Written and Photographed by Sandra Ozkur
After enduring one of the worst winters in history, you might want to think about spending next winter abroad. If you are dreaming of a place with guaranteed warm weather, beaches, mountains, lush vegetation, wildlife, plus modern amenities like golf courses, water sports, restaurants, shopping, arts and culture, then Panama is the place for you. Especially if you are retired, the country’s low cost of living, affordable housing, minimal property tax, great health care, and low crime rate make it very attractive to North Americans. With its natural beauty and modern infrastructure, Panama may be as close as you’ll get to living in Paradise.
From Toronto it is only a five-hour flight via Copa airlines, as you approach the city you will fly over the impressive view of skyline and land at the new Tocumen International Airport. Skyscrapers line the shore and a tropical forest, which extends to the mountains in the background, surrounds the city. This capital city, with a population close to 900,000, has a lot to offer people who prefer an urban lifestyle. A wide selection of international cuisine can be found in the abundance of fine restaurants throughout the city. Fabulous shopping malls carry familiar brand-name products and you can find all your favorite foods at specialty grocery stores that cater to foreigners. World-class concerts and festivals are held throughout the city and the new Bio Museum, designed by Frank Gerry, is set to open this year.
This country, with its biodiversity and low population, is well suited to Canadians who are looking for a second home. The economy is robust due to income from the Panama Canal, international banking, and a busy free trade zone. For 76 years, the USA controlled the canal, so America has had a great influence on the country’s development. Much of Panama’s infrastructure is modeled after the American system and the US dollar is still used as the national currency. In 1999, the canal was turned over to the Panamanians who have been doing a great job of running it ever since. The current democratically elected government has been very successful in building a free market economy. The government has a long-term plan for future growth and is offering many incentives to stimulate Panama’s economy. One of the best incentives is to attract foreign spending by offering pensioners attractive discounts and long-term resident visas.
Panama is located in Central America between the countries of Costa Rica and Colombia. This narrow isthmus has shorelines on both the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans but rarely has earthquakes or hurricanes. It has one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, including tropical rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, jungles, islands, lakes, and rich agricultural lands. The climate is tropical year round with an average temperature of 30° Celsius, but there are only two seasons—wet and dry— so all you really need for the change of season is an umbrella.
Choosing the right place to locate depends on your personal preferences. If you don’t mind heat and humidity, then Panama City is the most vibrant place to live. However, if you prefer to be near the beach, there are many beautiful places on the Pacific or Caribbean coast. The most popular holiday destination is on the Pacific coast along the Azuero Peninsula, also called the ‘dry arch’, about an hour’s drive west of Panama City. Most large resorts are situated there, as well as country clubs, golf courses, gated communities, and private residences. You will find a nice mix of local Panamanians and foreigners who have holiday homes there. The town of Coronado has decent shopping as well as a modern health clinic. New shops, bars, and restaurants continue to spring up as more people move into the area. A popular favorite among the expat crowd is Picasso’s Restaurant, whose good food and live music make it a great place to hang out and meet people.
If you prefer a cooler, dryer climate, then the beautiful mountain town of Boquete is the best choice. This quaint town is a popular destination near the Costa Rican border; it has spring-like weather all year round. This picturesque town attracts thousands of snowbirds from the USA, Canada, and Europe—some come only for the winter but many have made it their permanent home. The town sits at the foot of an extinct volcano, which is covered by a cloud forest filled with exotic wildlife, flora, and fauna. Amazing rainbows regularly arc above the tree canopy. The farmland surrounding the town produces some of the best coffee on earth and also supplies the entire country with fruits and vegetables. The clean air, fresh food, and outdoor living make Boquete a perfect choice for a healthy lifestyle.
If you are seriously thinking of spending time in Latin America, it is beneficial to learn Spanish. Although many people speak English, it will make your life easier if you can converse in the native language. Habla Ya is an excellent Spanish language school conveniently located in the central plaza in Boquete, you can choose to study for a few days or a few months, depending on how much you want to learn. I can personally recommend this school as an excellent place to learn Spanish. The staff are very helpful and happy to arrange outings and events with classmates who come from all over the world to study.
People usually come to Panama for the climate and affordable living, but stay because they love the life. People who choose to move to Central America seem to want more out of their retirement than just golfing. They enjoy discovering a new culture, meeting new people, trying new things, and most of all having a sense of purpose by being part of a real community where they can make a difference.
“There is something for everyone here,” says Irene Haynes, an expat from England who has been living in Boquete for 10 years. “There is every possible interest group you can think of: arts and crafts clubs, book clubs, hiking, bird watching, and cooking clubs. We have several charity groups that raise money to help local needs such as indigenous peoples, the handicapped, the orphanage, and street animals.” A market is held once a week where local artisans, farmers, or expats can sell their wares. It is possible to find almost everything you desire from home— homemade breads, baking, jams, relishes, salamis, and organic fruits and vegetables. Books, jewelry, pottery, and fine art are all on display and the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed: a great place to mix and mingle.
Mona and Robert Portelance, from Sudbury, Ontario, built a home in Boquete in 2004, when prices were a real bargain. Robert explains “We just love it here because there is everything we need and the weather is perfect. We never have to use a furnace or air-conditioner. It’s home for us now. Life is very fulfilling here.” Mona started a summer camp for kids and some of the fundraising money from the expat community goes to pay for the food and supplies, and volunteers do everything else. There is a swimming pool and playground on site where the children participate in games, crafts, music, and swimming. Mona is also a professional clown and uses her talents to entertain the children. She is always on call for local parades and festivals. “It is just so rewarding and so much fun living here; we sometimes joke about having to go back to Canada to have a holiday because we are so busy!” says Mona.
Living in a foreign country requires some adapting. It is a different way of life and you will have to adjust to the new culture: don’t expect the country to adapt to you. Although Panama has a low crime rate, you still must be vigilant about your safety. Just as at home, you need to lock your doors and be aware of your surroundings. Foreigners can be targets for petty crime and although incidents are rare, they do happen, so the expat community has organized its own neighborhood watch with an English-speaking liaison who has a direct line to the local police. They have also compiled a database with everyone’s emails and a blog site to keep each other informed (www.boquete.ning.com). “Boquete is a very tight-knit community and so everyone looks out for each other. Your friends become your family,” says Graham Tuck, a retiree from Parry Sound.
Panama has been courting retirees and investors for several years now and offers many incentives to stay. As a pensioner, you can apply for a special Pesionado visa. This visa allows you to stay indefinitely if you can prove that you have a monthly pension of 1000 USD. This visa gives you permanent resident status as well as many discounts on entertainment, transportation, airline tickets, energy bills, hotel stays, and hospital bills. Once you acquire your Pesionado Visa you will have a one-time exemption of duties on the importation of household goods and a car. The country also offers tax breaks on property and investment income.
The buzz about Panama is slowly getting louder as more and more foreigners are relocating there. However, making a decision to move to a new country should not be taken lightly. It is important that you investigate thoroughly before making a final decision. Visit first, and stay at least one month to see if you are comfortable with the climate and the lifestyle. Always rent before you buy a home and talk to as many people as possible who already live in the country. Once you have decided that Panama is right for you, be sure to use a credible lawyer when making any kind of legal transactions, especially when buying property. There are many scams that target naïve foreigners, so be fully informed before making any purchase.
Finding the perfect place to retire is a very personal decision, so the only way to find out if Panama is right for you is to take a trip there and see for yourself. I can say that is a wonderful country, and I look forward to calling it home some day in the future.
For more information on Panama and retiring to Panama, check out these websites