Live in Panama?
A frequent question
from the unknowing

By Jeannette Ryder

“Er, live in Panama? What made you choose Panama?” is the question most people ask when my husband and I tell them that we are moving there.

Rush hour traffic in Panama is a time for patience. Most people have an idea of what would be the perfect place to live if they had the opportunity. For us with retirement approaching, warm weather, reasonable cost of living, good healthcare and safety were our main requirements. Easy access to the United States was also a must, for family visits. To live in Panama seemed a possibility.

Research makes Panama first choice

After much research, tropical Panama seemed to be our first choice; it met most of our requirements. We also liked the idea that it had oceanfronts, beaches and mountains with cooler temperatures just a few hours' drive from the capital, Panama City.

We booked a five-day visit, over the Internet, reasoning that if we hated the place we would not have gone too far over budget. Luckily, that was not the case.

The hotel sent a taxi to pick us up from the airport, and as we drove through the hot tropical night into Panama City, I got goose bumps at being surrounded by tall, modern brightly lit skyscrapers on one side of the highway and the rustling of the Pacific Ocean at high tide, on the other. The idea that we might actually live in Panama gained appeal.

Bustling traffic organized chaos

Even at night, the city is bustling with hundreds of cars and taxis honking their horns and zipping about at warp speed in what first appears to be organized chaos.

Palm tree by the ocean outside the presidential palace.

Breakfast was included in the cost of our hotel room, so next morning we took full advantage of the fresh fruit on the buffet. The sensation of biting into large chunks of sweet freshly picked, pineapple, mango and papaya, dripping with honey sweet juices cannot be described, you just have to try it for yourself.

We ordered dark freshly brewed coffee, from beans grown in Boquete, located at the Western end of Panama. It is so flavorful and rich tasting that some of the coffee producers in the area have won prizes in worldwide competitions.

First appointment: A bank

As this was to be a fact-finding trip to see what it took to live in Panama, we made our first appointment with a local bank manager to find out what was required to open an account. The local currency is the U.S. dollar. The manager explained over coffee that we would need several documents from home, including a personal reference letter from our U.S. bank.

You may have heard that it can be difficult to open a bank account in Panama but if you follow the rules, like we did, our account was authorized immediately when we brought the required papers with us on our second trip. The key, was our initial meeting with the bank manager, as banks like to follow the policy “know your customer”

Lawyer came next

Next, we met with a lawyer to find out what we would need to live in Panama, and to apply for a “pensionado visa”. We had heard about Panama's very generous retiree visa program with many discounts for pensioners.

We were told that all that is required is:

  • Confirmation of a registered monthly pension of $500 or more, plus $100 for the spouse;
  • A marriage certificate (if applicable);
  • A non-criminal police report from home; and
  • A clear bill of health, from a Panamanian doctor.
  • Government and lawyers fees are extra. An application for a pensionado visa to live in Panama takes about two to three months to complete. This proved correct, as we found out when we again followed the rules, and received our visas with no problem.

    "Gringo beware!"

    Real estate prices were another concern for us, so we made an appointment with an agent whom a friend vouched for as being honest. He told us that we should always be “gringo beware” when buying or renting real estate. Panamanian real estate laws allow foreigners to own real estate, and many visitors are looking to purchase for investment.

    Spanish architecture, a reminder of the past. Our price range was around $150,000 and our agent showed us several condominiums and apartments. Some were brand new, or newly renovated, and some were just a plan on the drawing board. One that we really liked was in the pre-construction stage. It was in El Cangrejo, an established family area right in the center of the city near the university.

    Plenty of space

    It would allow us to live in Panama in comfort. It had a floor plan of almost 1,800 sq ft. (167 sq m.), three bedrooms, three bathrooms, marble tiled floors and counter tops, cherry wood cupboards and doors, and floor to ceiling windows. All the apartments have large balconies, a communal entertainment area, an equipped gym and large swimming pool

    The agent's advice: “If you are serious in your desire to live in Panama, rent for at least six months before you buy." Rental prices for a two bedroom apartment can range from $600-$700 to $1,200-$1,500 monthly, or more depending on location.

    Cruise ship towered above

    On the last day of our visit, we looked at our map and followed the route out to the Panama Canal. After paying $10 each, we stood at the railing on the

    second floor of the new visitor center and craned our necks to look up at a cruise ship gliding through the Miraflores Locks. The passenger deck was so high above us that it blocked out the sun.

    Later, we wandered through an older part of the city known as Casco Viejo. The streets here are narrow and paved with cobblestone. Lined with balconies, some with flowers spilling over them, we were reminded of parts of New Orleans. This historic area is being renovated after years of disrepair, and it is here that many Americans, Canadians and Europeans are buying properties to fix up.

    "Caiman grinned at us"

    At the Gamboa Resort, in the rain forest about half an hour from Panama City, we fed a friendly caiman that grinned at us with wide-open jaws, though he seemed disappointed that he got pieces of bread and not a fat gringo arm or leg.

    Shopping in one of several new malls is a North American experience because many familiar brands, fast food outlets and similar chain stores are represented. One mall we visited even had a casino entrance on the third floor - near an ATM machine!

    Amador Causeway juts into bay

    The toll highway from the airport turns into Balboa Avenue at the outskirts of the city. It winds its way along the shoreline, past glistening bank buildings and the upscale high rise apartments of Punta Pacifica and Punta Paitilla, towards the entrance of the Amador Causeway located at the western end.

    This wide, causeway juts out into the bay and is lined with palm trees that constantly wave in the breeze coming off the ocean. There are several restaurants on the causeway, with prices and a variety of menus to suit most people. Our favorite main course was baked corvina (sea bass) caught earlier in the day…or so we were told!

    Relaxing in tropical breeze

    On most nights, from about 6pm until the early hours of the morning, hundreds of locals and visitors alike dine or sit on one of the open-air terraces and enjoy “happy hour”. The day we were there, we spent several hours relaxing in the warm tropical sea breeze under a thatch roof umbrella, listening to a live band, sipping cocktails and people-watching. Across the bay, we could see the twinkling lights of Panama City’s spectacular skyline and from the huge ocean going ships lined up to exit the canal.

    Live in Panama? On the plane home the next day, my husband and I laughed at how quickly we had become hooked on this little country, and both agreed we ‘will be back’ as soon as possible.

    This turned out to be six months later when we opened our bank account, applied for our pensionado visas, and set about finding a home in which to live in Panama City.

    Jeannette Ryder retired two years ago from the event planning industry after 25 years of running her own company. She currently lives in Arizona, but will live in Panama in 2006, a move she describes her "next adventure".

    Read about Jeannette Ryder's second trip here.

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