How One Expat is Living the Dream in Panama City

On a dusty corner in  Panama City’s Casco Viejo sector, there is a bar/restaurant. It doesn’t look like much, but the name on the sign makes passersby stop and puzzle: Mojitos sin Mojitos. In English it means, “Mojitos without Mojitos.”

Weekend nights, the place is full to overflowing. There are hipsters from the local art scene…young bankers from the financial district…backpackers from France. Perhaps it’s the uncontrived “dive” atmosphere that lures them in. Or perhaps it’s the $2 beers…

The place is the brainchild of expat Eric Theise, who came to Panama from New York “to take a break.” For some, taking a break in Panama means seeking out a beach…maybe doing some light reading. Eric’s take is a little different. He works the bar, alongside his staff, into the wee hours.

But he still describes himself as having retired early. As far as Eric is concerned, he’s living the dream in Panama. “If I moved back to New York, I’d have to work. Really work,” he jokes.

It all started Christmas 2005 when a couple Eric knew decided to buy land in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province. “I had never even visited,” says Eric. “But if my friends thought it was a good idea to buy here, then I wanted to be a part of the deal.”

Eric was soon planning a trip…and it would be the first of many. “Panama is amazing,” he says. “The people are friendly…the beaches are wonderful…and the women are beautiful.”

Back in New York, Eric had been a partner in a business that owned a couple of gyms. He put in 12 to 18 hour days to make it a success, and the hard work paid off. The gyms did well and a larger firm bought them out.

Eric had plans to do nothing, at least for a little while. But soon, opportunity knocked. A friend had a space in Casco Viejo—just steps from Eric’s apartment—that would be perfect for a bar.

Eric had never even tended bar before, but he felt the “temporary” venture would make him some money and be a new experience. Walk past on a Saturday night and you can see it was a good decision.

Eric says Panama’s low cost of living (and doing business) has helped. “It’s so much easier and cheaper to start a business here than back home; or even in other Latin American cities,” says Eric. “A permit that can cost you tens of thousands in New York can cost you a couple thousand or less here.”

Rent for a bar like Eric’s runs about $1,200 a month these days in Casco Viejo. At Mojitos sin Mojitos, he sells beers for $2 and rum-colas for $4—including tax. There are no mojitos on the menu here…that’s the joke. “I love the word, but they’re just too time-consuming to make,” says Eric.

Will he retire “for real” when he’s done with the bar? “I might, I might not,” Eric says. He’s not being cryptic…once you become part of the expat crowd in Panama, you never know what opportunities might arise.

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