What a beautiful moment. Humpback whales weave through the crystal water as I tap away on my laptop. My friend takes a more ecstatic approach and jumps up and down, beckoning for my attention.
I’m on Contadora Island, a one hour, 45-minute ferry-ride (or 20-minute flight) from Panama City. It’s one of several great places in Panama to whale-watch. It’s also a fantastic place to get away from it all. But I’m thankful that there’s WiFi so I can work a bit, too. The income I make from freelancing funds trips just like this.
Great things happen all the time here. There’s just so much to see and do…and since it’s warm and tropical, you can “see and do” all year long. It’s hard to be more than one or two hours from a nice beach no matter where in Panama you live. Likewise, you are never far from highland havens, farms and ranches, or convenient hub towns. These are the benefits of living in a tiny country known for its incredible diversity.
My home base is Panama City—a modern metropolis on the Panama Bay. First-time visitors expecting a “quaint” Banana Republic are often shocked by the sparkling skyline and modern amenities. When I’m in town you’ll find me downtown at my favorite pub—a microbrewery with great WiFi. But there are so many great places to eat, drink, and even work, that I could go to a different place every day if I wanted.
I suppose I’m lucky in that I sort of fell into freelance writing. Along the way, I learned that it isn’t a hard industry to break into…especially if you’re motivated by the thought of an easy, portable career. If you speak good English, then you can write good English. This is a job that anyone can do…and it’s fun besides. I’ve met lots of people who started after taking a simple online course or attending a single seminar.
Of course, there are plenty of expats who’ve put down roots with brick-and-mortar businesses here, as well. Expat-run New York Bagel is right next to that pub I mentioned, and it’s another great success story.
When Jon Hurst first came to Panama you couldn’t get a good, fresh bagel in the entire city. This was how he got his lightbulb moment. Despite not knowing how to make bagels, he knew there was an opportunity. After a couple of months of learning the craft he was able to find a busy, low cost location where he could set up shop. “If it failed, I knew I could always go back to the States,” he said. “But it’s still working and I’m not going anywhere.”
I’ve also met several expats in Panama who decided to try their hand at lodging, be it a hostel or something more high-end. Expat couple Sean Davis and Ayesha Irani Davis built seven bungalows near Coronado beach that they started renting. On the side, they also began offering yoga retreats. It was a niche that no one else in their area was filling. And it provided them with a steady supply of visitors.
It’s not too difficult to start such enterprises here. Panama ranks high in the region when it comes to ease of starting a business. Sure there can be paperwork and red tape—having employees will make things a bit more complicated, no matter where in the world you are—but compare time and investment costs to those in the U.S. or Canada and you’ll find there’s a clear winner.
In many cases you can just go online, apply for a notice of operation (aviso de operación), and open your doors. If it doesn’t require special food-handling or a liquor license you can be up and running in half the time it would take in the U.S. Even if you are opening a bar or restaurant and need those extra permits, you can still do a great many things online. Panama has two important business websites, Panama Tramita and Panama Emprende, and they are major time savers.
And I’ve saved the best news for last. If you’re a freelancer or consultant, you may not need to register in any way to do business here. In part this is because Panama’s income tax system is territorial. If you’re on Panamanian soil selling products or services to others on Panamanian soil, then yes, you’ll need to, at the very least, file an income tax report each year. However, if like me, you only write for publications outside Panama, you won’t have to pay a dime on income tax.
Come down for a visit and you’ll see that there are still niches to be filled. This is particularly true in growing communities outside Panama City. Places like the crater town of El Valle and the islands of Bocas del Toro are attracting expats because they are still up-and-coming.
If you are still apprehensive about taking the leap, or unsure about how to start a business, there are other great ways to make an income while deciding what you want to do next. I didn’t become a freelance writer from the get-go. When I first came down here, I didn’t know what to do. But expats I met recommended that I teach English and it wasn’t long before I was teaching four to six hours a day. It was enough to cover all my big-city costs, including a modest, shared apartment in a great part of town, and, of course…my wonderful trips. No point living here if you can’t enjoy it.
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