The Best Small Town for Expats in Panama?

Colorful birds swoop in and out of the trees of the rainforest landscape. Combined with a blue sky, it makes a soothing palette—perfect for days that flow like honey, slow and sweet. We sit on the large terrace, sipping wine and chatting about life in small, sleepy El Valle, Panama. Even with a trickle of tourists and the well-off Panamanians that flood in on weekends and holidays, El Valle is always tranquil…and it is always green.

It is here that Sami and Roberto Hernandez, 50 and 53, respectively, have chosen to test drive the expat lifestyle. “It checked a lot of boxes…literally,” says Roberto. “We made a spreadsheet and we called it The Decision Matrix. We assigned point values and whatnot to help us rank things that were important to us.”

In El Valle, the Hernandezes found everything they were looking for. With Panama City just a two-hour drive from the town, they have an abundance of shops and an international airport close by. It also has the walkability and beautiful natural setting they desired. “We wanted to be able to walk to restaurants and such,” says Sami. “And we wanted green…we wanted mountains,” she adds. The town’s proximity to several nice beaches is also a plus. The nearest beach is just 45 minutes away in Coronado, where there are several major grocery stores and an increasing number of shops and services.

One of the world’s largest inhabited craters, El Valle offers a rainforest environment at an elevation of about 2,000 feet. Temperatures are mild, typically 78 F to 83 F during the day and no lower than 68 F at night. December through March are typically sunny and dry. During the low season, El Valle gets a lot of rain. An hour or two in the afternoon is common May to July, with heavier rains from August to November.

Since Sami and Roberto still work, rainy afternoons are a good time to hop online. Sami is a quality assurance specialist in the medical devices field, but can now do consultation from anywhere. “I can work in California or Panama, as long as I have an internet connection. And when you have customers on the East Coast, Panama is better in terms of the time difference,” she says.

Roberto has been self-employed since 2008. “About two years ago, I started a new journey, building a personal brand and publishing a book,” he says. “I had been a performance musician for decades, and I had the idea to build an online community and resource center.” Roberto’s website, podcasts, and other products help musicians market themselves and do business.

With a bit of extra income from two duplexes they still own in the U.S., Sami and Roberto are able to live an enviable lifestyle in El Valle. “Mornings, I sit on the balcony and stare out at the beautiful edge of the crater,” says Sami. “Then my dog and I go for a walk, I come back, clean up, and get on the computer. I might do some yoga in the afternoon, or pour a glass of wine at five o’clock,” she says.

Though dinners at home are fun, they also go out a fair bit. “You know, the expat community here is actually very social, and pretty tight,” says Sami. “We have our Friday night happy hour that everybody really enjoys, and trivia every other Tuesday.” You won’t break the bank on outings in El Valle. Breakfasts and lunches can be had for as little as $3.50 to $5. Even fancy dinners like grilled salmon with a couple of sides, or pasta loaded with langoustines, top out at $13 to $15.

Other activities cost nothing. “We enjoy hiking,” says Roberto. “It’s fun to get a little group together, and there are fantastic trails here. It’s really beautiful.”

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