Tourists in Panama City Only Get Half the Story

There’s a big difference between how a tourist sees Panama City and how a potential resident views it.

If you come for a visit, you’re likely to note the sparkly, spiky skyline. Even back in the 1990s it was impressive—no other city in the region could compete. And these days there are more than plain old skyscrapers here. There are some true architectural specimens, like the Trump building (sail shaped, like that iconic hotel in Dubai).

You may also note the traffic. Yes, on a game night or the Friday of a long weekend, things can slow way down. On any day of the work week, quitting time sees most of the city’s cars flood the streets.

Panama is extremely proactive about expanding roads and doing other things to help improve the situation. Indexes tend to list Panama as number one in the region for infrastructure improvements. Still, we’ll never be able to completely do away with traffic.

But the world’s most exciting cities are full of cars and people. If you’ve been to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or New York (or London or Rome), you know what I’m talking about.

So why do people continue to flock to the big cities?

If you research Panama’s capital as a place to live, rather than a place to visit for a few days, you’ll understand.

For example, it takes more than a couple days here to realize that the art and cultural scene is rich beyond measure. There are enough activities to choose from every week that it’s impossible to get bored. New restaurants, first run movies, sporting events, plays and dances and exhibits…you name it, we have it.

I just got back from night one of our annual weeklong Panama Jazz Festival—jazz great Danilo Perez was two feet away from me and seven talented musicians were onstage for an impromptu jam session. It was a night worthy of the world’s most famous music capitals.

And then there’s the convenience. I have access to anything I could possibly want here. I hear expats in other countries talk about not being able to find things—a particular type of mustard or gadget or even article of clothing. Here the supermarkets and malls are full of inexpensive local brands as well as dozens upon dozens of imported ones. The choice is yours.

Then there’s the weather. The average temperature here is 88 F during the day and 75 F at night. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t tend to get extreme, hundred-degree weather here.

And the rain is nothing like those monsoons you see on the news in other parts of the world. A tourist might experience one particularly rainy day and draw some erroneous conclusions. Spend a year here and you, like our residents, will know that you can see the sun nearly every day of the year.

That’s true whether it’s the May through November “wet season” or the December to April dry season. A “rainy day” means it rained for an hour in the afternoon. Truly gray days are few in good old PTY.

That’s probably one reason people here are so happy. I’m not speaking subjectively (though I do see lots of smiles). In a recent Gallup poll of 148 countries, Panamanians ranked among the most positive people in the world. They feel that life is, for the most part, good. They have access to high-quality, low cost health care and medications. Unemployment is extremely low at around 4%. And the economy is extremely healthy with growth reaching 7-9% a year.

The average tourist doesn’t know all this…but spend some time here and you’ll be amazed at how full the shops are…and at how prosperous Panamanians seem, compared to their Latin American neighbors.

What does this mean for the potential expat resident? Panamanians are accustomed to and actually like foreigners. They don’t resent them for being “wealthy” because this is a land of opportunity. Panamanians have decent opportunities for education and for well-paying jobs.

So if you come here as a tourist…sure, enjoy the gourmet restaurants and the colonial quarter architecture and the classy hotels. But if you are seriously thinking about where to retire, don’t limit yourself to doing the tourist thing. Make a list of what you look for in a hometown, and then see how Panama City measures up.

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