Panama City, Panama
If you’re looking for inexpensive cosmopolitan living—but with many of the conveniences you’d expect in San Francisco, 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. Its a major international commerce and banking hub, home to nearly 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.
Retire in Panama
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. Here, 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 has also become one of the region’s leading culinary destinations, with eateries of every variety offering high-quality, fresh fare, often for much less than it would cost stateside.
If you’re looking for inexpensive cosmopolitan living—but with many of the conveniences you’d expect in San Francisco, Miami, or any other major First-World city—you owe it to yourself to take a serious look at Panama City.
Lifestyle in Panama City
Panama City caters to a variety of lifestyles. While its ultra-modern skyline lends to its reputation as a booming business town, with vibrant nightlife, it also offers low-key, laidback living in neighborhoods that wouldn’t be out of place in small towns in the U.S. or Canada.
There is a huge selection of restaurants to choose from. You could eat out here several times a week—there are still plenty of places where you can grab lunch for $7 to $10 and sip a beer for $1.
And think of the little luxuries you’ve denied yourself over the years. Maybe you’re hoping in Panama, you’ll be able to play golf more often…afford weekly massages…enjoy a night at the theater…even see the dentist or dermatologist more regularly than you did back home. Here, you can stop hoping, and make all those luxury lifestyle dreams come true.
As Panama City is on the coast, it is breezy and warm. Sundown temperatures are usually 76 to 78 F, with average daytime temperatures around 88 F. Many expats here use air conditioning on hot days, but using it 24-hours a day will lead to higher electricity bills.
Like many expats, you may find it difficult to resist having a maid. It’s easy to find help in Panama City, and a good employee can greatly improve your quality of life. A full-time, live-in maid can cost you as little as $250 a month. Many capitalinos (residents of the capital) have part-time maids who they’ll pay $15 per visit. This usually includes cleaning, laundry (no ironing), and can include cooking and babysitting, too.
Movie tickets in Panama City are about $6 and pensionados pay 50% less. On Wednesdays, many theaters are half price for all moviegoers. A popcorn, nachos, and soda combo will cost you about $6. And in case you’re wondering, Panama gets a wide-array of first-run and blockbuster movies. Most films are played in the original language with Spanish subtitles.
Cost Of Living In Panama City
While it is the most expensive part of Panama, the cost of living here is low when you consider the facts: Panama City is a world capital, on the water, home to the Latin America’s premier airport hub and just a three-hour flight from Miami. It has a mild climate and is located completely outside the hurricane belt. Indeed, there are few cities in the world that offer all these things…and none so affordable.
As the cost of living in Panama City offers plenty of high-quality options, some of the below costs come in ranges. Plus, it’s important to note that you may not want a car if you decide to live in Panama City (or even outside the city). The metro costs just $0.35 to ride, most bus rides cost $0.25, and ride-sharing apps like Uber are popular and inexpensive, with rides often costing $4 to $5. Taxis are also inexpensive and ubiquitous, often no more than $5, even during rush hour. In rural areas and small towns and cities, $2 fares are common.
Here is a sample budget detailing what you might expect to spend each month to live comfortably in Panama City (two-person household):
|Rent (two-bedroom apartment in a central area)||$1,000 to $1,500|
|Transportation (taxi or fuel/maintenance on a compact car)||$75 to $200|
|Electricity (depending on air conditioning use)||$60 to $150|
|Water (bundled with trash pickup)||$0 to $25|
|Gas for cooking, water heaters, dryer, etc.||$0 to $10|
|Supermarket (food/household, mix of local and imported items)||$400 to $500|
|Entertainment for two (movies twice a month, including snacks/drinks, and dinner four times a month)||$150 to $400|
|Phone (land line, mostly local use)||$13 to $20|
|High speed internet||$20 to $45|
|Cable or satellite television||$35 to $50|
|Monthly total for a First-World lifestyle in the big city:||Approx. $1,753 to $2,900|
Video Tour of Panama City
Panama City: A Luxury Lifestyle in the “Hub of the Americas”
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. And it is also one of the safest capitals in the Latin American region.
In Panama City you’ll find a rich cultural tapestry—the result of a fascinating history. From the colonial buildings in Casco Viejo to the many festivals that take place in the city throughout the year, there are myriad opportunities to immerse yourself in traditional Panamanian life.
Looking for an escape from the city’s hustle and bustle? Beaches and mountains are both within easy striking distance when you live in Panama City. The beach town of Coronado is just an hour’s drive away, as are the lush mountainscapes of Cerro Azul.
When it comes to overall value, Panama City shines. It’s Central America’s only true metropolis, with a thriving art scene, a large roster of sporting and fitness-related activities, a scintillating nightlife, and just about anything else you’d expect from a world-class capital. Cosmopolitan lifestyles, top-notch healthcare, and close proximity to the U.S. have all helped transform this hub for business and trade into one of the world’s most desirable expat destinations.
Panamá La Vieja: 500 Years of History in Panama City
Panama City is the most modern-looking capital in Central America. Planes land over a sea of twinkling lights. Ubers zip tourists into town on the Corredor Sur, an automated toll road that spans over the mighty Pacific. As you approach from the east, you’ll see it…the gleaming skyline of posh condos and offices overlooking the deep blue waters of the bay.
Carry on from the Corredor Sur to the road and recreation area known as the Cinta Costera, and you’ll see a city that’s shiny and new. You’d never guess that this cosmopolitan capital just turned 500 years old. Still, the proof is there for everyone who cares to seek it.
Exit the Corredor Sur to the avenue known as El Cincuentenario and you’ll come upon Panamá La Vieja. This is where, in 1519, the ruthless conquistador known as Pedrarias founded Panama City. The first conquistador city on the Pacific Coast of the Americas, its full name was Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá, and it got its start with a population of 100.
The port city was considered the jewel of the overseas Spanish Empire—a rich settlement and a strategic location from which to explore the Americas. It was from here that explorers set out to find the Mississippi River and the bountiful territories of Peru and Chile.
With the discovery of gold and silver in Peru, Panama City became a major hub on a crucial trade route. Goods were transported from South America to Panama City, then across the isthmus.
Las Cruces and The Canal Concept
As early as 1533, advisors to the Spanish king suggested a route connecting Panama City to the town of Cruces, on the banks of the Chagres River. Dubbed the Camino de Cruces, or the Las Cruces Trail, this would become the first intercontinental road. From the Chagres, vessels could sail right into the Caribbean. And from the Caribbean port town of Nombre de Dios (and later, Portobelo), ships laden with wealth were able to set out for Spain.
Though travel was still fraught with danger, the Las Cruces Trail made it much easier for the Spanish to transfer pilfered wealth from the Americas to Europe. It wasn’t long before shrewd conquistadors suggested that a canal could save them even more time and money. They even began surveying land for the project, but the idea was later quashed by King Philip II, who declared that “if God had wanted a canal there, He would have made one.”
By 1610, the city’s initial population of 100 had grown to 5,000, and it doubled to 10,000 before the site was abandoned. The crown and its conquistadors faced many problems in Panama City, including slave rebellion, fire, and an earthquake. Worst of all, it was constantly being targeted by pirates.
The final and fiercest attack came in 1671, when the infamous Henry Morgan sacked and burned it to the ground. The incident prompted colonizers to move the city to a site about six miles southwest of the original location. Today, that “second city” is known as el Casco Antiguo. Much of modern, metropolitan Panama City is sandwiched between these two historic quarters.
Since the ruins at Panamá La Vieja were abandoned—that is, left undisturbed—for over 200 years, the original layout has been exceedingly well-preserved. It wasn’t until 1912 that the ruins were declared a public monument. In 1995 a non-profit was set up to manage the site and its funds and to continue excavations and research. Two years later, citing its importance as the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, UNESCO named Panama La Vieja a World Heritage site.
This “exceptional testimony of colonial town planning” includes the ruins of a cathedral, convents and public buildings that “showcase unique technological and stylistic characteristics” of the time. And The site of Panama La Vieja is more than the ruin of a colonial outpost. Before the Spanish landed here, this area was home to Cueva-speaking peoples—stratified societies with dynastic rulers who left behind vestiges of their habitation and cemetery sites. (“Panama” is thought to be a Cueva word meaning abundance of fish.)
To modern-day eyes, the site of Panama La Vieja is tiny. It encompassed around 500 homes, several convents and chapels, a hospital, and a cathedral. A portion of it is buried under a residential neighborhood, but visitors can still explore the major landmarks.
Since the ruins are picturesque and centrally located, it’s well worth taking a few hours to visit them, as well as the onsite museum and handicraft shops. Ask a guide to point out the Puente del Rey—built in 1617, it may well be the oldest standing bridge in the Americas. The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is the best-preserved building. Though its façade is gone, the nearly 100-foot bell tower is a favorite with visitors who climb to the top for camera-worthy views.
The grounds are extensive and uneven so be prepared to walk a lot—nearly a mile if you do the full circuit—and watch your step. You can ask for a guided tour, a headset to listen to recordings about the various buildings, or simply explore on your own. I recommend comfy shoes, a good camera, water and snacks, cash for handicrafts, and sun protection (consider using sunblock and wearing a hat and sunglasses), even if it’s cloudy or rainy. If you go anytime between April and December, you may want to bring an umbrella, as well.
I particularly like going to the ruins when there’s a public activity I can attend. The site is popular for everything from art and literature events to concerts and other performances—there are even weddings here from time to time.
Five Reasons to Move to Panama City
By Jessica Ramesch
If you love the idea of living in a tropical, warm-weather destination, but don’t want to make sacrifices when it comes to amenities and entertainment, Panama’s capital city is the perfect solution. There are few places on this planet that come close to checking as many boxes as Panama City—or PTY, as it’s affectionately referred to by residents.
I’ve had my home base here since 2005, and I’ve watched this incredible, dynamic city grow into a true cosmopolitan capital…one with fabulous Latin flair. Here are the top five boxes Panama City checked for me:
1. Constant Sunshine
Though this is a humid, tropical destination, we rarely experience temperatures above 88 F during the day and 78 F at night. We also get a lot of sunshine. Most mornings are gorgeous, even if we do get around 70 inches of rain a year.
December through April are usually “dry,” with little to no rain. Then, from May to July, we typically get an hour or two of rain between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. (That said, there’s sometimes a dry period or “Indian summer” in July.) Finally, August to November are the rainiest months, with many downpours. Still, we rarely get more than a few gray days in a row. Bottom line, I see the sun constantly, all year long.
I celebrate by spending a few hours outside almost every day. I like to walk on the Cinta Costera, a breezy bayside promenade lined with recreation areas. Or go to the vast Omar Park to roller skate, have a picnic, or just sit on a bench and read. Every now and then I go on nature walks in the Parque Metropolitano. A rainforest reserve in a cosmopolitan city—there’s no other place like it in Latin America.
2. Strategic Location
The great weather is a function of Panama City’s strategic location, between North and South America. We’re completely outside the hurricane belt, so I don’t spend my time worrying about natural disasters. Our airport, Tocumen International, is known as the Hub of the Americas. The moniker is well-earned.
A huge selection of flights, many of them nonstop, have made it easy for me to travel over the years. Back to the States (East Coast, West Coast, all over)…to visit my sister in Canada…to explore Latin American countries like Ecuador and Colombia…and even to go as far afield as India, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
I spend even more time traveling in Panama. The capital is the perfect base for when I want to explore. The domestic airport offers flights to island destinations like Contadora and Bocas del Toro, as well as the city of David, where you have easy access to mountain getaways like Boquete and Volcán. But even within a radius of 15 to 80 miles of the city there are beaches, islands, mountain towns, and national parks. I can hop a 30-minute ferry to Taboga Island and enjoy white sands and turquoise waters. Or drive 20 minutes to the “locals beach” at Veracruz, where I like to have leisurely lunches on Friday afternoons.
The Panama Canal Railway Company gets me to the Caribbean port city of Colon in an hour, and the train is like something out of a 1940s movie (albeit with air conditioning). It’s beautifully outfitted with wood trim and green leather berths—there’s even a 1938 Southern Pacific Dome Car that lets you look up through a glass ceiling to the tree canopy above. And the views of the Canal system, with its rainforest and lakes, are unparalleled.
3. City Conveniences
I’ve stayed in Panama City all these years because my life here is easy…and never boring. There’s the peace of mind that comes from having excellent potable water and cell phone and internet services. And then there’s the bustling world capital just outside my door.
The metro zips me into the downtown El Cangrejo sector in 10 minutes. From there I can walk to an incredible variety of restaurants…my favorites include a Spanish pub with a weekly Flamenco show, two Indian restaurants, and a Korean hidden gem. There’s Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, Italian, Colombian, French, Venezuelan…I can’t keep track of them all, new places are always popping up.
What are you into? The opera and the ballet…art exhibits or contemporary dance… mixed martial arts or tennis or golf? Whatever it is, you’re likely to find it here. We have theaters, convention centers, stadiums, a hippodrome, and countless cozy venues for everything from jazz trios to classic rock.
4. Safety & Integration
As a single South Asian woman I feel safe in Panama City. There are large communities from all over…Indian, Lebanese, Israeli, American, Canadian, Argentinian, French, Japanese, Spanish, Greek…you name it. In addition there are major Afro-Panamanian and Chinese-Panamanian communities. It’s a Catholic country but it welcomes everyone, so there are synagogues, mosques, and even a Baha’i temple—one of ten in the whole world.
I like the anonymity of a major metropolis…I can live my life, stay out late when I want to, and I’m just another person in the crowd. Gay pride events highlight the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Groups like Internations.org organize fun events so I’m always meeting new people, both local and international. If you’re worried about fitting in…if you speak only a little Spanish…this is an easy place to land.
5. Cost of Living
Finally, I wouldn’t be able to live here and have this lifestyle if the cost of living weren’t so affordable. Famous world capitals with way worse weather cost way more. Here, I can enjoy all the above without working the 70+ hour weeks I worked back in the States. I typically spend around $2,700 a month—that’s including rent, groceries, utilities, cell phone plan, Internet and cable, one to three outings a week, car insurance, and a few regular medical expenses.
How many affordable, cosmopolitan world capitals can you think of that are on the water and that offer warm (but mild) hurricane-free weather just a three-hour flight from Miami? I’ll tell you how many…just one.
It isn’t perfect…every large city has its bad or unsightly areas. But they’re easy to avoid here. And there’s so much to enjoy that Panama City is perfect…for me.
So, if you’re intrigued, maybe you owe it to yourself to see if it’s perfect for you, too.
Capital Escapes: Three Easy Day Trips from Panama City
By Jessica Ramesch
Panama City has enough sights and entertainment venues to keep a body busy for days. The restaurants, theaters, galleries, park and recreation areas, universities, cultural centers, stadiums and convention centers offer a mind-boggling array of events. The ruins at Panama La Vieja and historic district of Casco Viejo are UNESCO World Heritage sites. You can even see the Panama Canal without leaving the city.
But some of Panama’s greatest treasures lie outside the capital. I’ve lived in this city since 2005, and one of its best features is that it’s the ultimate base from which to explore the country. You can easily spoke out by car, bus, boat or domestic flight to explore islands, beaches, mountain towns, nature reserves, indigenous settlements, and more.
I enjoy planning little weekend jaunts, hitting up a different destination each time. There’s so much to see, it’s impossible to get bored. Even if you have just one day, there are several great options to choose from. Here are my top three picks for easy day trips:
Taboga: The Island of Flowers
Budget at least 7 hours
Tiny Taboga is known to Panamanians as La Isla de las Flores or The Island of Flowers. Here you’ll see lush rainforest vegetation, red hibiscus, and pink bougainvillea cascading down muraled walls. There are lively little festivals in June and July, but it’s a popular destination year-round, as most days are sunny here.
Ferries depart from Panama City every day, with the Taboga Express Ferry (Tabogaexpress.com) offering an “express” 30-minute service from the Yacht Club in Amador. Round trip tickets are $24 for tourists, $20 for residents/nationals, and $14 for retiree residents.
You can easily take an Uber from anywhere in Panama City to the ferry launch point. Remember to take cash, as on the island’s main beach—right by the dock—you can rent everything from beach chairs to umbrellas. (There are no ATMs on the island.) Locals will even offer to set you up with a cooler of beers and bring you food from nearby eateries.
Here, the waters of the Pacific are warm and a clear, pale blue. If you tire of the beach, you can take a walking tour, hike to the 20-foot cross at the crest of Cerro la Cruz, or try to find the hidden gravesites at Isla Morro. Don’t miss the prettily whitewashed San Pedro Church, it offers spectacular views of the white-sand shore and water below. Built in the early 1500s, this tiny colonial gem is one of the oldest churches in the Americas. Taboga’s rich history features marauding pirates and one of the world’s most famous artists (I won’t spoil the surprise).
Gatún Lake: Wildlife & Fishing
Budget six to ten hours
Midway across the Panamanian isthmus, between Panama City and Colon, you’ll find one of Panama’s many marvels. Created during the construction of the Panama Canal, Gatún Lake is a huge expanse of nearly 168 square miles. (At time of completion, it was the largest artificial lake in the world.) Villages were flooded to create it, and an eerie forest of petrified trees covers the lake bottom.
You wouldn’t want to swim here—there are crocodiles and caimans in the water. But as you cruise past outcroppings of dense rainforest, you can spot a spectacular variety of wildlife, from iguanas and three-toed sloths to keel-billed toucans. Monkeys are nearly impossible not to see. Try a fierce howler monkey roar—if you do a good enough impression, these remarkable animals will answer back. (And don’t worry, they may be vocal but they are peaceful leaf eaters.)
Depending on the day of the week, tours start from about $110 per person including hotel pickup You can also go fishing here and you can reel in tasty sargento or peacock bass and even have it fried up for you near the public landing. (Anconexpeditions.com, “Panama Canal Rainforest Boat Adventure” and “Panama Canal Fishing”).
Barro Colorado Island in Gatún Lake is one of the oldest tropical research stations in the world. Hundreds of scientists visit this rainforest laboratory every year to study biology, ecology, evolution and animal behavior. Tours are led by expert, multilingual naturalists—fascinating and fun! (See STRI.si.edu, tourists pay $100 and legal residents $50.)
El Valle: Cool Crater Valley
Budget about 10 hours
One of the largest crater towns in the world, El Valle is also one of my all-time favorite destinations. The two-hour drive offers incredible views from the town of Las Uvas to El Valle, which sits at an elevation of about 2,000 feet. You can rent a car from about $50 a day with full insurance (See Nationalpanama.com) or hop an express bus from Albrook’s Gran Terminal Nacional for $4.50.
I highly recommend an overnight stay, but if you have just one day, leave by 8 a.m. Rush hour is in the opposite direction, so you’ll have smooth sailing out of Panama City. If you leave earlier than that on a weekday note that there may be a carril invertido or reversed lane on the PanAmerican Highway. (These are well marked with cones.)
El Valle is a high rain destination, so between May and December you may want to bring an umbrella or slicker. Daytime temperatures are 75 to 85 F and evenings can be about ten degrees cooler. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen—cloudy or not, you can easily get sunburned in Panama’s mountain regions.
You don’t need much money to enjoy El Valle. Before the sun gets too high, hike up the India Dormida trails or to the Chorro El Macho waterfall. Next visit the local market, where you’ll find handicrafts, exotic fruit, rare flowers, and local plants. Look for appliqué panels known as molas—they’re traditionally made and sold by Guna tribeswomen. Next, visit the orchid center ($2) or spend an hour horseback riding around town ($5). If it’s a cool day, visit the hot springs ($3 donation) and slather yourself with thick mineral mud.
Hungry? There are little cafes, shops and eateries along the main drag. For a special treat, trundle out to La Casa de Lourdes. It’s a beautifully appointed manor on verdant landscaped grounds, with open-air seating beside a pool. Go for dinner if you’re not in a rush to drive back to Panama City (from about $25 per person).
If you just can’t bring yourself to leave El Valle, there’s a fancy hotel next door (LosMandarinos.com), with plenty of cheaper options in town. Hotel Residencial El Valle (HotelResidencialElValle.com) is very basic but clean and cheap. Hostal Cariguana (book on TripAdvisor.com) is just a five-minute walk from town, in a lush garden setting. Both have communal areas and WiFi for guests.