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
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.
“We spent about five years researching good retirement destinations before actually moving to Panama,” says Bill Hamilton who moved with his wife Mieke to the country’s capital city. “I’m the type of person to look up every single thing…crime rates, politics, cost of living, real estate, health care…and Panama City kept popping up in my research as the best option across the board.” Though in their 60s and already retired from previous careers, the Hamiltons made the decision to move in order to take a stab at running the Balboa Inn, a nine-room B&B in Panama City.
“We were frustrated with extremely long, cold winters, high Canadian taxes, and we were weary of the rat race.” So says Denise Patrick, who—along with her husband Neil—moved to the beach community of Coronado—just 90 minutes from Panama City. The couple first fell in love with Coronado when they spent a vacation there in November 2010—so much so, in fact, that they decided on the flight home to sell their house and belongings.
Conventional wisdom says that you have to get the travel bug out of your system early; that once you have children you have to abandon your overseas dreams—or at least shelve them until the kids grow up and leave the nest. But it’s just not true…and an increasing number of American families are proving it. Folks from all over the U.S. are bucking tradition and traveling the world with their kids—for a summer, a year, and longer.
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…
After her daughter left for college, New Yorker Judy Ganes Chase began to look at the possibility of moving overseas…and getting involved in a new business venture. She chose a frozen yogurt franchise and is now the first franchisee in Central America for the Chicago-based chain Forever Yogurt. She has two outlets in Panama City. But Judy has gone a step further and purchased the franchise rights for all of Panama. She plans to open five additional locations in the next two to three years.
Not everyone has a knack for languages…and studying a foreign language at the age of 50, 60, or 70 may seem challenging. For some people even the thought of it is overwhelming. So the good news is you don’t have to speak Spanish if you want to live in Panama. In Chiriquí—where I live—there are several thousand expats. Plenty of them are European and may speak multiple languages, but the majority are North American and I would wager that a good 75% of them do not speak Spanish.
To live the big city life for less and enjoy a world-class retirement look no farther than the San Francisco neighborhood of Panama City. I chose to live in San Francisco because of its walkability, its amenities, and just how close it is to the kind of action that makes for a great city life…and from gourmet delis to evenings at the opera, I enjoyed every minute.
This year, Panama holds the number one spot in International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index. Being a retiree in Panama myself, I agree that it’s a great place to retire. The word for retirees in Spanish is “jubilados.” I’ve always loved that, because to me it sounds like “jubilant” and shouldn’t we all be jubilantly happy in our old age? In Panama, jubilados are treated with respect and receive special benefits due to their elder status.
Panama is the world’s top retirement haven and it’s Chiriquí province attracts more expats than anywhere else in the country. In the provincial capital, David, homes rent for as little as $220 a month.
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. My husband Al and I had rented a car to tour Panama in our quest for a new place to live. Having traveled throughout Central America, Panama was our pick due to its warm climate, low cost of living, developed infrastructure and economic and political stability. We came back to stay in 2009, made our home in Chiriquí and I’m still awed by the stunning scenery.
In 2005, I left my job in the cruise industry and decided to try my luck in Panama. I had a wonderful group of international friends—some from the Americas, and others from as far off as Australia. And I told them all to come visit me in Panama sometime. To my surprise, many of us actually did keep in touch and visit each other. I remember a girl from Venezuela asking me how come there were so many U.S. products on the shelves here.
When my husband, Al, and I left the U.S. nearly 10 years ago I had no idea I would make my home in Panama. We set sail from southwest Florida to navigate the Caribbean Sea and study the Maya culture in person. With our boat secure at a marina in Isla Mujeres, we explored eastern Mexico for six months, then sailed to Belize and on to Guatemala. In the Rio Dulce we found a community of boaters that embraced us, and a marina to call home for the next three years.
I’ve booked my flight to Las Vegas for the Fast Track Your Retirement Overseas Conference in October. I’m looking forward to chatting with attendees, along with my compañera Jessica Ramesch, about life in Panama.
It was sports that first brought Jim to Panama in 2004. “I lived in Boston and was running a sports-marketing company for American football. I handled recreational events, tournaments, leagues, and celebrity events. “While coaching a start-up flag-football team here, I first met my wife Priscilla. We went back to the U.S. and worked together in sports marketing, but when we decided to start a family in 2009, we returned to Panama and made our new home in Las Tablas. We wanted to be near Priscilla’s family.”
When 52-year-old Michael Druillard first set foot on Panamanian soil, this sunny, Central American country won his heart. It was the perfect country for his needs. Besides the warm climate, it has a stable government, a low cost of living, and varied employment opportunities. Now his life in the warm beach town of Coronado is a world away from shovelling snow in his native Canada.