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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With shimmering lights and gleaming towers overlooking a deep blue bay, Panama City is a cosmopolitan capital often compared to Miami. Sure, there are parallels. Both cities boast beautiful skylines and exciting nightlife. But these days it can cost a mint to live in world class cities like Miami, New York, or London. In comparison, Panama City offers high value, low cost lifestyles…and a little more luxury at every turn.
I’ve been living in Panama full-time since 2005, and one of the best things about life here is the medical care. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. Over the years I’ve met dozens upon dozens of expats who were deeply impressed by Panama’s healthcare. International Living editor Dan Prescher was able to experience Panama’s modern, affordable healthcare for himself when he visited an eye doctor in Panama City. Dan liked the doctor and the modern facility, so he signed up for laser eye surgery. He estimates he saved up to 50% by having the procedure in Panama instead of back in the States.
In central Panama, 30 miles west of the capital, at an abrupt crook in the Río Chagres where it slips into Lago Gatún, is the small town of Gamboa. Originally designed to house Canal Zone personnel and their families, today Gamboa is a town of natural beauty and understated charm. Although only a half-hour from Panama City, Gamboa has an atmosphere of remoteness and tranquility. Here you can wander through lush rainforest, surrounded by a menagerie of exotic animals.
In another life, I worked as a charge nurse on a hospital unit. It was a nice hospital, and I was reasonably fond of my co-workers and patients. But 12-hour shifts are long and somewhere around 3 a.m. I would find myself wondering about other options.
The sun is setting, giving the beach a golden glow. Moments ago the water was a cobalt blue, and I could see the tail feathers of the seabirds gliding above. Now a single cormorant bobs close to shore. I kick off my sandals and walk along the surf, letting it roll over my feet. The water is the perfect temperature. A bit cooler than the air around me, it feels refreshing…inviting.
Panama City—Central America’s true First-World capital—offers the perfect mix of old and new, modern and traditional. Here you can eat in a gourmet restaurant, attend a jazz festival, watch a movie (in English)…do just about anything you would be able to do in many of the First-World cities that we all love. But in Panama City, you can do it all for less. A luxury lifestyle in the “Hub of the Americas” is easy.
Life, as we all know, is full of contradictions. Even here in Panama City—my little slice paradise. I’ve been living here since 2005, ever since I quit my job sailing the world aboard luxury cruise liners. For my money, there’s no better location and no better value anywhere in the world.
Panama takes the top spot in InternationalLiving.com’s 2016 Annual Global Retirement Index. Months of research goes into compiling this Index and InternationalLiving.com’s editors are helped by their large team of expat contributors based around the world, who help collect the data and offer input used to identify, rank, rate, compare, and contrast the very best retirement destinations in the world.
In a place where even the picket fences sprout leaves, you just know the soil has to be good. Known as Panama’s fertile valley, the tiny town of El Valle is a world of green. Lushly carpeted mountains surround the flat crater town. The green is punctuated here and there with bright bursts of crepe-like bougainvillea. The tropical reds and oranges almost seem odd in a place this cool and breezy. Thanks to an elevation of about 2,000 feet, El Valle is typically a comfortable 70 F to 80 F, with noontime temperatures rarely above 85 F.
With a vibrant cultural scene, Panama’s capital is a wellspring that’s well worth exploring. In Panama City, you have so much to choose from that whether you’re into art, architecture, gourmet cuisine—or anything else—you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied. Best of all, this surprising city is filled with contrasts. Small colonial gems and skyscrapers with cutting-edge designs…hidden galleries and state-of-the-art museums…centuries-old ruins and more modern wonders, too.
As night begins to fall, strings of lights twinkle above my head. The temperature drops 10 degrees to about 78 F…absolutely perfect. The open rooftop terrace of Panama City’s Tantalo Hotel is a fantastic place to enjoy the cool evening breeze. Not to mention the colonial architecture of Casco Viejo, one of Panama’s oldest (and most romantic) quarters.
Weekends, Rita Sosa tends to spend at her beach house, just over an hour’s drive from Panama City. “Our house is literally on the beach,” says Rita. “When I go up there, I just go to relax and swim. I’m very happy to sit and read a book outside and not do a whole lot of anything. It’s so great to have beach weather 12 months a year, and I love the tropical greenery.
Moving to Panama was “a bit of an adventure” for expat James Bloomfield. “When I first moved to the capital, I was out exploring nearly every weekend,” he says. He fell for the coastal area of Pedasi, just 200 miles west of Panama City. It’s a region of pristine, uncrowded beaches and abundant waters just teeming in tuna, wahoo, dorado, and more.
The highlands in the breadbasket province of Chiriquí attract expats from around the globe. Boquete and Volcán are favored destinations here, with temperatures ranging from about 65 F to 86 F. Folks are drawn to the perfect climate, with plenty of sunshine despite frequent afternoon showers.
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…
If you’ve been researching places around the world to retire, you may have noticed that Panama keeps showing up in lists of top spots. And with good reason. I’ve been living in Chiriquí Province in western Panama for the past six years. So I can tell you, there are plenty of reasons why Panama keeps taking those high honors.
Though Panama boasts two coasts and hundreds of islands, there’s a region on the Pacific that really stands out in terms of climate. Known as the Arco Seco, or Dry Arc, the Coronado region gets more sunshine than nearly any other place in the country.
Lying in the Arco Seco, little Las Tablas is Panama at its best. This town of under 30,000 people lies on the Azuero Peninsula, a region renowned for everything from colorful Carnival celebrations to artisanal textiles, pottery, and leatherwork. Life in this region of Panama is good. It is graced with more sunny days and less humidity than any other part of the country. And the cost of living is the lowest in Panama: Here, a couple can easily live on $1,000 a month, including rent, as expats Joyclyn and Armand Brodeur have found out. Originally from St. Louis, the Brodeurs came to Las Tablas in August 2014 to test-drive their Panama retirement, so to speak. Armand, 66, and Joyclyn, 59, long yearned for a tropical, beach lifestyle. At the same time, they wanted to choose a place where it was possible to live on a social security check.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.