If you’re looking for inexpensive cosmopolitan living—but with many of the conveniences you’d expect in New York, Miami, or any other major First-World city—you owe it to yourself to take a serious look at Panama City.
Panama City boasts a skyline of skyscrapers, modern office buildings, condo complexes and hotels of shining glass and steel, with world-class views of the Bay of Panama. The city is a major international commerce and banking hub, home to more than 80 of the world’s largest banks, scores of international non-profits, and giant multi-nationals such as Federal Express, Dell, 3M, and many more.
In the city and the surrounding communities, your international phone calls go through the first time, every time. High-speed Internet is the norm, rather than the exception. Power and water service are reliable and every amenity you could possibly want is within easy grasp.
Panama City is also fast becoming one of the world’s leading culinary destinations with eateries of every variety offering high-quality, fresh fare for much less than it would cost stateside.
Expats are attracted here thanks to its first-class health care and thriving property market that lends to a viable yet luxurious way of life in Panama City.
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“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.”
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Getting into retail without having to invest in stock is a great way to cut down on your initial investment and more quickly make a profit. And it can be very easy. Consignment shopping fits right into that mold. And, as a very American concept, there’s not a lot of competition for it in other parts of the world. If you’re gathering what others don’t want—and finding a market for it—you have a good business model for short-term or long-term retailing. Essentially, with a consignment store you offer a space for others to sell their items in exchange for a cut of the money when the product sells.
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.
“Won’t you miss your family and friends if you move overseas?” That’s a question we at IL get asked a lot, and the answer is… “Of course you will.” It’s something my husband Dan and I have experience of. We didn’t think about it too much when we moved to Ecuador back in 2001. With the exception of Dan’s mother, none of our family—my parents and our siblings—lived in the same city as we did.
As International Living’s Panama Editor, I travel several times a year to speak at conferences. Often the image people have is of a country with pretty beaches, plenty of palm trees…and not much else. One of the questions I get most is: “Will I be bored there?” If you’re expecting to take it easy and have a quiet retirement, you may want to think again. Bluntly speaking, it’s nearly impossible to be bored or even inactive here.
Despite being in the tropics, Panama boasts several towns located in the highlands that defy the heat. The mountains are small—not like the Alps or the Andes—but their elevation is enough to alter the climate from hot and muggy to cool and refreshing, which is why these locations are so appealing.
My wife and I moved to Ecuador in 2006 to enjoy the more laid-back atmosphere and travel extensively. The problem was that our taste for lazing around on sandy beaches and spending money in out-of-the-way Quechua village markets was starting to eat into our retirement funds. We needed to develop a new income…one that wouldn’t cut into our relaxed evenings watching gurgling mountain streams from our resort deck.
Mangoes are falling, ripe, to the ground. A light breeze flutters through the fruit-laden trees, and a yellow tanager takes flight. A couple passes me, wearing tank tops and shorts. I’m at one of Panama City’s many parks, thinking life just doesn’t get much better than this. It’s warm, the sun is shining, and everything around me is dripping in rainforest green.
Slowly the walls rise above us, hemming us in as our vessel sinks into the depths. Barn-sized doors of riveted steel loom above us as valves open and siphon the water away. With a clank, the doors crack open, widening to reveal another chamber. We sail in, feeling as though we’re in a gigantic bathtub…
Though the inn is small, just nine rooms, Mieke and Bill like to be onsite as much as possible, helping guests organize tours and transport and answering all kinds of questions about Panama. “We absolutely love this part of Panama City,” says Mieke of the Balboa area. Located in the capital’s Ancón district, this area is a world away from the city skyscrapers.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” That’s how the best weekends start in Panama. Last-minute invitations are never considered rude. And I’ve learned they should always be accepted…especially if you want to explore the country. So the next thing I knew, I was piling into a pickup truck with two local friends and heading to the little mountain town of Cerro Azul.
Panama has much to offer, from mountain havens boasting year-round mild temperatures to colonial towns where the traditions of grand old Spain have shaped and enriched the local culture. But it’s Panama’s sunny beaches that get the most attention…and with good reason.
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.
To me, there’s something almost magical about the beach. From the peaceful sounds of the surf breaking against the shore to the squawking of the gulls high above, it conjures up visions of simpler times when the only worry in the world was whether or not the water would wash away our sand castle.
Standing on a bridge over the Calderas River, watching it bubble and tumble down the valley, it’s easy to see why the Swedes and Swiss who arrived in this sheltered spot in the early 20th century felt so immediately at home. Pure mountain air and forest-green hillsides are something you expect of Scandinavia or the Alpine foothills…not tropical little Panama.
I visit Panama at least once a year, and every time I approach the city from Tocumen International Airport I’m amazed. It’s what Dorothy must have felt as she traveled the Yellow Brick Road and got her first glimpse of the towers of Oz. This is one big, bustling city, and it seems to get bigger and more bustling every year.
We at International Living are sending one lucky winner (along with a friend or spouse) to Coronado, Panama for a full month in 2014—free. The prize includes round-trip flights from the U.S. or Canada to Panama City, furnished accommodation in the beach-resort town of Coronado, plus a living-expense stipend of $1,500.
What are your reasons for visiting Panama? Ask any tourist that question and you’ll get a different answer. Some come for the beaches and the sun, others to explore the jungles or cloudforests. There’s a lot to see, and if you’ve read anything about Panama, it’s likely you’ve felt tempted to hop on a plane. To help tantalize you just a bit more, here are my top four reasons to visit Panama.