Panama contains one of the largest expat populations in all of Latin America, for several, very important reasons. They have a strong and stable economy, it is based on the US Dollar, English is widely spoken, prices are on a par with the US, they have great private healthcare, incredible infrastructure, stable government and warm weather. What's not to like? Well... that's why Fran and I made this trip.
I've been to Panama before but only explored Panama City (aka PC). A veritable clone of Miami, I actually experienced déjà vu while driving through the city. If you like big cities, crowds, traffic congestion, rude locals, Miami Florida, then you will love Panama City. But we wanted to explore other areas of the country that represented the antithesis of PC. Our research pointed us in the direction of two major gringo inhabited towns; Boquete and David.
Located about 500 km north, Boquete and David are easily drivable within 7 hours. Most of the trip was over a modern, four lane highway while the rest of the trip carried us over a great, two-lane road with almost no traffic. The only difficult part I found was getting out of Panama City. Traffic congestion is almost 24/7 due in part to a new mass transit system currently under construction. It will be great when its done but current estimates put completion around 2017... 5 more years of driving hell.
BOQUETE and DAVID
Having had the opportunity to sit down and chat with several local gringos who make this area their full-time home, they all have said (in one way or another) that "Everything you NEED can be found in Boquete. Everything you WANT is available David."
DAVID AIRPORT EXPANSION
David is the third largest city in Panama, and ranks just just under Colon in size and population. By the way, David (pronounced dah veed) and is the capital of the Chiriquí Province. Located nearly at sea level, their weather tends to be more warm and humid, much like what you will find on Costa Rica's central and southern Pacific coastal areas.
Private medical care is excellent, for the town is home to two private hospitals and several smaller clinics. In addition, David's airport is undergoing a major expansion that will nearly quadruple it's capabilities. Look for an increasing number of flights that will originate in key U.S. cities.
Shopping is phenomenal. There are several, large shopping malls located right on the Pan American Highway which runs right through David. And you can't miss the giant Pricesmart (identical to Costco, Sam's etc) on the southern outskirts of the town.
Boquete, located higher in the mountains (3700 feet) is pleasantly cooler. It reminded us of when we lived back in the Central Valley. One turn-off (at least for us) was that over and over we were told that Panama's rainy season averages nine months a year! That's not saying it rains for nine months, just that the possibility of rain is quite high and the likelihood of seeing sun during that period is quite slim! For those seeking warm and dry, this factoid might make living in Panama a showstopper if you are contemplating relocation there.
Boquete's gringo expat population is a homogeneous mix from all over, mostly USA and Canada. As a group, they are collectively very strong and civic minded. Most recently, they pooled their resources with the local Pana residents and built a new public library. This project was totally funded through public donation.
Because Boquete is just a short distance from the Costa Rican frontier, it is a popular place for Costa Rican expats to venture when they need to make their 90 day border run. There are plenty of small niche shops and restaurants to satisfy anyone. And remember, if they don't have what you need in Boquete, they will have it in David.
BOQUETE PUBLIC LIBRARY
From a potential expat's point of view, there is lot's to like about Panama, but like Costa Rica, do your research
The Panamanian Government Want's You... or do they?
It may all be smoke and mirrors but when you begin your expat due diligence, the topic of Panama's incredible Pensionado Discount Program always surfaces. Before you make any decisions to adopt residency and move there, please do your research. An expat by the name of Richard Detrich publishes a wonderful website about Panama. He honestly and candidly discusses all things Panamanian. One of his articles, which caught my attention, was his thoughts on the Panamanian Pensionado Discount Program. Richard's assessment of the program may be a lot more accurate that those you may read in other publications that tout how cheap expat life can be in Panama.
The week we were there, it rained a little. Although on day 1 we did encounter a very rare hail storm but no single day was a complete washout. Boquete and David were partly sunny with an occasional rain shower. No big deal for it IS the rainy season!
CLEAN AND CHEAP
The two things that really had us blown away were the cleanliness of the streets. And except for the "stankiest" barrios in Panama City, Panama was a clean as North America; very little litter on the highways, major recycling programs everywhere. There is a national consciousness of all Panama residents to take pride in the appearance of their country. Costa Rica is getting there but are many years, maybe even decades, behind Panama.
Purchasing power in Panama is nearly twice that of Cost Rica. Fran and I visited several grocery stores (Rey and Romero) and found that in virtually every case, all groceries were much lower than in Costa Rica and on a par with the US. However, unlike Cost Rica, the shelves were well stocked and with a huge selection. The same is true for the electronics and appliance stores as well as the major department stores. The bottom line... high quality, incredible selection and US prices. Here are a few examples we came across:
|Can of National Beer||$1.12||$0.48|
|1 Liter Rum||$17.76||$7.19|
|Bimbo Multi Grain Bread||$2.36||$2.05|
|Can of U.S. Soft Drink (Coke or 7-Up)||$1.05||$.68|
|1.89L Ocean Spray CranApple Drink||$7.61||$4.95|
|1 kilo Fresh Eggs||$3.31||1.79|
|Apple iPad 3 - 16gb||$1,000||$512|
|VIRTUALLY ALL ELECTRONICS||HALF PRICE|
WHY IS THIS?
It can be summed up quite simply... Unlike Costa Rica, Panama does not assess heavy import tariffs. By the way... what ever happened to CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement)? A huge portion of Panama's revenue comes from the Canal Zone. That is their cash cow. Costa Rica has... HIGH IMPORT TARIFFS!
When I talk about infrastructure, I am referring to the man-made foundation on which a high quality of life depends, and Panama has it. Their roads and highways are impeccable, they are constructing a new and modern rapid transit system in PC that will move much of the traffic underground, quality water, electric, sewage treatment and of course television and internet. This is not geographically sporadic but available to all significant population centers. Costa Rica has a way to go in developing a modern and consistent infrastructure but they are making slow and steady progress.
So you may be saying to yourself, "Jeez Andy and Fran make Panama sound like the greatest place in the world to live." That might be true if all we wanted was maintain our gringo lifestyle, south of the border. However, from our point of view, Costa Rica's people are it's biggest selling point. Costa Rica, to us, is more of a Latin American experience than Panama. And remember, part of what we wanted out of our new life was a new experience. I seriously doubt that Panama is in our future but we are thinking about taking at least one more trip back next year. This time we want to concentrate on beach towns.
As usual, I shot a ton of video, nearly four hours of raw footage. On our return, I edited all that into a very informative and candid overview of our time in country. In addition, we also shot a bunch of still pix. Here are the links to view each of my seven videos as well as a link to my Facebook Photo Album page.
As always, if you have any comments, please feel free to write us and let us know your thoughts.