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Best Places to Retire Abroad: Panama

I am reviving one of the things many of you came to love about this blog and that is best places to live abroad in retirement. First up, Panama!

[Taken from the Library of Bob]

The Town of Boquete Has Spectacular Views and a Big International Community

By Lee Zeltzer

Eight years ago, my wife, my son and I decided to take a trip to Panama. We wanted to visit the Panama Canal and the large nature reserve at La Amistad International Park.

Two days into our two-week trip, we entered the small town of Boquete. We didn’t leave until it was time to go home to Arizona. And before we left, we bought a small farm about 15 minutes from the center of town, on a mountain called Jaramillo—a decision that surprised us all. Two months later, my wife and I moved there.

We had been looking for a place to retire outside the U.S. and find a simpler life. Our search led us to Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada and the Netherlands. But Boquete and Panama’s western highlands were a revelation: a small, inviting agricultural town with a sizable international community.

The weather is ideal (the area has been marketed as the land of perpetual spring); the countryside has spectacular views; expenses are moderate (though not as low as some people think); and Panamanians are gracious and tolerant of outsiders. Some call this paradise.

Open to Change

Some, of course, don’t. My best guess is that many new arrivals from the U.S. end up staying only about six months. Many leave once they absorb how different things are here. They may struggle with the language or culture. Or they can’t find a major shopping mall close at hand. To be happy here, you need to be open to change.

For me, Boquete has been a dream come true (though my wife and I subsequently separated and she returned to the U.S.). And my adopted home is becoming increasingly popular. About 5,000 expats, or about 20% of the population, live here at least part time—many are snowbirds.

We have two seasons: one cool and dry, the other cool and wet. Coming from the desert, I prefer the wet. Most houses here don’t have air conditioning or heating; they don’t need them. You can select your favorite climate by elevation, from warm to quite cool. As you descend to sea level and the beaches—or David, the nearest major city and the provincial capital—you know you’re in the tropics. Too hot for me.

On the map, my home is only about 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean and about the same distance from the Caribbean. But given road conditions, it’s about two hours by car to the Pacific coast at Las Lajas, an underdeveloped beach town, and four hours to the popular Caribbean island of Colón in the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

Fishing, Farming, Writing

Since arriving here, I have learned how to fish. Picture standing on a boat, having just dragged a tuna from the Pacific, slicing the catch and adding some soy and wasabi. It’s the freshest sashimi you can eat.

Boquete is in the province of Chiriqui, the food basket of Panama. Fresh produce is plentiful. You can grow your own citrus, bananas, coffee and more. I have a flock of chickens, as do most locals, so I have fresh eggs daily and an occasional rooster dinner.

What was primarily an agricultural community now has a significant tourist economy. That development means we have an abundance of restaurants featuring inexpensive local cuisine and more-expensive international options.

My days are a comfortable mix. I work on my farm, grow a small amount of coffee that I sell online, write a blog about Panama , administer a community website, and try to keep our English-speaking community informed about and engaged in their new home. My definition of retirement is to keep working, but at my pace.

I’m also a minor elected official in my community, a member of the local water board. It’s an uncompensated job, but it has given me a greater understanding of Panama—how the government works (slowly) and how immigrants are treated (fairly, for the most part).

The position has also helped me with the language. Before moving here, I couldn’t do much more in Spanish than order a beer and taco. Now I can discuss politics and life with all my neighbors.

Indeed, if you’re thinking about a move to Latin America, it’s best to leave type-A expectations at home. Yes, many educated Panamanians are bilingual—but the majority of people are not. The dictionary translates the Spanish word mañana to mean tomorrow; here they translate it to mean not now, but sometime in the indefinite future. That is a cultural reality and, for some expats, a difficult transition.

The cost of living? Boquete offers something for most budgets. You can rent an apartment for $500 a month, or $2,000; you can buy a home for under $200,000, or over $1 million. My electric bill is about $40 a month, not because electricity is less expensive but because I have no heating or cooling bills. (Expect a bigger tab if you need air conditioning—or move to a higher altitude and avoid the cost.) My propane bill is $5.37 a month and water $2.50 a month.

My biggest expense is my sport-utility vehicle, which uses diesel. The cost here is the same as in the U.S. In all, my monthly budget (I have no mortgage) is under $2,000, and I live well.

Health Care

Panama has good health care. There’s a public system and a parallel private option. The former is overcrowded and underfunded, so it isn’t an option most immigrants consider.

A visit to a private doctor typically costs $5 to $12; a specialist can run as much as $75. Boquete doesn’t have a hospital, but David (about 30 minutes by car) has two private hospitals and one public facility. The fees are low compared with the U.S., but a major hospitalization can still be expensive. Local and international health insurance is available, but you need to be in good health and under age 75 to qualify. Medicare won't work here.

The Panamanian government also offers a long list of benefits to retirees—expats included— such as discounts on restaurants, hotels and travel.

In all, I adjusted easily to living in rural Panama, but that isn’t the case for all who move here. To be a successful immigrant you need to slow down and accept Panamanian ways—or hide in an expat ghetto.

My advice: Learn the language, embrace the culture and have patience. If you can make those changes, you can see more shades of green than you knew existed, swim in the Pacific in the morning and the Caribbean in the afternoon, and climb Volcán Barú, Panama’s highest peak (almost 11,400 feet). If this isn’t paradise, it’s close.

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