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
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.
My health care experiences here range from routine lab tests to extended hospital stays. Panama, like most other Central American countries, has a dual health care system, with both private and public options. Anyone may use either system, but the public system aims to provide medical services to citizens and residents who are enrolled in the Caja de Seguro Social (social security program). Tourists and expats (including my husband Al and me) primarily use the private system. You’ll find it better equipped and staffed, as well as more comparable to North American standards.
“You’re crazy! Aren’t you scared? I could never do anything like that! I am so jealous.” These are just some of the reactions that Kris Cunningham and her husband Joel got when they announced that they were moving to David, Panama. They had been thinking of moving to Central America for a few years, but when the U.S. economy began to decline, they decided it was time to take the plunge and retire overseas. “We didn’t want to work forever, and we would have had a hard time making ends meet in the U.S.” After researching many possible places to live, Panama kept topping the list as a perfect retirement destination.
“We love our life here, meeting new people who come to the resort, fishing when we want to, and relaxing in our new house,” say Texans Rex and Connie Hudson of their new life in Panama’s Chiriquí province. “It’s just about perfect.” Rex and Connie are the owners and managers of Hooked On Panama, in partnership with two other U.S. couples. Hooked On Panama is a fishing lodge and resort in a remote area of Chiriquí province. The property is located south of Puerto Armuelles near the end of Punta Burica, a narrow peninsula that extends into the Pacific Ocean and borders Costa Rica.
Over the years, Panama has built up a well-deserved reputation as a world-class retirement haven. In the pensionado program, it offers the most comprehensive array of retirement benefits to be found anywhere in the world; 30% off public transport, 50% off entertainment, 20% off medical consultations and much, much more. But there’s a lot more to being a pensionado in Panama than retirement benefits. The country blends modernity with some of the lowest cost of living to be found anywhere; expect to pay a fraction of what you would at home for quality real estate and everyday items.
In 2007, my wife and I were ready to make a change. We were looking for a more affordable, healthier way of life and there was one country that ticked all the boxes: Panama. Before we moved, we did a lot of research on Latin American countries that we could consider retiring to. Panama’s benefits really stood out. The country is stable, with a literacy rate higher than the U.S., health care is inexpensive, and the country’s diet is healthier. Additionally, the currency here is the American dollar and the culture is friendly and welcoming.
The first time I visited the small, colonial town of Las Tablas, I was there for one reason only: to party it up Panamanian style. I’d heard that the yearly Carnival celebration here rivaled Louisiana’s Mardi Gras, and I wanted to see for myself. The festivities did not disappoint. Everything was loud and raucous and colorful…and wonderfully so. Gorgeous Carnival queens danced on floats that had been crafted into big intricate displays. People were dancing in the streets and offering me drinks. Craziest of all, big fire hoses were being used to douse revelers with cool water…so at high noon when the sun shone hot and strong, the party didn’t stop.
InternationalLiving.com’s just-released Annual Global Retirement Index profiles the best destinations for good-value living around the world today. Using input from a large team of correspondents on the ground all over the world, the Index combines real-world insights about climate, health care, cost of living, and much more to draw up a comprehensive list of the best bang-for-your buck retirement destinations on the planet. “The world’s top retirement havens for 2015 may dot the landscape from Asia to Latin America to Europe, but they share certain assets,” says InternationalLiving.com’s executive editor, Jennifer Stevens. “They’re safe, offer good value, and are places you can settle with relative ease.
Erdi Knezic and her husband were ready for a change. They were both born and raised in Wisconsin. They had a profitable company that made molded plastic parts for cars and successful careers, but they were fed up with the extreme cold weather of the northern states. “I told Jerry if you don’t get me outta here, I won’t make it through another winter,” says Erdi. And so Jerry did just that… First the couple moved to Florida. But “we read International Living and liked the idea of moving overseas,” Erdi says. “We considered Costa Rica. But then we came to Panama and we really liked Chiriquí Province. It reminded us of the rural countryside in Wisconsin.”
International Living’s just released Annual Global Retirement Index 2015 highlights the best places in the world to retire. This Index ranks the top 25 countries in the world for retirement in eight important categories. There are many perks available to retirees when you move overseas and one of the eight categories weights Special Benefits for Retirees. These special retiree benefits will help you save big. See below for the benefits you’ll receive in Panama, Ecuador, Belize and France—all four countries topped the Index in this category.
The best ways of life have been preserved in the heartland of Panama. You’ll still see ladies sitting on patios grinding fresh corn for fritters or embroidering traditional dresses known as polleras. And, instead of spending their days in front of the family TV, kids play outdoors in the fresh air. This rural region is like something out of a picture book. The small towns in the area usually boast a neatly whitewashed church, small bakeries selling pastries for 30 cents, and colorful little boats lining uncrowded beaches. One of the best of those towns, Pedasí, is also one of the world’s greatest fishing destinations. In that town, a small expat community is thriving alongside locals who value the simple pleasures of life: Sundays spent wading out into the clear waters of the Pacific…so warm here in the tropics.
From the quaint town of Cotacachi to the vibrant capital, Quito, from Salinas by the sea to the peaks of the Andes, Ecuador’s diversity is a key part of the massive appeal that sees it regain the coveted top spot on this year’s retirement index. Although prices have risen slightly in recent years, Ecuador’s real estate is still the best value you’ll find anywhere. This is bolstered by the generous array of benefits the government has afforded to retirees. Over-65s get discounts on flights originating in Ecuador, as well as up to 50% off entry to movies and sporting events. Discounts are also available on public transport (50%) and utilities, with the option of a free landline if you purchase a property.
There are many low-cost places to retire to in Panama. For those who enjoy the slower pace of rural living, Chiriquí Province, where I live, offers a delightful climate, easy convenience, and a quality lifestyle in an affordable retirement destination. While the city of David offers all the amenities of a good-sized city and the town of Boquete is a favored expat haven, some of the smaller towns in the area combine access to these desirable features with a lower cost of living. Dolega is one such small town in Chiriquí Province in western Panama. The four-lane highway that runs north and south between David and Boquete runs right through Dolega, so it’s easy to find. A new pedestrian overpass marks the main turnoff into town, at the Municipal Palace, shaded by a gigantic mango tree. Dolega is the administrative seat of the district of the same name, which encompasses a total of nine towns such as Los Anastacios, Dos Rios, Los Algarrobos and Potrerillos.
When it comes to telecommunications and technology, there’s not a country in the region that compares to Panama. This tiny powerhouse has long been recognized as a telecommunications hub, as five of the world’s major fiber optic cables intersect here. Land line and later cell phone calls were top notch here from the get-go, thanks to Panama’s outstanding infrastructure. And when the world entered the age of high-speed Internet, Panama went to great lengths to not only keep up, but be at the forefront.
This year marks the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal, and celebrations are taking place throughout the year. The first boat to make the ocean-to-ocean transit of the canal was the SS Ancon on Aug. 15, 1914. Most visitors who come to Panama make a point of seeing the canal, usually at the Miraflores Locks just outside of Panama City, or the Gatun Locks, just west of Colon city. Personally, I can think of no better way to honor and enjoy this wonder of the modern world than to see it at eye level and take a boat trip on the Panama Canal. The complete transit takes about nine hours, passing through three sets of locks. There are a number of ways to do this, and no matter which one you choose it will be a memorable experience.
If you dream about a different life… one lived on a sun-dappled beach… or in a colonial, history-rich town… or some exotic big city abroad… but you need an income to make it happen, sooner rather than later… Then you should know: There are proven, flexible ways you can fund your life overseas… and get paid to do something you genuinely enjoy… So you gain the freedom to pick up and go… travel when you feel like it… live in a place you love… and all the while earn $12,000… $25,000… $40,000… even $85,000 a year or more…
In a handful of noteworthy places on the planet right now, you could own a world-class property for $150,000 and have it throw off $1,000 a month, right from the start. These are what I call “exceptional markets.” Places where you’re looking at as much as an 8% yield… more than double the norm. But you don’t need mounds of cash on hand to get in – often less than $20,000. And these are gains you can pocket with little-to-no effort.
Foliage presses up against the perfect, charcoal gray road. Though this time of year is known as the “rainy season” in Panama, the sky in this region is a powerful blue, and the sun is shining hot and strong. It’s quiet, and I pass very few cars…and perhaps just as many horses. For my recent scouting trip I drove the five hours from Panama City to Pedasí, a town of about 2,500. It’s a place that’s been growing in comfort and convenience— slowly but surely—since 2004. Over the past couple years in particular, it has become a burgeoning expat hub. Still, it remains a place where a couple can live on $1,300 a month including rent, and as little as $950 if they own.
I’ve lived in David, in western Panama, for five years. My husband Al and I came for the great climate, the easy living and affordable costs, and the rich variety of things to keep us busy. But as we get older that’s not enough…we also need access to good health care. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can find the best of care at a fraction of what you’ll pay back in the U.S. Your doctors will often speak English, and they are far easier to access than back home, too.
With spiraling costs compelling more and more North Americans to retire overseas, retiring abroad has never been more attractive. But finding the right location among the myriad options available can be daunting. That’s what our Annual Global Retirement Index does. Using input from our team of correspondents on the ground all over the world, we combine real-world insights about climate, health care, cost of living, and much more to draw up a comprehensive list of the best bang-for-your buck retirement destinations on the planet. Keep in mind that, even though only 25 countries feature on our list, all of them are worth your attention. We selected them from among all the countries in the world for their qualities as retirement hot-spots, so even the lowest-ranked nation on our index is still very much an option worth considering.
The original Riviera (from the Italian word for “seashore”) sprang up in southern France and the bordering region of Italy. Upper-crust Brits, northern Europeans, and—later—well-heeled Americans flocked here for the beach resorts, casinos, and parties. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald had a villa here in the Jazz Age, although it’s said he was a horrible party guest. The term riviera has been adopted by regions all over the world, in places where the sun, surf, and vacation vibe live on. And when we hit the new-school rivieras in the developing world, expect to get a real bang for your real estate buck.
Recently, I was talking to some IL readers. They’d heard about Panama’s mountainous Chiriquí Province and had a lot of great questions for me. One, in particular, gave me pause. “If you had to pick the one best place to live in all of Chiriquí, where would it be?” asked a retired gentleman from Saskatchewan. “Well,” I mused, “for me it would be about halfway between David and Boquete, because it’s just right.” Take the climate: Boquete, an area that is particularly popular with expats, rests on the slope of the Baru Volcano at about 4,000 feet elevation.
A tour of Chiriquí Province will take you from Panama’s highest point, 11,440 feet at the peak of Baru Volcano, to sea level and sandy beaches along the Gulf of Chiriquí. You’ll find 20,000-plus expats living throughout the province. Whether you prefer the beach or the mountains, living in town or out in the country, bright sunshine or cool cloud cover, Chiriquí offers you a choice… For instance,the near-perfect climate is one of the main reasons as many as 12,000 expats now call the town and district of Boquete home. Its elevation of 3,940 feet on the eastern slope of Baru Volcano means normally cool temperatures around 80 F in the daytime and 60 F at night, with frequent misty rain called bajareque.
When you imagine how a retiree might spend her time in the highlands of Panama, you probably don’t imagine her opening a gym and fitness center. But at age 64, that’s exactly what Bonnie Jach did when she moved to Boquete in Chiriquí Province. Bonnie’s love of travel and adventure began at a young age. “I’m originally from Wisconsin,” she says. “When I was 20, I joined the Peace Corps. I’ve always loved new and exciting places. Even though I like the States very much, I knew I wanted to live overseas.”
One of the things that Richard Meyer enjoys most about his bakery in Boquete, Panama, is that he gets to be his own boss. “I grew up in Denver and I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 12,” says Richard, now age 47. “As a chef, baker, and pastry chef, I create both sweet and savory dishes, and now I get to decide what’s on the menu.” Richard and his Panamanian wife, Yarina, found their premises for rent on Craigslist.
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. You can live well for a fraction of the cost of living back in the U.S. And with Ecuador’s official currency the U.S. dollar, you needn’t worry about currency calculations or exchange risks. And real estate costs? They’re among the lowest we’ve found anywhere in the world.
What’s it like to win a free month abroad to test-drive your retirement in some exotic location? Mike and Susan Herron know… they’re this year’s winners of International Living’s Win Your Dream Retirement Overseas contest. If you haven’t seen Mike and Susan’s audition tape for the contest you really should… You can see it here. It won Mike and Susan a month in Coronado, Panama on International Living’s dime, and as you’ll hear, they’re making the most of it.
“The first time I saw Chiriquí Province I was enchanted. It felt familiar and was just so green. Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, I’m a country girl at heart and Chiriquí felt like home,” says InternationalLiving.com’s Panama highlands correspondent Linda Card. Chiriquí is one of nine provinces in Panama, and borders Costa Rica to the west. Mostly rural, the landscape is among the most scenic in the country, with mountains defining the skyline. Acres of fruits and vegetables thrive in the rich volcanic soil, while cattle and horses laze in verdant pastures.
Before settling in David in western Panama in 2009, I lived aboard my sailboat, Carina, for 16 years. My husband and I sailed the western Caribbean and we still have many friends among the cruising community. Although Panama has miles of coastline, it has few marine facilities for small boats. If you’re looking for a safe harbor to dock your boat in Panama, here are the stand-out marinas to visit.
Not so long ago, you could pick up properties around my home province of Chiriquí for a fraction of their boom-time prices. In the hills and villages around Boquete, where an estimated 12,000 expats live, spacious mountain-view homes were selling for as much as 50% off. This drop was due to the 2008 financial crisis, which left many North Americans and Europeans with homes in these lush valleys in need of funds.
After eight years as Panama Editor for International Living, you’d think writing about the best places to vacation in Panama would be a cinch. But there are so many great places to vacation in Panama that it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. In fact, I’m constantly adding new favorites to my list.
Chiriquí is one of nine provinces in Panama and it borders Costa Rica to the west. Mostly rural, the landscape is among the most scenic in the country, with mountains defining the skyline. Acres of fruits and vegetables thrive in the rich volcanic soil, while cattle and horses laze in verdant pastures. The capital city of David is a bustling commercial hub undergoing a serious growth spurt. A tour of Chiriquí Province will take you from Panama’s highest point, 11,440 feet at the peak of Baru Volcano, to sea level and sandy beaches along the Gulf of Chiriquí.
My husband Will and I have traveled to a number of countries over the years searching for the perfect place to retire—including Mexico, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. Finally one of our trips brought us to the country of Panama…
Call it instinct, call it intuition…whatever it was, from the moment we stepped off the plane, we knew it felt right. We toured several parts of the country in the years that followed as we tried to pin down our retirement plan. The highland town of Boquete was always on the list to visit. There was something about the mountains and the lush vegetation that reminded us of British Columbia and called to us.
Whenever my husband Gary and I need a break from sitting on our terrace watching the iguanas, or doing a myriad of other activities in and around our neighborhood, in Panama, we love to hop in our car and go exploring. That’s not to say we don’t love where we live in Panama’s highlands. We decided a few years back to spend part of the year in the province of Chiriquí, in Panama’s southwest corner—we’re snowbirds, escaping cold winters back home in Canada. We chose Panama as our half-time home because it has the greatest program in the world for retirees, the pensionado.
Ten years ago, I left the U.S. in search of a new adventure with my husband, Al—a decision that led us to the city of David in the province of Chiriquí, Panama. Al and I have spent time in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras since leaving the U.S. but, for many reasons, Panama won out as our retirement destination. Chiriquí Province is beautiful. It’s the country’s farming province, all rolling hills lined with fields where you’ll find pineapples, papaya, rice, coffee plantations, and orange groves.