American Expat in Panama ‐ 18 Years and Still Here
July of this year will be my 18th anniversary as an American Expat in Panama. To me that is amazing since I didn’t intend to come here ‐ and certainly never thought I would stay. Panama, where’s that?
What follows are my observations. If you are interested, join me in my living in the real Panama. If not, so be it.
I said goodbye to the States in February of 1988 ‐ something I have never regretted. I backpacked and puttered around Asia for years until enough was enough. Ended up in Costa Rica. After 3 months, I had to do a visa hop to get my passport stamps renewed. Someone suggested Panama because it was close. I walked across the border in Sixaola in Bocas del Toro in sandals and shorts with an Aussie bush hat, and good or bad, have been here ever since.
Now I live across the Bridge of Americas, which spans the Panama Canal in a small fishing village (pop. around 30,000), a 20 minute drive from Panama City. Happily, I live with my Panamanian wife of 9 years. She has shown me the real Panama since she has the dubious distinction of being from the what the local papers recently named the most dangerous place to live in Panama City.
Overall, life in Panama is easier compared to other Central and Latin American countries ‐ including Costa Rica. And living here is certainly easier across the board than in America, Canada or Europe. What I have found is that you want to get in trouble here, you have to really figure out how. Think about that.
As ‘Gringos” (Americans) or Extranjeros (foreigners from anywhere else), we are accepted and generally welcome. (Since I am a Gringo that will be my bias for this narrative from here on.)
In Panama City, a lot of people speak English, or you can get by in ‘Spanglish’. English is easy in Colon, Bocas del Toro or Boquete. If you want talk to Panamanians in the rest of the country, you need at least passable Spanish ‐ or someone to help you. The language issue is important as it is in any country where English is not first.
A couple of phrases to watch out for. ‘Respectame’ is number one and my favorite. In Panaspeak, ‘respectame’ literally means ‘respect me’ and Panamanians will pull this jewel on you and other Panamanians when you catch them lying or cheating. (Respectame should be in the national anthem.) ‘Prestame’ translates to ‘loan me’. The underground translation is ‘give me never to be returned’. This ranges from money to a cigarette. The last gem is ‘no se’ or ‘I don’t know’. They probably do but are not about to tell you.
Another thing to watch for is pre‐conceived notions. There is a long good ‐ bad history between Americans and Panamanians that dates back to when T Roosevelt wanted to build the Panama Canal and Colombia refused to come to terms. In retort T convinced a group of Panamanian leaders to form the country of Panama with Colombia’s land. It worked and ‘Big Brother’ has tried to dominate Panama ever since. That is resented to this day.
This bleeds down to us. If you are a Gringo, you are rich ‐ period. And in a country where over 50% of the population is listed as below international poverty standards and the average Joe works 42+ hours a week for $350 to $400 a month you can see where the perception comes from. You would be wise to keep that in the back of your mind at all times.
Who are your neighbors? Panama started its trek to international populace when the Canal was being built. Then the Colon Free Zone was formed and that opened the country to savvy foreign merchants. Today, Panama continues to successfully recruit tourists, retirees and top end international companies. The result is that your neighbor can be from anywhere. As an aside to this you come across some truly multimix names. My favorite to date is Ishmael Muhammad Winthrop Smith. You just gotta love it.
Finally, you should consider day to day life. Yes, there are megamalls, and you can eat from McDonalds, Burger King, KFC or Pizza Hut. Having said that Panama is not America and never will be. And you are not going to change that fact. If you come here and find yourself thinking “Why do they, what in the world…” go home or somewhere else before you get old before your time.
You should also become comfortable with butting in line. If you don’t, you will be labeled as weak and more importantly will probably expire from hunger from being a good citizen and waiting for your turn.
So you’ve decided that Panama is cool and you want to stay here. This little place can offer you lifestyle in the forms of on the beach (Caribbean or Pacific), island, semi big city, or mountain highlands (high enough to be cool but no snow). If you go into the interior, rural provinces you can find wide open spaces. The country as a whole has a lot of green and remember Panama is tropical with temperatures hovering at 70 degrees plus if you are not in the mountains And what is very important is that unlike other tropical locals it does rain for a couple of hours every day for around 9 months out of the year, but no Monsoons. Keeps the country green and fresh.
Now cost of living. You can live in your Ivory Tower with Donald Trump in Panama City. You can live in a walled off, secure compound in what was the Canal Zone and other places. You will pay for the privilege but probably not what you are paying in the States now.
Comparatively prices are so low they will surprise you. Panama has a vibrant and growing economy and we use and are pegged to the U.S. Dollar. Given the current international dollar situation prices are rising daily here. I had to pay around $5 today for enough to cook rice, beans, beef, etc. for my wife and 2 others. Outrageous!
In terms of services Panama is way ahead. You can drink the water from the tap nearly anywhere for $15 a month. Electricity works at the average of $20 if you are frugal and don’t use air conditioning. If you want Internet connectivity or HD cable TV, it can be hooked up within a week and costs around $30 to $60 a month. Garbage will run about $15 per month. Rent, as discussed earlier, depends on your tastes. Having said this plan on experiencing occasional power and or water outages throughout the year ‐ wherever you live. Hedge your bets by buying bottled water and a candle. Panama is growing fast and is doing its best (at the tune of man millions of dollars per year) to upgrade its utility infrastructure. Overall it is getting there.
Lucky for you I am done. Last note: I have lived in 15 countries and still think Panama is a great choice.