Monkeys, Rainforests and WiFi…Welcome to Panama City

A capuchin monkey is in a tree just a few steps from where I sit. I stay still for as long as I can—I’m enjoying looking at him and don’t want to scare him away. Surrounded by lush rainforest, I could almost forget that I’m in Panama City. But I’m hooked into WiFi in a cafe and—now that the monkey has scarpered—I’m tapping away on my laptop.

Today I am in Panama City’s green Ancon sector, just enjoying a change of scenery. I work out of my home or whatever restaurant or cafe takes my fancy. Tomorrow, I may be at the nice Starbucks in ritzy Punta Pacifica…or the hole-in-the-wall bajareque coffee shop in the historic district of Casco Viejo. Each neighbourhood has its own look and vibe. And when it comes to choosing a place to live, there are plenty of convenient, attractive barrios to choose from.

That’s the beauty of Panama City. There are those who try to categorize it this way or that…a modern metropolis stuffed to the gills with towers that really do seem to scrape the sky…or a vibrant Latin American capital filled with buskers, hawkers and honking BMWs and Mercedes. But the truth lies somewhere in between. And this city is no one thing.

The flip side of that is, of course, that it can be pretty much anything you want it to be.

If you have always dreamed of living by the ocean—perhaps in a modern apartment overlooking the deep blue waters of the Pacific—then look to bayside areas like Punta Paitilla. Along with Punta Pacifica, Paitilla is part of the greater Bella Vista sector. It is home to well-heeled Panamanians as well as plenty of expats who now call this city home. Here you’ll find shops, banks, restaurants, cinemas, supermarkets and pretty much anything else you could possibly want or need.

The Cinta Costera—a network of roads, walkways and recreation areas…and one of my favourite places here—starts just outside of Paitilla and continues all the way into the nightlife district of Casco Viejo. I come here to walk or attend fitness events…spend around $2 on a big cup full of tart sliced mango or a sneaky snow cone, topped with sweet, sticky condensed milk…or just to sit for a while and people-watch.

Panama City, Panama

If you like the idea of city amenities—but not city noise and traffic—you will like verdant Ancon, where there are very few tall buildings. Houses with terraces, green yards and gardens are the norm in Ancon’s many neighbourhoods. Popular with local and expat families, this district has everything you need, but it doesn’t look commercial. In the Albrook sector you’ll find a shopping centre, the national bus station, the city’s main airport for domestic flights, a big supermarket, fast-food joints, local-style eateries and more.

Outside of this area, Ancon looks largely residential. Its neighbourhoods are quiet and attractive, with exuberant rainforest foliage pressing up against manicured lawns and the iconic Ancon hill. On any given day here, you may spot toucans, sloths, agoutis, and yes, even monkeys.

In my time in Panama City, I’ve lived both by the water and in green Ancon. But since 2005, I have been in the middle-class Betania neighbourhood, just a few kilometres north of the bay. I found a four-bedroom apartment in a small building (formerly a three-level home) and fell in love with the idea of all that space. My rent 11 years ago was just $730 a month, and since then it has gone up by $270. The owner could charge a bit more, but he’s happy to have a reliable tenant.

Like my landlord, who lives next door, my neighbours are mostly locals. My landlord’s grandfather lives two houses over, and across the street is the family home of one of the city’s more successful real estate agents. It’s a safe, quiet, very local area, and I have been loath to leave it. When I’m in the mood for a little excitement…a good show or dinner at a trendy restaurant…I take a $1 metro ride (or $5 to $6 Uber) to the bay area.

In other parts of town, you will generally pay $1,600 to $2,000 a month for a nice two-bedroom apartment. It’s steep compared to some other parts of Panama. But where else in the world can you live in a truly cosmopolitan capital…on the water…for so little?

What works for me—now, after 11 years of living here full-time—may not work for you. Or it may suit you just fine. But again, that’s the beauty of Panama City. There are plenty of safe, convenient, diverse neighbourhoods offering high-value lifestyles. Come here and you’ll see that the sky…almost literally…is the limit.

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