Gringo Price in Panama: $250k…Local Price: $105k

I was sitting across from a young go-getter at a trendy sushi spot in the cool part of town. Let’s call him Bob. “I’ve been looking for a condo—as an investment and to live in for a while,” said Bob. “I think I may have finally found the right one.”

He had come across a property of just over 1,000 square feet near the posh Coco del Mar district…for $250,000. Thankfully, the sale fell through.

You see, Bob thought he’d found a bargain. However, he hadn’t thought to ask for a local’s input. It’s a mistake expats often make.

The apartment wasn’t a penthouse nor did it seem to offer anything special. Doorman, social area, pool, gym, nice lobby…many buildings offer these little luxuries and at much lower prices.

I told him to talk to his local friends next time; people who have nothing to lose or gain from his purchase. A local might have told him to first check a website that caters more to locals than expats. For example, lists apartments in his preferred locale from $105,000.

Coming from a Canadian city where a beginner condo could cost double the figures he was being quoted, Bob confessed that $250,000 had seemed cheap. “I really like Panama, but I am not saving as much as I thought I would here,” he added.

I hear this all the time, and it pains me. The point is to get down here and enjoy watching your money go further. So before you spend on big-ticket items—or even little ticket ones—ask the locals what they think.

The Secret to Low Prices in Panama

For example, grocery stores here carry all kinds of scrumptious and sumptuous items. Panamanians like their U.S. imports and you’ll recognize your favorite brands in every aisle, from Alpo for Fido to Ziplock’s latest “eco-friendly” sandwich bags.

But look at what the well-heeled locals are doing. Instead of buying imported fresh cherries at $9 for a little tray, treat yourself to the best local, organic produce. Even so-called “high-end” produce is inexpensive—little more than the regular stuff. So go ahead…splurge!

I can find good organic produce at Riba Smith supermarkets, but I have a service that delivers to my door. All I have to do is order at least $10 worth of products. I make the order a day or two ahead of the weekly delivery date.

Here are some of this week’s high-end organic offerings, mostly sourced from small farms:

Sweet Potatoes $2.50/lb
Green Garlic Shoots $1.50/bunch
Broccoli $2.00/lb
Cabbage $2.00/lb
Fennel $3.00 lb
Organic Duck (half) $10
Organic Honey $1.12/oz
Roasted & peeled Cocoa beans $1/oz
Ground and hardened chocolate for cooking $1/oz
Aloe Vera & Lemon Soap $4.00

My favorite new items are made from Borojo, a so-called “super fruit” that is said to have high levels of protein and phosphorus. A bottle of organic Borojo Wine costs me just $8 while a jar of marmalade is only $3. I’ll gift some to the host the next time I’m invited to a friend’s for dinner.

You can’t find this fruit just anywhere…and it’s one of many little luxuries that few outside Panama can offer. Don’t buy expensive imported spirits the next time you’re in an airport. Panama’s Abuelo brand rum is surprisingly good. Go for the seven-year blend at less than $10.

Put down that imported larger—Panama brand beer has also won awards. Panama’s best coffee farms, meanwhile, boast the delicate Geisha varietal, recognized as one of the world’s finest coffees. The top varieties are exported and cost as much as $170 per pound, but you can buy excellent strains for about $30 a pound locally through Café Ruiz, as any local java-lover can tell you.

You’ll learn a lot just from watching people in the supermarket. Follow the fashionista in Fendi and you’ll see she doesn’t pay $20 to $30 a bottle for good Italian, French or California wine…Chilean and Argentinean wines available here offer the same quality for half that or less. Try Navarro Correas—the Cabernet – Merlot – Malbec blend is always a hit, and retails for under $10.

Don’t search for tulips or lilies for your next dinner party. You can do better…try fresh orchids for $5 to $40 at a Riba Smith grocery store; you won’t believe how much you get for so little.

You get the picture. Expats don’t flock here only to spend as much as they do back home. Here you can live well for less, or make the same budget stretch very far. Just get a little local help.

You’ll find Panamanians are very friendly and usually flattered to be asked what brand they recommend or how to eat a particular fruit. It’s good sense…and who knows? You might make a few new friends.

Editor’s Note: International Living is celebrating Independence Day by slashing prices on every country report in our bookstore by 30%…including Panama: The Owner’s Manual.

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