Retirement the Pros and Cons of Moving to Panama

Considering Panama, Central America, as one of your retirement options? Possibly a good choice, but there are a few things you should think about, as I’ve been living here in Panama since 2002.
There are a lot of good reasons to move to Panama. First and foremost, it’s pretty inexpensive, once you get past the cost of housing. But even that is cheaper than most areas in the States. If you’re looking for a place in Panama City, expect to pay at least $150,000 or more for an apartment/condo. You can get a really nice condo, with a view of the ocean, for about $200,000, depending on where it is. There are duplexes leftover from the military that have been renovated that are also fairly inexpensive. Those are in the canal zone which is a relatively nice area.
Food is very cheap in Panama, especially produce. My husband and I are vegetarians, so our food bill is fairly low. We can get by on between $45-$65 a week if we avoid going to restaurants. But even those are comparably cheaper than the States. They’ve got Fridays and Tony Roma’s down here, but they’ve got American prices. You can eat a really wonderful gourmet meal for two for less than $50, not including wine at many other locally owned restaurants. You can also get a great meal for two for less than $20 in a lot of places.
Health-care is also very inexpensive in Panama. An office visit for a doctor in the city runs about $40. Our doctor is a USC graduate and speaks perfect English. He even saw my mother when she came to visit and caught the flu. And, we have his cell number so we can call him any time, in case of emergencies. (I had food poisoning once – never eat sushi on Sunday – and my husband called him and he met us at the hospital.) Which brings me to the fact that I spent five days/four nights in the hospital, private room, and the total cost was less than $2000, including the doctor’s bill. I don’t even want to know what that would have been in the States! And for those concerned, our insurance is Blue Cross/Blue Shield and it’s quite reasonable.
Of course, the weather is wonderful. It hovers around 80 degrees. It’s hot when it reaches 90 and for us lightweights, it’s cold when it’s under 78 – my husband and I actually own a down comforter and use it about three or four nights a year, as we don’t have any heat, of course, and we don’t use air conditioning either, in our 5th floor apartment.
The beaches and the country (interior) are beautiful in Panama, but you need to get away from the city. An hour’s drive north will get you far enough out and to where the beaches start becoming usable. Beach property is a bit more expensive, but still not at U.S. levels. There’s a beach community called Coronado that’s quickly getting more and more crowded. The real estate there is booming, so it’s important to get in quickly.
There are many places around Panama that are really wonderful, and living here can be a great experience. However, it’s important to also know about the dark side. While Panama is probably one of the safest countries in Central America, it has its problems as well. Be sure to not look like your dripping in cash when you come here. “Gringos” are plentiful and obvious here. The less attention you draw to yourself the better.
If you’re going to purchase a house with land, it’s a good idea to have a full-time security guard and probably some inside help at home 24/7. Robbery is a big crime here, and the thieves will stop at nothing to get what they want. I can say, however, that I’ve never had any trouble since I’ve been here. I don’t drive a fancy car either, and the one I bought was used and came with its own dents.
Don’t get sucked in by all the fancy advertising for the condos in the city either. Beware of the “Avenida Balboa ocean front” property. The reality is, if the building is too close to an area called “Paitilla” and on Avenida Balboa the smell from the water can be sickening because that’s where one of the rivers drains into the ocean. There are NO BEACHES in Panama City that are safe to swim in. In the city the ocean is merely an ornament to be seen, not felt. IN Paitilla, however, if you can get an apartment that is a bit west and south and overlooks the ocean, it’s always great to HEAR the ocean, and there, there’s no smell.
An interesting sidebar: Donald Trump was going to build a new tower on Avenida Balboa. It was to be the highest building in Panama. They tested the land it was to be built on, and it turned out not to be able to support the weight of such a high tower. Those plans have been scrapped. And, we don’t know if it’s going to be located somewhere else at this time. I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything!
Another thing to beware of. In the advertising for new buildings here in Panama I have seen phrases like “great public transportation services.” You need to be aware of the fact that a) most of the buses here are old American school buses and are driven by crazy people who love to race other buses down the street! They are called “diablos rojos,” or red devils. Don’t take the bus if you can possibly avoid it! It’s not worth your life! and b) while taxis are prevalent here, we always recommend calling for one over the phone, when possible, instead of flagging one down on the street. This is more important for women. I’m possibly being over-protective here, but, again, why risk it? If you can, find yourself a driver who has a car – networking with friends down here can help you get one – and that will make life easier until you’re ready to start navigating on your own.
And that’s another thing. I waited a full year before I started driving in Panama City. I have driven in New York City and Los Angeles, and I’ve never been more afraid of driving in my life than when I came here. Be sure you drive with friends before you try it yourself. The roads and the people driving on them are crazy. Not many people follow the rules, and the one-way streets are not always marked – this includes on- and off-ramps to the highway – I’m serious!
I could write a novel about the ins and outs of living in a third world country, but just realize, that’s what Panama is, a third world country. It’s more modern than any city in Central America. It sports three new and very modern shopping malls and the best movie theaters I’ve ever attended. Learning a little Spanish would be a good idea as well, as not everybody here speaks English as people like to believe. And, you don’t have to change your dollar bills either. But there’s always a downside. It’s important to leave the “impatient American,” at home, and get ready to relax and WAIT. Nothing is done in a hurry here, but as a retiree, who cares?!