I recently received this from a ResFam reader…
I really enjoy the RF blog. Your courage and resourcefulness has impressed me and broadened my horizons. Fifty-four years of the typical southeastern US experience has led me to this plea for a “boots-on-the-ground” perspective. Many, including myself, avoid making recommendations for fear of unduly influencing others, but if you are inclined, make an exception for this concerned vagabond. [please]
One of your areas of expertise is Panama. You seem very pleased with your decision to plant a flag in your adopted Panama. Imagine that I was your middle-aged uncle/brother/brother-in-law and explain to me why I SHOULD [and SHOULD NOT] try a new start in Panama. Your take on the life that you have embraced would be priceless to me. Please email me
Well I decided that the response to this email would be better off as a post for everyone so without further adieu…
First let me briefly tell you why I picked Panama, then I’ll move to the reality that I found.
I was tired of the long winters in North Carolina and I was worried my kids were growing up in a town with too little diversity. So I made a list of exactly what I was looking for. I recommend anyone contemplating a move do this too and if you are going to move with a significant other you should collaborate. Here is the list I made before I started looking. Note that at the time I was not really thinking about the planting of multiple flags. I just wanted somewhere warm to go in the winter so I could expand my families horizons. Here is the actual spreadsheet I used…
After I did this I narrowed my search down to Costa Rica and Panama through internet research. And then I took a research trip to both countries with my 3-year-old daughter and pregnant wife (I know I must be crazy)
My impression after this first trip was that I liked Costa Rica better for a vacation, but Panama better for a move. The infrastructure in Costa Rica was horrible especially the roads. Plus the costs were higher. In Panama I found less tourist infrastructure but better living infrastructure. The roads were great, and this might have been a selling point for my wife because she thought she was going to go into labor driving on the “monkey trail”, which is a nasty stretch of road between Ocotal to Tamarindo in Costa Rica.
I knew no place was going to be perfect and I had a “shit or get off the pot” mentality. I knew if I waited for perfection I would never do anything. Read Coley’s piece about Status Quo Bias and what to do about it to learn more about that.
So we picked Panama. We also found another family interested in buying and building with us which helped a lot. Since this article is not about finding land, buying it, and designing and building a home on it, I will suffice it to say that with lots of help, we found land, bought it and designed and built houses. Here is a before and after picture…
So, on to the reality of what we found. First note there was a long adjustment period and this should be expected wherever you move. I wasn’t sure how to structure this post so I just sat down with a yellow legal pad and wrote a list of pros and cons, in no particular order. Then I let it sit around the house and I added to it periodically. Here is what I came up with….
Weather: Not having to shovel snow rocks! Some may claim it is too hot, and at times it is pretty damn warm. But there is always the pool, the beach and the mountains are only a 30 minute drive away.
Surfing: I learned to surf at age 40. I had no previous experience and now I love it. I felt young again to learn a new sport at that age. This is one of the best things Panama did for me personally.
No Crowds: When I walk to my local beach 95% of the time I am the only one there. I love it. The whole country has less than 3.5 million people and more than a million of them live in Panama City. That means once you get outside of the city, the country is very remote people-wise, but surprisingly the infrastructure is still very good.
Food: I’m a bit of a foodie, and I need good eats. The local Panamanian food is nothing special but there are many good restaurants near me. In the city of course the options are plentiful.
Diversity: This was a major reason I moved. On my first visit I asked a woman what her ethnicity was, because try as I might, I couldn’t tell. To the best of my recollection it was “Scottish, Japanese, and African” No wonder I couldn’t figure it out! The bottom line is that there are people from all over the world here.
People: By overcoming fear and making a bold move to another country you will meet others who have done the same thing. These are great people who conquered their fears and they all have great stories. I have made some great friends due to my move. I imagine this would be the same no matter where you move.
Infrastructure: You can drink the tap water almost anywhere and you can drive paved roads deep into the mountains and explore tiny villages with ease. A definite plus. Little things like the fact that Panama uses the same currency and the same power outlets as the U.S. makes a big difference too. You do not have to do currency conversions in your head all day and you do not need power adapters for all your electronics.
Mountains: In the US I live in the mountains and as much as I love the beach, it is fantastic to be able to hop in my car and be in the mountains in 30 minutes. And as much as I love surfing I also love to mountain bike. Coley and I have had a blast exploring little mountain towns on our bikes.
Labor Costs: This is huge. Minimum Wage is $1.87. As you adjust to this you can hire out laundry, cleaning and any other chore you can think of. When we built our house the footers were all dug by hand because it was cheaper than renting a backhoe.
Getting things Done: Compared to the US, Panama really gets stuff done quickly. The 10 mile road through downtown Panama City was a nightmare. So the country filled in the bay to create four new lanes of traffic as well as adding parks, green spaces and soccer fields. They even added massive overpasses and flyovers to get into and out of the city. Total time: 18 Months. In Boone NC they are trying to widen a 1 mile stretch of road and it has gone on for years, and it’s still not done!
Beaches: I think Panama has some of the prettiest beaches in the world. I questioned this before I moved because I knew they had black sand beaches as well as white. I love the beach diversity. Black, white, rocky, cliffs, straight, curvy, all within a walk from my house! There is an amazing amount of coast.
Wildlife: Our house is in the country and I love all the cool birds and animals. (not so much the scorpions and poisonous snakes)
Real Estate Appreciation: As remote as our area was, things are changing quickly. This is a double-edged sword. We knew it would happen, just not so fast. But as an investment it has been a gold mine I guess. Here are links to our new neighbors… Vista Mar; Rio Mar and Casa Mar.
Growing Fruit: Our property is beginning to produce fruit now. Limes, papayas, oranges, bananas, mangos, oranges grapefruit etc are all in the works. I can’t grow any of that in the North Carolina mountains.
Speed to build: There is less bureaucratic red tape so the speed to build is much faster. The time between buying our property and moving into the house we designed was just under one year.
Freedom: I love the freedom. This is a big one. I did not know how oppressive the system was in the US until I left it and got some perspective. I like not being told what I can and can’t do all the time. If I want to have a fire on the beach while drinking some beer and I want to bring my dog, I just do it. No one is going to tell me otherwise. There are so many little things like this that add up to a feeling of more personal freedom. There is a downside of course. If someone else brought a dog to the beach and broke some glass bottles then I need to watch my step if you know what I mean.
Indigenous Culture: There are 7 recognized tribes of indigenous people in Panama the Nôbe-Buglé, Teribe, Kuna, Embera-Wounaan, Guaymi, Talamanca, and the Bokata. Although their way of life is threatened I liked having the cultural diversity.
I learned Spanish: There is no better way to learn Spanish than moving to a Spanish-speaking country and buying land and building a house.
Medical: Panama has great medical facilities. Our house is near the San Fernando Clinic, and in the city there is a Johns Hopkins affiliated hospital, so it has everything you might need medically. I love that I can walk into any lab and get whatever blood test I want and they will just email me the results. All for about $10.
Cost of Living: I mentioned the labor cost earlier, but the cost of living is less as well. How much cheaper? Well that depends a lot on how you want to live. For our family I would say it was at least 30% cheaper.
Property Rights: All property records are kept in the public registry so it is pretty easy to make sure you have clean title and title insurance is available too. I’ve heard horror stories of people finding out they never really owned the property they bought in some countries.
Outdoor Activities: I mentioned surfing earlier which is awesome. But I also enjoy mountain biking, hiking, SCUBA diving, snorkeling, kite boarding, deep-sea fishing and sailing in Panama. There is also sky diving although I did not try this.
No Hurricanes: When we bought our property it was right after a lot of hurricanes in Florida. Panama is too far south to have any hurricane issues.
Schooling: This is listed in the Pros and the Cons. The international exposure our kids got in their schools was invaluable. Very mind expanding. BUT (see below)
Now the CONS:
Service: Panama really needs a hospitality school. Restaurant service is atrocious compared to US standards. You need ultimate patience. We sometimes joke that you need to eat before you go out to eat, so you don’t starve to death.
Quality: It is hard to buy quality anything. In the local hardware stores most tools are of very low quality and will break in no time. This drives me crazy.
Organic Food: There is very little regulation about how they treat food. So you do not know what chemicals are sprayed on the beautiful golden pineapples the guy on the side of the road is selling from his truck. Things are changing somewhat now, but it is frustrating knowing that chemicals that are banned in the US are still being used in Panama.
Limited Selection: Some things you want you just can’t get. When we last painted our pool there was no problem deciding what brand of pool paint, because there was only one.
Mañana Culture: This was a hard one to get used to. You have to learn that manñana means “not now” So when the plumber tells you he will be there tomorrow, what he means is that he is not coming right now. This is the part of the culture that can grind your nerves, but ultimately I believe it will soften the rough edges and get you to slow down and not take everything so seriously.
Crime: In Panama most houses have walls and many have barbed wire on top. We never had any issue with crime but we did hear about people who did. We came from the mountains of North Carolina where you can leave your house unlocked when you go out-of-town so for us it was an adjustment. Panama is safer than a lot of US cities, but compared to where we were coming from the prevalence of crime was much higher.
No Regulation: There is the freedom this brings, but there are also problems. We have had piles of tires burned in our neighborhood, and I’ve had to personally go and get the fire department to put them out. Then a few days later they are lit again. Also during certain holidays they play music so loud that a kilometer away it is hard to sleep. There is nothing you can do about it other than buy ear plugs or leave.
Shitty Radio Stations: Easily overcome with the internet at home, but in the car you better bring your own tunes.
No Organized Kids Activities: A major reason for being back in the US . I’m sure there are more activities in the city, but in the country the organized kids events are not great. In NC my kids take violin lessons, gymnastics, soccer, cross-country running etc.
Schooling: The schools are very small and there are not many peers for the kids. This seems to be particularly difficult for teenage kids. Most of the English-speaking teens I know had a hard time socially. It’s hard to find a girlfriend when there is only one other teenage girl in the school. I could write a whole post on schooling and in fact I did here… LINK We love the International school that our daughter attended. When we returned to the States we found she was behind her peers in math, but way ahead in reading. Things change rapidly and any place you move will have its own schooling characteristics you should look into carefully. Also since we left Coley’s wife opened an awesome new school.
Gringo Prices: I did not find this too much of a problem but as a gringo you will often be charged more than locals.
Inefficiency: If you are all about getting things done in an efficient way you will go crazy. Things simply are not done efficiently. Either get used to it or freak out. The upside is that you can open a business and if you do things by very average U.S. standards you will be the best around, and potentially very profitable.
Friends for Kids: The population is small and the population of expats with kids is tiny. So for kids there is not as much social interaction with kids of the same age.
So I hope this helps. This is no definitive list but just what came to my mind over the last couple days. I know that we have a few readers who live in Panama so we would love to hear any additions you might have in the comment section.
Also here are some other articles we’ve written on what life is like in Panama:
Who does the Chores: Info about adjusting to hiring local help.
Community PTSD: Info on the expat community.
Advice for a soon-to-be Expat: Info on a single mom living in Panama.
Third World to One World: Differences between US and Panama.
How not to buy foreign real estate: How I bought my Panama property.
What is life in Panama like?: Random thoughts on life in Panama.
Happy Wife Happy Life: Reasons for Moms to move to Panama.