Living in Panama - What Is It REALLY Like???

This article was first posted on on July 6, 2010 Many of our readers from outside of Panama use our website as a research tool to learn not only about the beach community of Coronado but all about Panama as well.  What's going on?  How do I do this or that?  Is this service in your area?  However, with all the useful information you can find on our site, what you don't see too much about are stories about the residents themselves. What's it like here for them?  What was their journey like to get here?  What advice would they give those planning an international move?  And, what valuable information have they learned from which you could benefit?  So, here is an article that addresses all of these questions and more. What is it REALLY like living in Panama??? Five expats were chosen who just happened to be from the United States and Canada, ranging in age from early 30's into their 70's.  The key to choosing the interviewees was that they had to have lived here for more than a period of 3 years.  Also, they needed to be able to have gotten over the bumps and have "settled in" to life here in Panama, therefore having a broader range of experiences from which to draw.

These were the questions they were asked, and the summaries of their answers are provided beneath each question.


  1. ciudad-panama-005_320x208.jpgWhat made you decide to move to Panama?

The most common answer to this question was that they had moved here for retirement purposes; however, the responses did vary as one of the younger interviewees came for the purpose of joining the Peace Corps because she wanted to make a difference in the world.  Others had lived overseas in the past and were looking for a less expensive place to live.


  1. Did you do much research before making the decision, and what type of things were important to you in that research?

Answers here varied from "We did a lot of research on line." to "I wanted to be in a warm country." or "I had come down 5 or 6 times before the move."  For those that did do their homework, the location of the developments and what already existed for housing seemed to be the main concerns.  With the exception, of course, being our youngest interviewee who asked on her Peace Corps application for a warm climate!  After being told it was Panama, she did do research that focused mainly on the history and geography of the country.


  1. Did you make several trips here first or was it a cold-turkey move?

It would appear that some chose to purchase on their very first trip down here.  However, after those initial home purchases, it would be several more trips over the next few years to oversee the building of their homes.  Most people did not move right after their first visit but instead made several more excursions before taking the plunge and making it a permanent move.  Except, of course, for our Peace Corps friend whose move was definitely cold turkey!!


  1. Were you one of the people who chose to move a container down with all of your worldly goods?  If so, why and if not, why?

This question was certainly one pertaining to personal choice, and it would appear that some of us are more attached to our worldly possessions than others.  Perhaps it depends on what stage you are at in life; regardless, three of our five expats chose to bring all of their belongings with them to Panama.  The consensus of those who packed was that they wanted their things with them which cannot be found here in Panama.  One expat chose to purchase their home fully furnished, and our Peace Corps volunteer continued to bring things down in suitcases with each visit back home, including photos, clothes, etc.


  1. Do you regret this decision?  Why or why not?

Perhaps this question was worded incorrectly as it was meant to deal with the decision about whether or not to bring a container down.  However, the answers to this question pertained to bringing a container as well as to moving to the country of Panama.  Those who brought a container did not regret it.  For those who interpreted the question in another manner, two of our interviewees stated that they did not regret their decision to move to Panama at all: the country is beautiful. One, however, indicated that although the container decision was not regretful, there were other regrets about Panama.


  1. Upon your arrival what was your biggest culture shock?

It would appear that the culture shock affected our participants in different ways. Here is what they had to say:

  1. The heat.
  2. The trash.
  3. Feeling accepted right away.
  4. No culture shock but surprised at how misinformed or uninformed we actually were.
  5. The speed, or lack of speed, in which everything gets done.
  6. The slowness with which anything does or does not get done. (Yes, this is repetitious, but it was mentioned twice so felt this was an important point!)
  7. Heavy humidity.
  8. Rampant promiscuity, especially in Panamanian men, who have multiple families.


  1. What would you say was one of your biggest hurdles to overcome during the first six months?

It was the typical things that you would expect here: trying to learn the language, getting telephone and internet hooked up, dealing with the banks, IMMIGRATION, licenses etc.  As well, there were issues with not having water for four months thus having to use the pool as a bathtub, hiring security for the house, and, from one of our interviewee who was building their house, "Being held hostage to our home while waiting for various contractors to finish various things on the house."


  1. What type of housing did you choose and why?

There were two expats in the group who had their homes built; and both commented that if this is the route you choose, they strongly recommend that you are here to oversee the building.  Two others rented, and the fifth one purchased an already existing home.


  1. If you built since moving to Panama or went through your condo being built, describe that experience, good or bad.

Again, the consensus here was that you need to be here while the building is going on!  However, some of our interviewees, having bought an existing house, have gone through renovations and things are not done here like they are back home.  So, if you are expecting a finished product to look like back home, you need to be here to guide that along.


  1. What advice would you give to someone moving here trying to choose the option of buying or building?

There were several different comments on this topic.  Suggestions are to rent first!  See what you like and talk to people before making your decision.  "It is a tough experience no matter what, so be prepared, be patient and be easy going; otherwise, you will have a very bad experience." states one respondent.  Others agree that it really depends on the person whether they should build a home or buy pre-existing.  Whichever you decide, you must be aware that here you a buying a "shell," and everything inside the house is extra.  Always ask what is included before you start!


  1. In retrospect was your experience here what you expected it was going to be? Was it better or worse?

As surprising as it might sound, based on some of our answers already, the overall consensus was that people were happy with living in Panama. Some say the experience was better than they anticipated; others say it is just what they expected: no more, no less. One, however, did point out that it was not what they expected.  "Living in a place where all the doors and windows are barred, where the roads are bad, where you don't know if you'll have water today or tomorrow: these things were not expected." However, even this person did have a positive comment, "Medical care here is excellent."


  1. Do you think that anyone can make the move here?

80% of our respondents said, "No!"  The sum total of the comments: you have to be open-minded and put your North American way of life behind you. Life here will not be the same and certainly not what you are used to. It can be frustrating and slow.  You must take time to learn the language, and you must have a sense of adventure. Living abroad is not for everyone.


  1. Describe for me briefly your immigration experience.

It appears that, of our interviewees, three applied for Pensionado visas and the process was quite prompt and painless.  However, one applicant applied for a Reforestation Visa, and this took 3 years to approve with countless trips to the city and incompetence all around. "The bureaucracy around immigration is extremely complicated," quoted one person, "discouraging all but the most tenacious, from successfully obtaining residency."


  1. You've been here for 3+ years now, how are things different for you than they were in say your first six months or your first year?

Though life may not be a bed of roses for everyone, our respondents all seem to agree that after getting over the bumps of first moving here, life in Panama is better for them. Now that they can speak more of the language and understand the system, things are easier.  Time has given them a network of resources which they can rely on, and now they can be the ones the newcomers go to for help!


  1. Describe how your life is better, or worse, for you here than back home? This could be in any aspect of your life: personal growth, physical activity, work related, social life, health, stress, etc.

The resounding answer here is that life is better now. Their social network is large and active, and some have adopted Panamanian families who are surrogates for their families back home. There is no more stress from the work world.  There are still frustrations; but from a health perspective, the stress levels are significantly decreased.  Unless, of course, you count the stress of trying to decide what to do today: golf or tennis or both?  They are leading more fulfilling lives with a lower cost of living and are now focusing on friendships and not the material things they used to.


  1. What advice would you give people who are considering leaving their current way of life and searching for "paradise?"

When it comes to experience and advice, paraphrasing just isn't right. So here are the exact words from each of our interviewees:


  1. "Things are so much simpler down here - unless you are talking about government offices and the banking system. You need to be patient on so many levels.  People have to remember that Panama is in its first generation of tourism and the services still suck in many cases."
  2. "Do your homework! Know what you want... exactly how and in what kind of environment you want to live.  Rent before buying in ANY foreign country! We made a list of exactly the kind of life we sought and after 5 years of  looking all over the "warm" countries in the world, we got nearly exactly ... no MORE!.... than we were looking for!"
  3. "Paradise lies within you, not the place. It is all in one's attitude about whether Panama or any other place on this Earth is right for you."
  4. "Make numerous trips before deciding if you want to live in Panama and what area.  Rent for a time, find out what it's like to live here permanently, not just what it's like staying at a hotel and spending time in restaurants, on the beach, etc. Visit grocery stores and malls to see what's available here.  And don't believe everything you read in the magazines!"
  5. "In most other countries it is getting tougher because of the cost of living; and with older populations, we are losing the taxpayers. But before making a move, you need to have a good partner in life as well as patience and a good feeling inside about yourself.  Because this've got to make it happen wherever you are.After reviewing all of the answers from our participants, it has become very clear that there is little consensus on all the issues and varying degrees of frustration when one moves to Panama.  It is apparent that, although we can read about and try to learn from the experience of others who have come before us, no one person's or couple's experiences are the same.  Just as no two people are the same.  At what age did you come, did you bring kids, are you renting, buying or building, are you moving to the beach, the city or the interior??  The scenarios are endless, and, so it would appear, are the answers. The bottom line when considering a move to Panama is that the decision will change your life.  Whether for the positive or negative, that is for you to decide; but only after you have done it, lived it and given it a chance to change you.  Like any major decision we make in life, try to learn from it and grow.  It should be all about the experiences; and for these five expats, the experiences continue daily.  They came to live their lives, and that is just what they are doing here in Panama.