After hearing so much about how Panama has
become the number one retirement destination in the world, we decided to go and
check it out for ourselves.
We have just returned from a quick nine day trip to
Panama. Here are a
few highlights of our trip and what we experienced and enjoyed.
better than we expected – much better. Panama
City is on its way to becoming an
City. Some might say it already is one.
It feels similar to Vancouver because it
is in building mania mode. An embassy worker we met on the plane told us there
are 213 cranes in the city, building high-rise, high-end condominiums. I do not
know if this is true, but what is clear is that a major building boom is
Who is buying? We looked at a few model projects with a
real-estate agent. She told us people were moving in from the
reflecting a move away from the change of government there. She picked us up in
a four-wheel BMW, wearing designer clothes, an expensive handbag and plenty of
diamonds. Sales are busy.
Condominiums cost approximately $175,000 and up with
many luxury developments in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. For around $200,000
you can buy a three-bedroom, three- and a half bath, 1,500 square foot
condo with a small maid’s quarters.
We visited another small town in the Chiriqui highlands,
Boquete, which is about an hour from
Panama by plane.
Boquete is a booming retirement mecca and because it is in the highlands, the
weather is a balmy 73 degrees for much of the year. It is a very small village
with three or four blocks of local shops. There are quite a few great
restaurants, but it lacks many of the basic amenities of larger towns. The shops
provide local goods, at local prices. Apparently most ex-pats shop in David, a
city about thirty miles away. David is the commercial center of the
But what Boquete lacks in amenities is more than up for
by a sense of community amongst the ex-pats. This is why people come and stay.
Retirement does not refer to age here, as the basic requirement for Pensionado
status is around $500 US a month guaranteed income. Plenty of people “retired”
there are in their 40’s or 50’s and are actively self-employed. Employment from
Panamanian companies is not an option.
Although the village is small, several hundred ex-pats
live here, some in local accommodation and more and more in specially-built
projects. I heard of construction costs of $25, $35, and $45 a square foot.
There are around five gated communities under
Real estate in Boquete was even higher than
Panama City. Some feel there may be a
bit of a price bubble there, although others dispute this. We toured a lovely
three-bedroom Spanish style house with a large inner courtyard, around 1,900 sq
feet for sale for $325.000. This is in a gated community. I am sure that much
more is available, but we only went to two properties. People considering buying
in Panama, as in any
new area should probably rent there for a season, get to know some reliable
people, and make a reasoned assessment.
We found the food was great throughout
Panama. There are
regional foods such as corvina
fish, which is like sea-bass, and narinjillo (little orange) and guanabana juice. Besides that, the food is
just more flavorful. It does not taste as though it is full of chemicals, or
processed and shipped around the country. We noticed that shrimps and prawns
were not on the menu as often in the Chiriqui Highlands, but trout from a stream
6,000 above sea level was available. Local food from local sources – seems
reasonable to me. The vegetables were fabulous and the jugo de naranja was the sweetest I have
ever tasted. Even the eggs tasted different. An ice cream cone costs 25 cents.
Food prices are generally more reasonable than the
Canada. An entrée in
a first-class restaurant in
Panama might cost
around $15, while entrees in the $8 to $10 range were common. This certainly
compares well with most Canadian and
U.S. cities, which
are much higher in price. If you eat where the locals eat, you could have dinner
for two for $8 to $10. I had a large glass of fresh-squeezed-before-my eyes
orange juice for 75 cents.
The coffee was delicious. They serve it negro or con leche. Each cup of coffee is made to
order. We toured a coffee plantation and learned that French Roast is roasted
longer and actually has less caffeine.
Car rental is only for the foolish in
Panama City; that being us. The drivers
are wild, erratic and many streets have no names or numbers posted. We rented on
a Sunday, which we were assured was fine because it is the most quiet day, and
drove to the Panama Canal Zone and Gamboa for bird-watching. We found the Locks
at the Panama Canal mildly interesting; the water rises and
falls as the locks open and close.
Our Sunday night, fifteen-minute return trip turned into
a two-hour nightmare as we drove around in circles through some very poor areas
in Casco Viejo (Old Panama). We did that twice before we found our way
We rented a car in David for
our four day trip to Boquete, and that was fine and necessary for us to travel
around the country. We rented from Avis as some of the other companies did not
want to honor credit card travel insurance. Our rental cost for four days was
$91.00. Gas is $2.30 a gallon.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful. Most rides in
Panama City are $2 or $3 dollars, with
the exception of the airport ride, which is around $25.00.There are tolls on
We met three or four couples, who had bused to Boquete
or David from Panama City rather than
rent a car outside the city. They did lose seven or eight hours each way, which
is a lot out of an eight day vacation. Plane tickets from
Panama to David are
$66. US, one way and well worth it, in my opinion.
We felt safe in
Panama, with the
exception of the area around Casco Viejo, which we found best to visit during
Technology access was mixed. In
Panama City it was fine. Our hotel in
Boquete boasted wireless satellite, but one day we spent one- and-a half hours
getting access. The next day it was quicker, but still not great. The theory is
good but the reality less so. We met a couple who had considered Boquete as a
semi-retirement option, but it found it difficult to send very large internet
files from there, which was part of their business.
That being said, every hotel had internet access in
their lobbies and checking daily email worked well. I think the basic internet
service is fine – that is surfing and email. If you were just traveling around
you would not need a laptop.
There was an excellent internet centre on the main floor
our hotel in Panama City, with about 30
people working on their own laptops or one of the many desktop computers
available. Prices were good: $1.00 an hour for internet service, and $3.00 an
hour for long-distance telephone; much cheaper than cell-phone long distance
rates. The store was open for extended evening
One tricky point was that in one hotel my email name and
password were saved. The next day when I went on-line, clicking in was all that
was needed to get into my email accounts. I surely did not like this, but when I
went to clear it out and remove the history, instructions were in Spanish, and I
could not do it. Next time, I will bring the instructions with
The Panamanians are friendly and seemed to welcome
foreigners. My bird-watching guide told me that most of the young people are
well-educated, many with university degrees. They start school at five, finish
at fifteen, and can complete five years of university to become a teacher or
nurse, for example, by age twenty.
Because of the Panama Canal,
Panama has had a close connection with
the United States
for the past century, and English is widely spoken. The infrastructure is the
best I have seen in all of Central America. As well,
Americans have been coming here for years, and, according to the embassy contact
we talked to, 60,000 Americans live in
Panama. As I
mentioned earlier, many people are retiring there in
Panama with the
Pensionado Tourist Residency program. Required income is only $500 per month for
an individual or $600 for a couple, and apparently it is possible to live quite
well for $1,000 per month. American dollars are used, so money conversion issues
were non-existent. Banks a re plentiful.
The bird watching was wonderful. We saw about 60 species
and a group of birders who were there for five days with a birding tour group
said their count was 120. Just on the beautiful grounds of the Rio Alto Hotel we
saw around 15 species. One day I hiked six km at the base of the Volcan Baru
with an excellent young biologist, Miguel, and we saw about 20 other species
there; all the tiny ones that are hard to identify. Unfortunately, we only heard
but did not see the Resplendent Quetzal. Apparently the birding group saw about
What was most outstanding for us, and I believe for most
other people, was the sense of camaraderie that most of the tourists and ex-pats
had. People came up to us on the street and started conversations with us. We
shared meals several times and sometimes in a restaurant we noticed several sets
of people talking to others at other tables, as we did. We shared addresses with
several people during our stay. I think that as a single, or as a couple it
would be extremely easy to move to
Panama because there
are enough people that friendships could develop most easily.
Many of the attitudes of the people moving here seem to
be that they were not afraid of adventure; think visits with their kids can be
easily arranged, and are flexible.
Others were moving for medical reasons. One couple was paying $2,000
US a month for medical premiums in
the USA and so they were looking for
different options, as they could not afford to retire in the
US with those
premiums. We met many retired professionals: doctors, dentists, architects,
teachers, etc. Others were using Panama
as a jumping-off point for South America or other
I talked to several local Panamanians at length as well,
and I felt it would be fairly easy to develop relationships with the local people.
Booking hotels is important. One set of people, at the
next table to us (J) told us how they did not book
because the elderly father had been coming for fifty years and never booked.
They could not find a reasonable hotel room and finally paid $400 US a night at
the Intercontinental. During the busy season many hotels are full. We paid a
range of $35 a night at the Hotel Milan, in Panama
City, which was great; built in 2004 and very clean, to
around $70, which was for a one-bedroom “aparthotel”, which included a washer
The weather was wonderful. Panama
City is hot and humid around 85 to 95 degrees, and Boquete
was cooler because it is in the highlands. Mornings there were cool, but January
and February are technically winter months, with north winds. We were by the
river, and it still warmed up considerably during the day. As we get so little
of it in Vancouver, we loved the sun! I
would have to go back during the rainy/hot season to see if I liked it at that
time of year as well.
Another couple we met at a restaurant told us they had
bought one place in Panama City and one
on the Pacific coast. They were selling their home in
Florida and moving. Their transition
was taking about a year. Another couple told us they had bought in
Coronado; on the
Coast. He was still working in the
U.S. part-time and
his wife was settling things in their new home. We did not get to the
Coast, as we decided less is more, as
far as enjoying our days.
We also talked to two couples who had flown in from
Costa Rica. One
couple lived in Vancouver and spent four months a year in
Costa Rica. The
other young retired couple was from
Detroit and they also traveled back and
forth. They both owned homes on the
Coast around Tamarindo. It seems the
crime rate is high in Costa
Rica, and some parts are becoming overdeveloped,
but they still loved it there. It was interesting to hear their comparisons of
cost, infrastructure and living in these two countries. We met others who had
just come from Belize, whic h was
supposedly more expensive, and another couple from Vancouver Island who had
spent time in
All in all it was a very successful trip. We flew from
Seattle to Atlanta and then
I can see why people are moving there: relatively
inexpensive, great food, good infrastructure, wonderful weather and lots of
similar people so a new community of friends can be developed relatively
We’ll go back, especially to explore the two
Mahara Sinclaire, M. Ed.
The Laughing Boomer
#107 - 8415 Granville
Vancouver, BC V6P 4Z9