No brainer decision?
It now seems like a no brainer that we decided to expatriate to Panama in our retirement. After all, Roque is a dual US-Panamanian citizen. But this was not where we started.
When we met, at the ripe young ages of 55 and 51, Roque was the Commissioner of a major metropolitan child welfare system – a BIG job with BIG responsibilities and the attendant stresses. We had both been married before, had children, struggled financially and personally and had experienced the kinds of blessings and challenges of people who had been working and living for decades. We were overwhelmed with the blessing of finding each other and shortly after falling in love, began to talk about how we could retire and dedicate our time to being with each other and experiencing the world together.
From my admittedly unscientific polling of many retirees, it became clear that most approach the decision of when to retire from a magic-number perspective: when will we have enough to allow us to continue our current lifestyle in our home. Roque and I didn’t have decades of life and community-building together, which, we realized, freed us to consider all options for retirement. Also, untethered from a particular place, we could feel free to find someplace where we could live comfortably on what we projected for retirement income without the magic-number target being our primary focus.
Roque grew up overseas, the son of a World Health Organization public health physician, and moved every couple of years and didn’t really ever settle in one place until fairly recently. I grew up in one home for my entire childhood, moving away only when I went to college, after which I returned to the mid-Atlantic region where I have lived most of my life. Despite these differences in our backgrounds, our experiences have taught us that friendships are enduring whether they are decades-old and separated by miles or and that friendships can be formed at every stage of life. Neither of us was particularly daunted by having to start afresh somewhere outside the DC metro area and neither of us had developed roots that we believed we could not reconnect in a new place.
Affordability was, of course, a key element of evaluating options. So was climate. But, as an inter-racial couple, we were extremely mindful of finding a place to relocate that we believe will be hospitable to us as an inter-racial, inter-religious and politically progressive couple. Evaluating options with these criteria in mind, we began to cross out major swaths of the US.
Inspiration struck one night while I watched an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters International which, that fateful night, featured a young family searching for an affordable, family-friendly alternative to their home in Texas. They landed in Pedasi, Panama and my eyes were open to a completely different option than we had considered before.
When I excitedly shared this idea with Roque, he was intrigued. When I set about to research retirement options in Panama, the pieces started to fall into place. Nice climate? Check. Reasonable proximity to family and friends in the US? Check. Stable government? Check. Stable economy? Check. Access to modern medical care? Check. Access to beaches and mountains and biodiversity? Check.
Benefits of Panama
Affordability was among Panama’s prime attractions because, among other things, Panama’s pensionado program was created specifically to attract expat retirees to settle in Panama during retirement. And while other countries, primarily in Central America, have created similar retirement-friendly pensionado-type programs, none seemed as advantageous as that offered by Panama.
Further intrigued, I focused my reading on blogs and websites written by expats in Panama. When I started to explore whether Panama was truly as affordable as some suggested, I discovered wonderful blogs rich with detailed budgets shared by many who had made the move to Panama. The more I read, the more I became convinced that Panama might work for us.
Clearly it was time to put our boots on the streets of Panama to see if it looked as good as it sounded. While Roque had returned to Panama over the years, he never visited with the purpose of seeing the country through the lens of a potential US expatriate. I had been through the Canal but that counted for, well, zilch. Time to book tickets.
After booking our tickets but before departing, I continued to read blogs, convinced that I would locate a “how to expatriate” site that might help provide a road map to making such a move. I was right – there WAS such a blog and I hit pay dirt when I found “Let the Adventure Begin.” I read, entranced with the intimate and detailed writings that shared, on a nearly daily basis, steps taken by Holly and Scott when they decided to ditch their American work-a-day existences for a new life in Panama.
Holly provided the road map I sought. And more importantly, when I contacted her through her blog, she wrote back and then began a pen pal relationship that opened a new world to me. She was generous with her time, her advice and her support, and it soon became clear that we were kindred spirits. We agreed to meet when Roque and I traveled to Panama in the summer of 2014.
Holly and Scott, like many US expats, have settled in Boquete, in the mountains in the western provinces of Panama, where the city boasts of “Eternal Spring” weather. This Brigadoon-sounding place seemed ideal. Beautiful countryside. Temperate climate. Affordable housing. Sizable expat community. Proximity to beaches. Abundant food produced locally. I was hooked.
Roque and I approached our 2 weeks in Panama with an itinerary designed to see as much of the country as possible in the limited time we had. We started in Panama City, met up with friends of Roque’s family, toured many of the places of his youth, bought equipment for maintaining internet connection as we traveled, dined at the Fish Market, walked the Cinta Costera and Casco Viejo. We then headed west toward the Pacific beaches near Coronado, onto Las Tablas to Villa Pelicano en route to Pedasi and places in between. Since we had focused a lot of our attention on Boquete, we excitedly headed there for several days, during which we planned to meet Holly and Scott.
We hit the jackpot with Holly and Scott, two amazing people who became instant friends and who will remain friends for life. They introduced us to others, showed off the property where they were building their casita and planning their “big” house, shared their knowledge and experiences and continue to do so to this day. We met others including expats from The Netherlands, the US and elsewhere. We stayed in a fabulous casita booked through AirBnB.com (Cottage by the River) along a stream in downtown Boquete, hosted by Morton and Barbara, expats from Ohio who started new businesses in their retirement (Morton’s Bakery and silk screen painter), ate well, hiked, wandered local roads, and enjoyed every moment. From Boquete, we traveled to Bocas del Toro (Cottage over the Water) where we experienced the Caribbean beaches to the north, and then returned east to end our stay with another several days in Panama City in an apartment before returning to the US.
After exploring, reflecting, driving, visiting grocery stores, realtors, malls and car dealers, talking with expats and family friends, eating ceviche and corvina, patacones and parrillada, as well as mangoes and avocados by the dozen, we returned to the US, optimistic and excited about a life we believed we could build in Panama.
All the boxes were ticked; Panama felt right. Panamanians are warm and welcoming, diverse and multi-racial. Panama can be both modern and traditional, elegant and rustic. Panamanians speak Spanish but English is also an official language and the Panamanian balboa equals the US dollar and both are used as currency. Wifi is widely available and free in many town centers. The roads are decent and being improved daily. Flights to the US are frequent and affordable. Food is familiar but native ingredients provide opportunities for experimenting. We learned that Panama is the only country, other than Israel, that can boast of having elected 2 Jewish presidents and maintains kosher grocery stores, kosher restaurants and several jewish congregations. (While neither of us follow the rules of Kashrut, it is nice to know that we WILL be able to find certain foods of my cultural heritage – matzo ball soup anyone?).
Reflections on Our Return
When we returned to the US and reflected on all that we saw, we came to a couple of preliminary decisions: first, we know now that when we return, we intend to try-on several locations for several months at a time to see what appeals to us before we settle in one location. We LOVED Casco Viejo and the old world charm as well as the ongoing rehabbing of this portion of the city and the emerging restaurant and cultural scene there – and coming from an urban-centered life, believe that we will want to transition into retirement in an environment that is similar to the life we are leaving. Starting our relocation in Panama City will also allow us proximity to the government offices where we will need to start our immigration papers, obtain driver’s licenses, bank accounts and more. From Panama City, we hope to move west and live at the beach and ultimately to settle in Boquete. We plan to spend at least 6 months in each location, seeing what feels right and feels like it is where we want to settle. Secondly, we don’t intend to buy a property — at least for the near future or at least until we decide on where we want to settle. Thirdly, once we settle, we can send for our belongings in storage, free from import fees courtesy of one of the attributes of the pensionado program.
Next: getting past go, list making and breaking the news to family and friends.