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 love my life in Panama. Though I travel often, I’m always happy to get back to my home in Panama City, where I’ve been living since 2005. I just don’t know where else in the world you could live in an exciting, cosmopolitan city on $2,500 a month, including rent. I go to first-run movies in English for $6, enjoy $2 beers at trendy restaurants, and have even signed up for language classes at the local university…six hours a week for just $100 a month. In any other world class city, the cost would be triple.
With another Fast Track Panama Conference under our belts, I’m amazed once again by the appeal and the staying power of this magical country for U.S. and Canadian expats. I get to come here every year for our Fast Track conference, and I’ve heard many of our presenters, experts, and expats tell their stories of life in Panama before. But sure enough…with an audience of several hundred folks soaking up the information and opinions about retirement in Panama for the first time…it’s almost as if I’m hearing it for the first time myself.
I was tired of working 40, sometimes 50 hours a week as a designer for an international furniture manufacturer. Working on commission only, I often worked on my days off to facilitate clients, and meeting my required goals had become increasingly difficult. Continually declining markets, escalating real estate taxes, and the rising cost of electricity and heating oil were other factors that made me decide it was time for a change.
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.
Many expats and retirees are attracted to the mountainous areas of Panama, known as the highlands. From west to east, these are the towns of Volcán, Boquete, Santa Fe, Sorá, El Valle, and Cerro Azul. While each has its own distinctive features, they all share common traits that benefit those who live there. Here’s a look at the top five advantages of life in Panama’s highlands:
The island destination in Panama I’m asked about the most is Bocas del Toro—and with good reason. A trickle of adventurous visitors and a tight-knit expat community have transformed insular Bocas del Toro from a sleepy archipelago to a bustling outpost. But if you’re considering island life, you’ll be interested to know that Bocas is not the only exciting option available.
I retired to Panama in 2007 and I’ve seen big improvements in that short time. Getting around the country has become much easier in the time we’ve lived here. For example, the Panamanian government is expanding the Pan American Highway from Santiago to David.
Boquete is the premier expat and retiree destination in the highlands of Panama. The name applies to both the small hamlet resting in an ancient volcanic formation and to the larger surrounding district, home to about 25,000 residents. It’s located in Chiriquí Province in western Panama, not far from the border with Costa Rica, on the eastern-facing side of Volcan Baru, Panama’s highest peak (11,400 feet) and only volcano.
Since my husband Clyde and I retired to Panama four years ago, a typical day is anything but that. We awaken each day to the sound of birds singing, roosters crowing, and geckos’ chirping as our peaceful little neighborhood comes to life…wondering what the new day will bring
When I think of country living in Panama, I think of Volcán in Chiriquí Province. It’s one of my favorite places in Panama and offers the ideal blend of rural lifestyle in a small-town setting. Barú Volcano, which gives the town its name, looms to the east and Cerro Punta, where most of Panama’s produce is grown, rises to the north. The town rests at about 4,600 feet in a sloping valley facing toward the Costa Rica border. The open sky is clear blue this time of year. Blooming bougainvillea bushes of bright magenta and deep purple add a splash of color amid the pine trees.
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.
For many people looking to retire overseas, selecting the right country from the many options available can seem daunting. Fortunately, some countries actively encourage expat retirees to relocate there. They offer excellent retirement benefits that can help you truly enjoy these destinations’ great value. To help narrow your choice, here are the three top countries for retirement benefits on the IL beat.
From our porch we can see down to the river, where we have our own little private beach and swimming hole,” says Albuquerque native Bob Caragol of his and his wife Irma’s new home. “We just fell in love with the area. There’s no crime and no pollution, and my asthma symptoms improved immediately.” Their story is typical of expats living in the scenic mountain town of Santa Fe, located in Veraguas province in west-central Panama.
With the coming of fall, my family and friends in the States find themselves thinking of the long, cold winter approaching. It’s not just the ice and snow they have to cope with, but the enormous heating bills, and not being able to enjoy the outdoors. But not me…living in Panama I don’t ever have a heating bill and I haven’t seen snow in years. The great outdoors is my playground all year round here in the Chiriqui province of western Panama. And that includes being able to go to the beach anytime I want.
I’m fortunate to live in Chiriqui province in a small, quiet Panamanian neighborhood near the tiny town of Dolega. We are centered between our province’s two main urban centers…both of which I love for different reasons. David is the larger of the two and is a 50-minute drive from my house. Although much smaller than Panama City, it’s a busy and bustling place. David provides everything we need—banks, supermarkets, repair shops, insurance agencies, car dealerships, and modern shopping malls.
Morning is my favorite part of the day…it’s cool and the day is new. My wife, Luz, and I sit on our patio, coffee in hand, and watch birds splashing about in the birdbath I made from stained glass shards. When I first moved to Panama five years ago, I lived in the city of David. But after exploring the country I decided to make Las Tablas, on the Azuero peninsula, home. It’s a charming town with a tranquil public park and the locals are a friendly bunch.
People used to ask me what I was going to do with myself all day when I didn’t have to work. Believe me, I haven’t had a problem finding things to do since moving from Florida to the city of David in Panama. I spend many hours biking around the city and exploring the surrounding countryside. I work on my blog, I have more time for my photography and I recently started painting classes.
A million shades of green surround me as I drive. Above, the sky is a deep cornflower blue. I’m on the perfectly paved (and newly expanded) National Highway, driving down the Azuero Peninsula’s eastern coast. As is customary in this region of Panama, the sun is shining. A five-hour drive will get you from Panama’s sultry capital to Pedasí, a gem of a village. Banana trees, sugar cane, and countless varieties of palms line the flat horizon. There are no highrises here…towns in the greater Pedasí district are tiny.
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.
Though Panama is tropical, there are some drier areas along the Paciﬁc coast. The Coronado region, an hour west of Panama City, is known as the Dry Arc or Arco Seco. This dry swath stretches all the way to Pedasí on the Azuero Peninsula. The region gets 40 to 60 inches of rain a year, whereas Panama’s Caribbean coast usually gets over 120.
I was in my favorite grocery store the other day buying fresh chicken at the butcher counter, and it made me think about a recent food scare in the U.S. One of the mega-conglomerate producers had recalled thousands of pounds of chicken, due to possible contamination. Then over coffee the next morning I read a story online about health insurance companies raising their “affordable” premiums by 20% to 40% next year. And I realized how relieved I am that those things don’t concern me here in Chiriquí Province, Panama.
“In Pedasi, Panama, we live a life we couldn’t have had back home,” say Connie and Mikkel Moller. “If we were in the U.S., we’d both be working, at least part-time, and constantly worrying. After visiting for a few days in 2012, the Mollers fell in love with Pedasi. “We loved it. We fell for Pedasi. The people, the ambience…everything about it.” Located five hours by car from Panama City (you can also fly; it’s just under an hour from Panama City in a tiny commercial plane), most days of the year are sunny. Average daytime temperatures are around 88 F, but evenings and mornings can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler, thanks to the ocean breezes.
In 2012, Connie and Mikkel Moller planned a trip from their hometown of Auburn, California, to Panama without checking the local calendar. They ﬂew into the busy hub of Panama City, and hopped on a bus to the ﬁshing village of Pedasí. Little did they know it was Carnival season…one big, nationwide party, with the biggest concentrations of revelers just minutes from the town center.
The road leading to the town of Santa Fe de Veraguas climbs gently and steadily up the slopes of the Continental Divide, winding past cattle ranches, jungled hillsides and gurgling rivers. The bright blue roof of the Catholic church in the middle of town is one of the first sights you see. This church marks the center of town. Around it you’ll find a soccer pitch, a shaded plaza with benches and a gazebo, and small stores and businesses along the main street.
The drive from my hometown of David west to the town of Volcan in Chiriquí Province is one of my favorite scenic routes in all of Panama. I pass cattle pastures, dairy farms, horse stables, and chicken farms framed by rolling green hills. At certain vantage points I look out over the landscape and can see all the way to the Pacific coast. Colorful flowers and a surprising variety of trees and foliage decorate the roadway as I wind my way up the slope of the mountain.
The sound of rolling waves soothes me as I lie on the warm, glittering white and black volcanic sand. Bursts of green palm trees ring the beach, which is dotted with bits of driftwood, coral, and shells. White marine birds complete the scene, standing on spindly legs, looking out towards the sky-blue sea.
Cost of living is one of the major concerns for many retirees considering a move overseas. It’s one of the reasons my husband and I chose to settle in David, the capital of Chiriqui Province in western Panama. Life here is not only pleasant, relaxed, and fun, but super affordable. We average about $1,500 a month for our living expenses. Here is a typical monthly budget for myself and my husband:
After enduring too many cold winters I decided it was time to move overseas. Shoveling snow just to get to work and more shoveling to get back into the garage at night was exhausting. It was adding more time to my work day, meaning less time for relaxing at home. Plus I hated how the cold dictated how and when I did everything. It would take twice as long to get anywhere. And my cost of living was going up and up and my heat bills just kept rising. Then there was the worry about the wear and tear on the car due to the freezing temperatures, frozen pipes, downed power lines, and power outages.
“Congestion, noise, and frenetic energy.” That’s how Maureen LoBue describes her former life in San Diego. Her new life in Panama couldn’t be more different. Here, her days consist of salsa dancing, swimming, and plenty of happy hours. “I rent a three-bedroom house with three porches and a huge yard—in the beach town of San Carlos—for just $800 a month,” says Maureen. Panama City is just over an hour away. She goes often, adding that a bus to the vast Albrook Mall and National Bus Terminal is just $2.50. And she’s about 10 minutes by car from a hub town bustling with supermarkets, shops, a clinic, and more.
Jennifer Blackstone’s newfound tropical lifestyle is a far cry from her childhood in Wisconsin. In fact, it’s a life she didn’t think she could ever have. “Several things fell into place and conspired to get me to Panama,” says Jennifer, who fell in love with the tropics several years ago. “I visited Costa Rica and I loved the tropical feel…the colorful ﬂowers and the warm ocean,” she says. “But the thought of living there…it was a fantasy.
My husband Gary and I love to travel. Happily, since we retired to Panama, it’s easy and convenient to do. The proximity of Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Peru, and numerous additional Latin American countries, as well as many exotic Caribbean islands, gives us the opportunity to visit them all. Being retired we have the time…and, since our life in Panama is so economical, we can afford it.
Peter Roberts and his wife, Sally, were never really intending to move to Panama. They had even less inkling that they would buy a property—specifically a working farm. Two bird enthusiasts, Peter and Sally visited the mountain region of Boquete to take a bird-watching tour.
Being a small country, it’s easy to get around Panama. That means most parts of the country are within easy reach of our home in the Chiriqui Province. Recently, my husband Gary and I jumped in the car and took to the road to check out the beach town of Pedasi.
The Brodeurs chose Las Tablas so they could live well, without sacrificing the good things in life. They go to the local expat hangout, Ponchalo’s, several times a week. The cost averages $20 total, including beverages. “Recently we had a to-die-for filet mignon for $6 at a place around the corner,” says Armand.
I live in Boqueron, a small community in the highland province of Chiriqui, an area almost completed overlooked by expats but filled with friendly locals. Here I rent a comfortable, air-conditioned house—fully-furnished—on a pretty little river for just $175 a month. For another $25 a month, someone comes regularly to maintain the yard. I live among great neighbors, manage comfortably on just a little money, and with decent internet connection, can chat to the folks back home whenever I wish.
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 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.
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.
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.