top of page
  • Writer's pictureSarah Bajc

Discover Why Living in Panama is Absolutely Awesome

Why is Living in Panama Absolutely Awesome?


Living in Panama is Absolutely Awesome
Living in Panama is Absolutely Awesome

This post is not based on research, it is based on my, Sarah Bajc's, personal experience. I have lived in Panama for eight years now, after having lived in six other countries. I have also traveled widely, to over 60 countries, both for business and pleasure. I am originally from Houghton, Michigan, a very small city in the northernmost point of Michigan where it snows eight months of the year. I will discuss how living in Panama as an expat differs from living in the United States, as most of the requests for such information that I get come from Americans.


Why Panama? Unveiling the Allure

The reasons people move to Panama are many, and I have heard almost all of them, especially since I used to teach at the International School of Panama, which is filled with expatriate teachers, staff, and families. "Why did you move to Panama?" is a very common question, but the answers are as varied as the biodiversity of the rainforest.


Panama Through My Expat Eyes

So, what it is like for an expat living in Panama and why do I stay in the country? Well, I had already decided I was not ready to move back to the United States, and I was planning to work as an international teacher for another decade or so, basically until I could qualify for the earliest access social security payments. After 10 years in Asia, I had a checklist, in order of importance:

  • A legal system that would allow me to safely buy property, as besides seeking a longer term teaching contract, I wanted to get started on my subsequent plan of building and operating a small hospitality business of some sort.

  • Availability of good land with access to water, nature, and fertile soil at a price point I could handle with my retirement savings. I was open to either remodeling some existing property, or building from scratch, as I was experienced with both, and am reasonably skilled myself with construction, landscaping, and gardening.

  • Better, less intense weather. Beijing had terrible, exhausting winters, and Kuala Lumpur had extended rainy seasons without a glimmer of sun, then such intense heat you couldn't walk outside.

  • A place with a cultural style that I liked, including food, music, dancing, art, and social interaction.

  • To be closer to my kids, extended family and friends, both for time and cost savings.

  • Someplace where my US dollar retirement savings would stretch a bit further. My extensive time as an expat and traveler have caused the words "inexpensive" to not be part of this discussion, because as most things in life, you get what you pay for. Super cheap places also tend to have less infrastructure, and lower standards of living. It was not my goal to live better than the community around me, but rather to find a community that lived well but at a simpler level.


All of these things led me to consider either Southern Europe (lbania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Malta, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, and Spain.), or Central America (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica). Well, that list was narrowed down pretty quickly, mostly based on points 1 and 2. I applied to schools in Spain, Panama, and Costa Rica, and voila!


What Specifically Makes Panama Absolutely Awesome?

Latins are Laid Back

As I have traveled around Central America it becomes clear that the latin culture is just more laid back and easy going. Panama makes an art of taking things in stride. People are not as rushed here as they are in the United States. Go, go, go is more like go ....... rest ....... go ....... think ...... go. People are much more relaxed.


You can see it and feel it while waiting in line, for example. Suppose you look around and study the people in that line. You will see the calm Panamanians accepting the fact that there is a line, and dealing with it, by talking to the person next in line, leaving their cart to go get another item, scrolling through social media with the sound on, or just waiting their turn. People in the aisles stop to really look at what they are buying. If you stop too and are obviously waiting to get something being blocked by their cart, they will say hello, perhaps start a conversation, but they won't move. They just assume you are going to look at things for a while too! Mind you, a simple "disculpa" or "excuse me" will cause them to smile and either move or help you to find what you want.


The foreigners, especially tourists or newly arrived expats, will be visibly agitated at the slow pace, perhaps changing lines for what they hope is a shorter one. Compare this to China where it was common for people to just cut in lines, sometimes with acceptance and sometimes resulting in yelling contests. Visitors to Panama should enjoy the ability to just relax and realize that waiting in line is part of the experience. After all, you have the privilege of shopping for a huge variety of quality goods with a full pocket, so enjoy yourself! If you are becoming an Expat to try something different, embrace that a slower speed is one of those differences.


This laid-back, relaxed culture goes further than that. The guy doing your remodeling project will never work at the speed or with the attention to detail you think he should, and he will never arrive when he said he would, but your house will get painted, in time, especially if you withhold half of the payment until you have checked all of the work. I have personally found that if I work side by side with a Panamanian, they mimic whatever I am doing, and the pace and the quality of work increases, without saying a thing. I can then judge how much was accomplished by us two in an hour, point that out to the worker, then point out how much should be finished by the end of the day, and it will be done.


Anything related to the government will take longer and involve more trips to different locations who each handle one step in some process than you could possibly imagine as an efficient American. But if you do your homework first, and perhaps hire a Panamanian to go with you the first time you attempt some process, you will figure it out, and realize that the process actually works, just differently than you are used to. If you learned to be more Panamanian and take it easy; you may just find that life takes on new richness.


Flashback to my childhood, just much warmer

Many people call Panama backward, or 2nd world, or still developing. This is part of what attracted me to Panama. My personal feeling is that the US has become overly plasticized and chained and regulated. Panama is filled with little holes in the wall, roadside vendors, and artisanal products, and has fewer regulations about everything. While Panama City is very modern, and could compete with most nicer US cities for infrastructure, availability of restaurants and bars, night life, and shopping options, most of the rest of the country feels more like like my childhood in a blue collar town in the 1970s.


The pace of life is less hurried, and the communities are tightly-knit, with everyone knowing their neighbors and the local "fonda" or "chino" serving as the hub of social gatherings. You will hear music coming from every other window as you walk down a street, weaving around kids riding bikes with no helmets and dogs that are wandering free. Women walk around with curlers in their hair, and men are often shirtless. This is not meant to scare you away. I personally welcome the casual and relaxed atmosphere of Panama, especially once you get out of Panama city.


Traffic stays slow as most streets have potholes instead of speedbumps and stop signs. Walking through town on a weekend, musicians and popsicle sellers are set along corners and in the many community parks. There is a "chino" convenience store at least every few blocks where you can wander in for a piece of fruit or cold drink. There are many pickup trucks stopped along the side of the road selling whatever that farmer grows ... watermelon, oranges, limes, pineapple, mango, avocado, tomatoes, potatoes, sugar cane, fresh eggs, and even live chickens! It is common to see people and animals riding in the open back of a pickup truck.


No Major Extremes in Politics

Politics in this country are a bit mystifying, but are still a relief compared to the mess we have in the United States. I don't care about your political affiliation, but things just seem to be getting crazier and crazier in the US these past years. The division of the right and the left is dividing friends and families in the US. Extremists abound, visible and audible hate is growing, and there are mass shootings every week. The separation of church and state has blurred, and so many human rights that made America so special in comparison to the rest of the world seem to have disappeared. Ok, I've said my peace.


Here there are four major political parties, plus independents, and everyone is basically in the center in regards to policies regarding both people and business. There is no extreme left and no extreme right. People often talk about politics, about political parties and about politicians. People don't try to convince each other as much as they just discuss their views. My husband, who I met the month after I moved here in 2016 is Panamanian and from a large family. Everyone talks about politics, often with conflicting views, and everyone still gets along. Even during the election years, things stay civil.


Elections are held every five years, and are on a Sunday so everyone can vote. BTW, that is another thing I like about Panama, that most businesses are closed on Sunday. And most people actually vote. Panama ranks very high on the "freedom" lists. It is quite the party atmosphere in most communities. Until recently, most people voted like the rest of their family did, based on some set of relationships that were formed many years or even in prior generations. An excess of corruption has led to more independent politicians showing up with actual plans on how to improve the country, however, so the upcoming election in May 2024 might actually result in some palpable change.


Safety and Security

The minute you arrive in Panama, you will notice a difference here. You will see the closed-off, non-public baggage area with armed security when you pick up your bags at the airport. After exiting customs, there will be more armed security throughout the airport. Not just banks have armed security in Panama, but also retail stores, even gas stations. Who will hold up a gas station when an armed security guard protects it? You will see national police on motorcycles with machine guns strapped to their backs. Some people fear this is because of a high crime rate in Panama, but really, it is why the crime rate in Panama is relatively low. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.


Panama does not have a formal military, but they do divide up their police force into: national security and border patrol, traffic enforcement and public safety. Guns are legal but tightly controlled, with very strict licensing requirements for both the gun and the ammunition. The national police are heavily armed and very visible, but seldom interact with citizens. After eight years here, my only interaction has been with traffic police at regular yet random traffic stops along various roads, and all of those experiences have been positive ones, even the two times I was asked to get out of my car and show my identification. They have very little interest in messing with foreigners.


Many North Americans arrive here and sense this security presence as threatening, instilling fear or apprehension. Really, security like this is widespread throughout Latin America and in much of Asia. You will also see virtually every house with security bars on the windows and doors. Mostly this is a holdover from a few decades ago when Panama was not a very safe country. In the 1970s, Panama was run by a dictator, and with a corrupt police force, so having security bars was a good idea. Panamanian people work hard for the things they have and want to protect them, so if your house has security bars, there is little chance you will ever be robbed. Also, the climate here encourages open windows. The temperature seldom goes below 24° C (75° F) or above 30° C (86° F) so leaving your windows open all day and all night for the breezes is a great idea. Security bars allow you to do that.


There are often checkpoints on the highways, where you have to stop and show your ID to pass through. This is again about prevention, and is a way to help control immigration and drug trafficking problems in Panama. Looking at the actual stats on NationMaster.com, you will see that Panama ranks 64th on the list of counties with crimes per capita (Crimes per 1000), while the USA ranks 22nd and Canada 10th, meaning it is much safer than its North American counterparts. If you look at robberies stats, Panama ranks 59th, the United States 18th, and Canada 28th. If you are concerned about the crime in Panama, please get off social media, where the negative is always posted, and the positive is seldom seen, and use official research stat collecting sites.


Regarding drugs, alcohol is much less controlled here than in the US, but the rules about drunk driving are just as strict, or even more so. Marijuana is still illegal, as are most other street style drugs, but many medicines that need a prescription in the US can be purchased over the counter here. Illegal drug use is MUCH less common here that in the US. Yes, the same options can be found, perhaps even more easily than in the US, but the serious consequences of getting caught using them are a significant deterrent. From what I hear, you do NOT want to end up in a Panamanian jail!


Embracing the Differences

These examples are from my experiences, and may be quite different from those of an Expat who has chosen to live in an Expat focused community. From the start, my goal was to live within the Panamanian community, which is very welcoming to foreigners who are seeking to belong. But there are also many Expats who live very nicely and comfortably in communities where most of their interaction is with other foreigners, who come here from all over the world. The only way to know if Panama is right for you is to do your research, and come for a few extended visits. Sign up for www.igopanama.com which is a website dedicated to supporting Expats and Tourists in Panama. There are also many a very active Facebook groups ... just start digging around and find what works for you!


Then plan an extended visit to check out different parts of the country to see which you like best. Come spend part of your time relaxing on our Caribbean coast at Camaroncito EcoResort & Beach. If you are interested in an off-grid lifestyle, we can definitely help you our with understanding what that might entail. There are several companies that offer "Retire in Panama" tours. I have lived in a lot of places and was very clear up front about what I wanted. I moved here without ever having visited, but that was based on careful research and a lot of experience making such moves.


It really bothers me when I see expats spend a ton of effort and money to move here, some buying homes, and in two years, they move back, saying that Panama was not for them. They complain endlessly about the things here that are not like at home. That is just silly. Come for a few visits, meet a variety of people. Rent for a while, perhaps in different areas, before taking the plunge to move here. , don't take the plunge unless you know it is for you. Take our relocation tour, if you like, then come back for an extended vacation, for 2 – 6 months renting in an area you liked when you visited. That way, you will know how living in Panama as an expat differs from your home country. It would be best if you only were considering the permanent move and buying property at that time.


On a final note ... You will see many things that are different in Panama than in your home country, but you might just like that! Panama will stay the same, so it is just whether Panama is the right place for you, or not. Make a list for yourself about all of the things you definitely must have, and what you definitely do not want, then start to do your homework about those specific things in regards to Panama. There are quite a few things about living here that are frustrating, sometimes downright maddening, but I can live with those aspects in more peace than the things I found frustrating or maddening in other places that I have lived, including the US. At least for me, the positives of living in Panama FAR outweigh the negatives, and I plan to stay, indefinitely. Living in Panama is Absolutely Awesome!


FAQs:

1. Q: Is Panama safe for expats?

A: Yes, Panama has invested in security measures, and its crime rates are relatively lower compared to many North American and European countries.

2. Q: How different is the political scenario in Panama?

A: Panama boasts a more centrist political landscape, providing a refreshing break from the divisive politics seen in North America.

3. Q: Can I adapt to Panama's laid-back culture?

A: Embracing a more relaxed pace of life is essential; waiting in line and slower services are part of Panama's cultural charm.

4. Q: Why are security bars prevalent in Panama?

A: Security bars have historical significance, primarily stemming from the need for protection during a less safe period in Panama's past.

5. Q: What's the best way to test if Panama is right for me?

A: Consider taking a relocation tour and spending an extended vacation to truly experience living in Panama before making a permanent move.

Comments

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page