3 Dreamy Panama Locales for a Retirement Test-Drive

Caribbean island, cosmopolitan city, or cool mountain haven? Everyone has a dream, and chances are, people have told you yours is unrealistic. I certainly thought mine was—cottages in colorful Caribbean towns were for movie sets or the uber rich. Or so I thought…

Turns out in Panama, the dream isn’t out of reach. You can easily rent in a welcoming, attractive area for six months to a year and test it out…zero fuss. Want to test-drive a life here…with minimal risk? Here are three dreamy destinations where rents are surprisingly low:

Panama City

This cosmopolitan city is the region’s only world-class capital…and my home since 2005. It’s one of few such cities in the world that are on the water and graced with both a mild climate (average temperatures are perfect for me here at about 88 F during the day and 78 F at night) and a privileged location (we never get hurricanes, as Panama is completely outside the hurricane belt). This city is known as the Hub of the Americas because it’s home to Latin America’s busiest and best airport. I can get to Miami in about three hours, and to New York in about five.

Best of all, rental prices have fallen in the past year, with optimistic construction projects overshooting local demand. Take for example a just-listed apartment in the posh city sector of Punta Paitilla, on the Bay of Panama. It’s a furnished two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit and the owners are asking $1,300 a month. The building has a gym and pool, so this unit would likely have rented for at least $1,500 a month two or three years ago.

With a rent of about $1,300 a month in modern downtown Panama City, a single adult can live very well here on as little as $2,600 a month, including rent, utilities, high-speed internet, cell phone, supermarket purchases, and an outing every week. I manage to do it on a bit less most months…

Life in Panama City is fun in large part because it’s an international hub, home to expats from all over the globe. White-collar Panamanians and a growing cadre of university students here tend to speak English. They are well-traveled, tolerant, and welcoming to foreigners. If you like the idea of a busy city with gleaming skyscrapers—and every cultural offering and activity under the sun—then test-drive the expat life here.

El Valle de Antón

Not every expat comes to Panama in search of hot tropical weather. For those who prefer cooler climes, the country’s verdant mountain towns are ideal. Boquete is the most popular mountain town in Panama, with a large and extremely active expat community. But it’s six hours by car from the international airport in Panama’s capital. Even if you take a plane—it’s just an hour’s flight—you’re likely to spend upwards of $150 round-trip.

El Valle, on the other hand, is just two hours by car from Panama City. A nice, air-conditioned bus will get you there for under $5. With rolling hills carpeted in green and a number of attractive inns and restaurants, it’s one of the most enchanting places in Panama. In fact, El Valle is the retirement and weekend destination of choice for many elite Panamanians.

Houses in El Valle can be prohibitively expensive to buy—like I say, it’s favored by the local elite. But lately, many of the larger estates have begun offering small cottages on their grounds for rent. In some cases, a new one-bedroom home could run you as little as $575 a month. I decided to test-drive quiet mountain living here last year, spending a month in a furnished two-bedroom cabin that cost me $800 total—including utilities and high-speed internet.

It was a fun, inexpensive experiment…a single adult could live here on $1,700 a month, easy. Though I’m staying in the city for now—I do like the hustle and bustle, traffic and all—I made quite a few friends in El Valle. It is home to a small but incredibly nice group of expats.

Isla Colón

This Caribbean island is part of Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago. In the town center—also known as Bocas Town—you’ll find colorful inns, restaurants, and bars catering to visitors of all types, from surfers to celebrities. Just outside town, pristine beaches like Paunch and Bluff are quiet and peaceful. I’ve often had whole stretches to myself during my morning walks. (Try doing that in the Bahamas!)

There are expats of all ages living in Bocas—some are retired, while others continue to work or operate small businesses here. It’s difficult to find titled property, but right now, this is a great place to rent. Long-term rentals go for as little as $400 to $800 a month. Most are small, simple houses without air conditioning—many of them new and built to be eco-friendly.

Even after all these years, it’s hard for me to believe that Caribbean living is so inexpensive in Bocas del Toro. After all, this is a region known for sparkling white sands…turquoise waters as clear as glass…many of the locals even speak English with a melodic Caribbean lilt. Including an inexpensive rental, a single person could live here on less than $1,900 a month.

Sure, this coast gets more rain than the Pacific…about 120 inches a year …but Panama is completely outside the hurricane belt.

I repeat…hurricane-free Caribbean for as little as $1,900 a month. If that ain’t living the dream, then I don’t know what is.

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