that twinkle and sparkle as they tower over the glassy Panama Bay.
When my husband Clyde decided to retire after 26 years, he realized that his pension wouldn’t go too far. With the high cost of U.S. health care and an ex-wife getting a portion of his pension, could we afford to retire on what was left? We could if we found a place with a lower cost of living and more affordable health care. Panama had all of this and more and even allowed us to retire in our 50s.
The world we cover at International Living isn’t the same one you hear about on the nightly news. We seek out opportunity—not ratings. This frees us, mercifully, from the “if it bleeds, it leads” mandate. So we can seek out the fortuitous instead of the unfortunate.
Coconuts and limes…briny breezes and salty skin…a translucent sea… This is Bocas del Toro, Panama. The risks of buying untitled property here keep me from recommending Bocas as a full-time retirement destination. But the fact remains that it continues to beckon to people from all over the globe with the brilliant, blinding beauty of its beaches.
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.
Exotic tropical islands, temperate mountain valleys, miles of deserted beaches, First-World cities packed with ultra-modern amenities, and ancient vineyard-shrouded hill towns… Among the top retirement spots in the world this year, you’ll find great variety in the cultural offerings, climates and lifestyles.
Panama claimed second place in this year’s Retirement Index 2013, in fact it even beat our winner Ecuador across a number of categories. One of the main reasons why Panama scored so well is the selection of benefits it has in place for retirees…known as the pensionado program.
Whether you dream of a pastel-painted, old colonial home surrounded by lush gardens or a super-modern condo just yards from the beach, in locations all over the planet you’ll find incredible value. Affordable, good-value real estate is a “stand-out” factor of the world’s best retirement havens.
We’ve called on our network of experts and in-country editors to reveal their real estate contacts in each of the countries that performed best in our 2013 Global Retirement Index. Knowing the right people will help you negotiate the real estate landscapes in whichever country you’re interested in.
Panama’s a place of sunshine, 365 days a year. You have hundreds of miles of beach…highland retreats with green valleys where the weather is spring-like, even in January and August…and a genuinely cosmopolitan capital city, too, with one of the world’s largest financial districts.
The house I was sitting was just outside the town of Atenas in the mountains, about 30 minutes from the capital of San José. Atenas is home to expats from all over the world, and the locals welcome everyone with a friendly smile. The temperatures when I visited ranged from the low- to mid-80s F during the day and a comfortable low- to mid-60s F at night.
Back in 2005 the market for Panama City condos was hot – and the opportunity, strong. The outlook for Panama is now as strong as ever. I have been following the market closely from the early-in opportunity to its frothy peak. Panama is a buy if the price is right.
Boquete is Panama’s best-known highland town, with mild temperatures in the low 70s to mid-80s F… and misty rains that keep everything carpeted in kelly green. But there’s much more to this highland region. I visit every year and I’ve found a rich tapestry, woven with the bright threads of local culture, welcoming people, and fun activities.
Seaside docks are scattered all along the coastline in Belize. They’re great places to watch the sun rise, fish from, or lounge on as you enjoy the mild sea breezes. From some of them you can also catch boats to Belize’s white-sand islands (known as cayes), or to snorkeling and diving spots along the world’s second-longest barrier reef, just offshore.
When I retired in 2011, I wanted to continue my travels. I’d spent most of my adult life working outside the U.S. I enjoyed exploring, learning about new cultures, and meeting new people. But now, with only a pension as income, I had to figure a way to supplement my travels. Researching online, I ran across this thing called “house-sitting.” I’d helped friends out by watching their homes and pets while they went on vacation, and I realized that house-sitting is basically the same thing.
Winner of the 2012 Global Retirement Index, Ecuador offers sophisticated historical cities…miles of unspoiled, sun-kissed beaches…fertile farmland…and temperate mountain hideaways…and all of it for pennies on the dollar.
Own your own four-bedroom B&B in the middle of one of the most beautiful spots in Ecuador. At 8,000 feet, you’re surrounded by mountains. And the climate is ideal year-round—no need for heat or air conditioning—and there’s a large open patio and summer kitchen. The colonial town of Cotacachi, known for its leatherwork, is just 10 minutes away. Otavalo (pictured), a larger town famous for its Saturday open-air market filled with indigenous handicrafts, is just five minutes down the road. The country’s capital, Quito, is just a two-hour drive.
After a trip to Costa Rica in 2003, Isabelle and Robert knew they wanted to move permanently to somewhere in Central America. “We missed living in nature, surrounded by nature,” Robert explains. “Central America seemed to have the natural lifestyle we were looking for.” They explored Costa Rica and considered Nicaragua. But it was after a visit to Panama that they fell in love.
Jim Finegan didn’t set out to make Panama his second home. While traveling through Costa Rica with a couple of his bartender employees from his home state, Pennsylvania, Jim went to a Columbus-Day celebration and made a lucky $50 bet that netted him $5,000. Armed with an unexpected extension to his travel funds, Jim and his buddies decided to head down the coast to Panama.
Tourism is a relatively new industry in Santa Fe, near the Continental Divide in Panama’s Veraguas province. And even now, those who find their way here are definitely not birds of a feather. “The people who come first are interesting and eccentric,” says Janet Hitchens. She should know—she was one of the first expats to settle in tiny Santa Fe.
“I started this business with $10,000,” says Pittsburg native Armon Demarco. His distribution company, operating in his adopted country of Panama, now does about $2 million worth of business a year. Is he a serial entrepreneur? Not really. A business whiz? He doesn’t think so. And Armon doesn’t have any formal business training, either.
Experience the Day of the Dead in Mexico on November 1 when people gather to honor their departed love ones with big parties across the country. If you’re in India the ﬁrst two weeks of November, then head to the capital, Delhi, where you’ll ﬁnd music, theater, dance, ﬁlm, and poetry in 50 venues across the city for the Delhi International Arts Festival.
Venice is one of the world’s most romantic cities, a place where graceful vessels glide along 700-year-old canals in the shade of historic mansions. Lots of people come to visit, but not many get to stay. You could, however, by taking advantage of one of the many opportunities that exist for funding a life overseas. In fact, there are more of these opportunities than ever these days, opportunities that often don’t reveal themselves until you are on the ground.
“We worked harder for less,” says Robert. “We thought we could do better, have time for ourselves, and enjoy a better quality and a more natural way of life.” After a trip to Costa Rica in 2003, they knew they wanted to move permanently to somewhere in Central America. “We missed living in nature, surrounded by nature,” Robert explains. “Central America seemed to have the natural lifestyle we were looking for.”
We’re sitting on the terrace of our cozy Casa Mariposa bungalow, drinking our morning coffee…grown, picked, and roasted just beyond the emerald hills below. From our vantage point it feels like we can see forever, the morning light playing across the rocky-topped Mount El Tute in the distance.
Mr. Bauman is a former member of the United States House of Representatives from Maryland (1973-1981). He is also a former federal official and state legislator; member of the Washington, D.C., Bar; graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center (1964) and the GU School of Foreign Service (1959). Mr. Bauman serves as legal counsel to International Living. He’s also one of the world’s foremost offshore experts. Here are some of his recent articles:
Columbus called Costa Rica “the Rich Coast”—and it still is, with Caribbean beaches and Pacific shoreline that’ll take your breath away. But this nation has much more to offer, too: a year-round tropical climate, modern cities, rain forests, lush valleys and majestic mountains.
On a dusty corner in Panama City’s Casco Viejo sector, there is a bar/restaurant. It doesn’t look like much, but the name on the sign makes passersby stop and puzzle: Mojitos sin Mojitos. In English it means, “Mojitos without Mojitos.” Weekend nights, the place is full to overflowing. There are hipsters from the local art scene…young bankers from the financial district…backpackers from France.
“Should I choose the city or the country?” It’s a question I get from nearly everyone who considers a move to Panama. The truth is, you’ve probably already decided. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re over 25. And you know what you like. Save time and acknowledge your expectations.
Panama is a perennial favorite among expats looking for a better life abroad, and achieving Panamanian residency just got a lot easier. A new visa program began in June that not only cuts the cost, but also cuts the time it takes to get Panamanian residency. Panama attorney and legal expert Rainelda Mata-Kelly has already helped clients start this process.
“Gentrified” Casco, if you can call it that, is a small place…10 or 11 streets long, intersected by Avenue A, Central Avenue, and Avenue B. Yet there’s so much going on. Panama’s artists gravitate here…and there are galleries, shops, handicraft stalls, chic little cafes and bars, and more.
For some it’s the rainforest…for others it’s the beach or the mountains or the city. You may come here and simply fall for the laid-back culture or the smiling people. But these expats all have something in common—they didn’t just listen to their hearts. They also took a good look at Panama from a practical point of view.
Parades, dancing, and the election of a Sara Ñusta (Queen of Maize) mark the Fiesta del Yamor in Imbabura, Ecuador, the ﬁrst week of September. Join in and offer thanks to the sun god for a bountiful harvest. Street traders take over the French city of Lille for the Grande Braderie on September 1 and 2.
You want to leave it all behind for that one idyllic Caribbean island—a place surrounded by vibrant seascapes and white sand…your very own hard-to-reach haven. But why settle for one when you can have 378? That’s a Caribbean island paradise for every single day of the year…and a few left over for friends. That’s how many islands sit in the San Blas chain, strung out along the Caribbean coast of Panama.
Nearly every expat of retiree age has said it to me: Panama sneaks up on you. The people, friendly and fun loving at first, seem even warmer and kinder when you really get to know them. The culture…so much richer than the cosmopolitan city suggests. And speaking of Panama City, the bustling streets can seem chaotic at first, but the large number of expats here is a testament to the capital’s…
Panama has long had “open door” immigration policies that welcome foreigners. For instance, it has the best program of special benefits for foreign retirees and their families you’ll find anywhere in the world today—the pensionado, or pensioner, visa. But for non-pensioners, most of Panama’s other residency programs required substantial investments…until now.
Sixty-two-year-old Neil Sander knows how to get things done. Throughout his seven years in Panama’s island-rich Bocas del Toro region, this Oklahoma-born pioneer has taken the bull by the horns more than once. The key to his success? “Respect,” he says. “Respect gets you further than money on any of your projects.
Nobody gets in the way of the Carnival celebrations in Panama. This party is country-wide and a full week long. Businesses close, Panama City is abandoned, and music is everywhere as what sounds like the world’s largest collection of speaker systems comes together to blast pop, reggae, and pop music to the masses.
If your idea of the perfect Panama includes lush tropical scenery without the heat of the lowlands, head to the highlands to see the other side of Panama. You’ll meet plenty of expats who, like you, left the postcard-perfect beaches behind in search of cooler climes. Though Panama is best known for its city and beaches, the mountain areas do not disappoint and offer a wide variety of activities, property, and
lifestyles. Live the High Life in the Highlands – Panama: Dream it, Find it, Live it details our favorite cool-weather locales.
“We have more friends than ever—our kids can’t believe how social we’ve become,” says one expat couple. “I’m busier than ever before,” says another expat in Panama. It’s a constant refrain from those who thought their retirement years might be marked by the restraints of a fixed income and a waning social calendar. Only to find that in Panama, the retiree lifestyle is a lot of fun…