We arrived in Panama on July 21, drove to the town of Boquete, parked Wolfie at Malu, a beautiful full service campground downtown, and nearly immediately located a house to rent as of September 1. When we took possession of our rental house at the end of August in Hacienda Los Molinos, just to the south of Boquete, we began what is our longest time in one spot since we left the US in 2016. As we approach the 2 month mark in our house, we are sharing here some of our reflections on how it feels to be still in one spot.
First, let’s put Panama in some perspective —
With a land mass of about 29,000 square miles, this country is roughly the size of the state of South Carolina. With a total population of approximately 4 million people, it contains as many people as Oklahoma or Connecticut. The vast majority of Panama’s population lives in Panama City. Panama is the only country in the world where you can see the sunrise over the Atlantic and see it set over the Pacific from the same spot and it is the only country in the world where the capital city contains a rain forest within it. The country boasts of 1500 miles of beach on both Pacific and Caribbean sides and the town where we are living — Boquete — sits at an elevation high enough to allow for spring-like temperatures year round (60-80F daily) and has access to either coast within a 2 hour drive in either direction.
Panama is a country of huge population diversity with 67% of its population being mestizó (mixed indigenous and European) and 16% being Afro-Panamanian or mixed Afro-Euro. It is the only country outside of Israel that has elected 2 Jewish Presidents in the 20th century and boasts of a sizable Jewish population, mostly located in Panama City (where there are two large kosher grocery stores). Its population diversity is immediately apparent when you enter the country and is unlike what we observed elsewhere in the portions of Latin America in which we traveled. These were some of the reasons why we were attracted originally to Panama since we wanted racial, ethnic and religious diversity and acceptance.
This backdrop is important to the story of our journey because it shares some of the characteristics of the country that drew us here and against which we evaluate our choices. We have friends or know people who have expatriated from the US or left their homes upon retirement that chose to live elsewhere within the US or outside the country and they, like us, have made their lists and checked off those factors and characteristics that are the most important to them. When we met up with them along our travels, we always asked them about their choices and what drew them to their place. Through this, we saw the obvious: there’s a seat for everyone’s tush and beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.
It is clear from the the conversations we’ve had, the blogs we’ve read, and the stories we’ve heard that the decision to expatriate is often very difficult and becoming acclimated to one’s new home can be challenging. It is not uncommon for people to re-patriate to the US for numerous reasons. Still others, having once left the US to live abroad, expatriate from their first new home country and move on to another. Among those expats from the US, many places rise to the top of the popular expat location list: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Medellin, Columbia; Quito and Cuenco, Ecuador; and San Jose, Costa Rica to name a few. The conventional wisdom of expats we’ve met believe that if you pass the 5 year mark in one location, there is a good chance you will stay.
So, our 2-3 month mark shows that we are in the infancy of our expatriation process and we are sure that our preliminary reactions will change over time. However preliminary, we wanted to share some with those of you who have followed our journey because, if for no other reason, we will enjoy reading this post in the future to see how far we’ve come. In no particular order:
Panama is an Easy Place to Live
Whether because of the influence of the US during the Panama Canal years, whether because of its prosperity relative to other Latin American countries, Prosperity Index, whether because of the economic interests outside of Panama in maintaining safe transit through the Canal or other factors, life in Panama resembles life in the US in many favorable ways.
Most of Panama’s major roads are good, modern and free and are well patrolled by traffic-rule enforcing police. Panama’s electricity, water and communications infrastructure is also (mostly) modern and similar in quality to that of the US. (Fussier expats might object to this description for various reasons but in our travels throughout the US, we learned that US infrastructure differs significantly depending on where you are.) We’ve been told that because of the expense of building a telecommunications infrastructure that involved installing land lines for telephones throughout the country, Panama (likely like other developing countries) largely skipped over this process and migrated more toward spending its money on erecting cell towers and creating wireless communication networks. Consequently, free wifi is often available in town centers and other open space areas within Panama and the costs of phone and data is much lower than in the US. We are now using Panamanian SIM cards in our iPhones and are paying half the cost of our former US plan for the same service (unlimited data, texts and phone calls) and friends here who arrived several years ago are paying even less than us. Credit cards are widely available here and can be used nearly everywhere and most household bills can be paid online (at least for those who live in Panama City according to my immigration attorney).
For such a small land mass, Panama boasts of enormous and ecologically important biodiversity as well as geographical and temperature diversity. It has mountains, rain forests, cloud forests, beaches, cities, island archipelagos and vast tracts of undeveloped land. It is a beautiful country with views that often change from one minute to the next, where hummingbirds can be seen at our feeder as well as in our lime trees and our heliconias.
While Spanish is the official language, many Panamanians speak English and while we believe that learning the local language is important, many might not think it terribly essential. Health care is reputed to be good. Many streets and major roads are lighted at night and major brands with which we are familiar are widely available, as are mail and shipments from the US, organic food products, some of the world’s best coffee and beautiful, lush gardens.
City versus Country
Panama City (simply “Panama” to locals) is a major metropolis that buzzes with energy and activity at all hours of the day and night. Its breathtaking skyline is remarkable for a city of its size, with more skyscrapers than a city of equivalent populations in the US, a broad and actively used waterfront walking/biking/skating/running path called the Cinta Costera, a charming old town (Casco Viejo) with hip bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs, a huge banking center, many malls and shopping centers, a modern (and expanding) subway system as well as many traffic jams. Panama is filled with residential areas mixed with retail and commercial businesses, with huge and stately single family homes and towering condo and apartment buildings.
Once outside Panama, the country becomes a string of smaller towns that mostly lie along or near the Pan-American Highway or, as it is known locally, Ruta 1 or the Interamericana. Developed or developing beach communities such as Nuevo Gorgona, Coronado, Santa Clara and Rio Hato lie along the Pacific Ocean and are an easy driving distance from the city (an hour and a half or so in non-rush hour traffic) and many expats are drawn to these communities for their proximity to the city. Costs of living in the city can be fairly high, not only relative to the rest of the country but compared to many areas within the US. Costs in the interior and western areas of the country are less and draw expats who are looking for affordability and more quiet than the city affords.
Boquete has become popular with expats for many reasons – many are drawn because of the abundance of outdoor activities and its natural beauty. Expats who love to garden find Boquete to be a gardening nirvana; those who hike and bird can fill every hour of the day with only these activities. There are more clubs and organizations here than you can count and one can play golf, or bridge, or pickle ball, or learn to knit, participate in animal-rights related organizations, help teach local children English, spend time with the local photography club, or local playhouse, join an drum circle and more. There are coffee plantations and honey bee farms to tour, a weekly farmer’s market to visit, and cinema clubs to try. It is a town of roughly 30,000 residents spread out through a mountainous area that includes something like 18 micro-climates over a number of communities where most of the homes sit perched on one of the incalculable breathtaking vistas for which the Boquete area is known, many accessible only on nominally improved, impossibly steep, winding mountain roads.
One friend describes this area this way: where can you live in the quiet mountains with incredible vistas of mountains, rivers, tropical foliage and fruit trees and be a 10 minute drive from a store with caviar and champagne? Another US expat friend exclaims that this area allows for a sense of community for a person with any interest imaginable, where you can build a beautiful home with a modest sum of money and thereafter live on just one’s social security benefits. To be clear, there are communities here that are host to homes costing $750,000 and more and we’ve seen more than a few properties for sale that exceed $1.5 million, many with guest homes, swimming pools and more. At the other end of the spectrum, there are apartments here to rent that could house a couple comfortably, even if modestly, at monthly rentals below $500. Most expats here fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
What you cannot find in Boquete can likely be located in nearby David, the capital of Chiriqui Province, with an urban feel and a population of about 150,000. But to experience a major city, one must travel about 6 – 7 hours by car (or the local plane shuttle from David to Panama).
It’s hard to beat the climate in Boquete. And where in the world can you find spring-like temperatures all year round, micro-climates that allow for homes to be surrounded by coffee plants, hummingbirds, heliconias and lime trees within a 2 hour drive of tropical beaches on either the Caribbean OR the Pacific? But, if you are a city person, or if you are the kind of retiree who longs for hours of access to lifetime learning opportunities at a local college or university, Boquete will not likely be the place for you.
It seems to us that life in Boquete will largely be what we make of it. This doesn’t mean that we need to create things from whole cloth but it does mean trying things on for size, joining clubs or activities or groups that are engaged in things that appeal to us and searching out people or things that call to us. And all of this requires time, and patience and sitting still for a long enough time to listen to our inner voices.
When we were on the road, every day allowed for endless stimulation. Even the sameness of the road yielded to differences in views, cuisines, climates and populations. While on the road, it was far more frequent that we would have to admonish ourselves to slow down and to spread out the experiences we wanted to have so we wouldn’t burn ourselves out. Now that we are in a home, we have to begin the task of slowing down in a different way. We need to commit to learning more about this new place in the way of a resident rather than a tourist and to take stock of the way we may want to live as expat retirees.
The busyness of the 19+ months on the road did what we wanted it to do when we began our retirement: it allowed us to go from the fast lane of our career and working lives into the slow lanes of retirement without a jarring, screeching stop and to transition into a new budget and lifestyle change in a gradual sort of way. Upon arriving in Panama, the need to start the immigration and importation processes (tourist visas for people and vehicles are of limited duration) caused a mini-frenzy that involved trips back and forth to the city but resulted in progress on both fronts. Now, we can begin the task of settling in finding routines that work, rejecting those that do not and discovering ourselves in our new home in a way that will help guide us here and elsewhere.