Earlier today, a reader asked me
“So, how was your scouting trip to Panama? Could you see yourself living there?”
Our recent trip to Panama was supposed to answer two questions for us:
- Can we see ourselves living in Panama?
- If yes, do we prefer the David or Las Tablas areas?
I think we’ve been able to answer both questions in this game show called Life: Category, “Panama.”
#1. Can We See Ourselves Living in ______?
This is the first and most important question to ask yourself when considering moving to a different country.
No amount of reading or watching YouTube videos about it can answer this question for you, because your response to a place is visceral and emotional. It can sound perfect on paper, but maybe when you get there it just doesn’t feel right.
You also might have wildly different responses to different parts of the country.
I spent my first three days in Panama City, at the Live and Invest in Panama Conference. While most of my time was spent in the hotel conference room, I did make a point of getting out, on foot, several times.
I found the city a bit gritty, but was no dirtier than Boston, one of my all-time favorite places. Different, of course, with treacherously uneven sidewalks, few street signs and other interesting bits of local color.
I also knew that Panama City wasn’t one of our choices and tried very hard not to let it color my views of the interior towns on our short list.
#2. Which Town, City or Region?
David, Chiriqui Province
Once we left Panama City, we headed west by bus to David, the capital of Chiriqui Province.
Chiriqui is Panama’s center for green, growing things. The majority of produce available throughout the country grows in Chiriqui, which is also home to the country’s coffee production.
The mountains are drop-dead gorgeous — and I say that as a person born in Colorado who also lived for 12 years in Vermont.
Chiriqui’s big city is David, with a population in the neighborhood of 150,000. El centro, the town square, is very attractive with a fountain in the middle and shade trees flowers everywhere.
Around el centro are several blocks or shops and restaurants. Beyond the center, the city is laid out in an old-style grid.
Businesses also line the Pan-American Highway, and another shopping district thrives on Calle F Sur with a Super 99 grocery story, the muncipal mercado (market), various restaurants and a casino.
Residential neighborhoods are a mixed bag. Restaurants and auto repair businesses coexist with private homes and schools. Houses are surrounded by fences, gates, and sometimes even barbed wire. There are bars on many windows and doors.
Sidewalks are nonexistent once you get away from the commercial areas, and there’s a lot of traffic.
Dogs and chickens roam at will.
It’s also hot and humid.
I knew Panama was hot and humid, but after living for 22 years in Florida, I figured, how hot can it be?
Hot enough here in David that I couldn’t survive here without air conditioning, I quickly learned. (Central air conditioning is not common here. Wealthier families might have A/C window units for the bedrooms.)
After we returned from our foray into el centro, my brain felt fried from the heat. I had intended to pull out the laptop and get some writing done, but found myself unable to think straight. I finally retired to my room, turned the fan on high, and took a nap.
I did feel better after that, but was careful during the rest of our stay in David not to stay out in the heat for very long at one time.
While we were there I tried to meet up with a few expats I’d come across online, without success. David has enough resident expats for monthly social gatherings, but there were none during our time there.
Las Tablas, Los Santos Province
After three days in David we went to Las Tablas, a small community of about 10,000 halfway down the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula.
Las Tablas appealed to me from the moment we pulled into town.
It’s a bustling, hopping, picturesque place. And as we quickly discovered, it’s noticeably cooler than David with active breezes most of the time.
We had some interesting moments trying to communicate with the front-desk ladies at the hotel (no English spoken here!), but we managed.
We also hooked up very quickly with expats here. Our first morning in town we heard another couple speaking English over breakfast, so I went over and introduced myself. We had a pleasant conversation, and saw them the next day as well.
We discovered the Oceanos bar (around the corner form the bus terminal) serves as the unofficial “gringo bar,” and you can usually find a few North American expats downing the sixty-cent beers there in the late afternoon or early evening.
Las Tablas’ el centro is the only town square I saw on our trip that wasn’t full of flowers and shade. It was pretty in its own way, anchored by the church on one corner in approved fashion.
The town also seemed much more friendly to walkers than David, perhaps because it didn’t have the amount of traffic (still no sidewalks outside of the commercial areas).
Altogether, we both liked Las Tablas much better than David.
And the Question Is. . .
“In the category Panama, $1,000, the answer is ‘yes’.”
“Alex, the correct question is, ‘Can we see ourselves living in Panama?’ ”
We managed, with our poor Spanish language skills, in places where we were the only English speakers.
It’s a beautiful country (though the roadside litter everywhere really bothered my husband).
The kindness of the local people we met was overwhelming.
While there, we felt our stress levels melt away. Some of this was the “vacation effect,” but a good portion of it was the local vibe.
And — bottom line — it was affordable.
How affordable was it? I’m glad you asked. Several expats confirmed for us — independently — that they were living on $1,000 a month or less. One even complained that he’s now spending a little more than the $800/month he budgeted for living expenses when he moved here several years ago.
Is Panama the absolutely perfect place for us? I don’t know. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be perfect for us to be able to live there.
“Now, for the Daily Double, the answer is, ‘no-brainer.’ ”
“Alex, the question is ‘What is the choice between David and Las Tablas?’ ”
How did your first scouting trip in your new country go? Did it answer all your questions?
Thanks for responding! This was an interesting post. Have you taken an trip to Costa Rica? If so, did you find it equally hot and humid as Panama?
Lynne, I haven’t been to Costa Rica, so no basis of comparison from me. Sorry. . .
Have you visited Pedasi? I’ve been doing lots of reading and I keep finding Pedasi drawing me.
Yes, we’ve visited Pedasi. It’s a charming little town. Emphasis on LITTLE. Despite that, though, you can find some items in the grocery store that you don’t find in Las Tablas or Chitre, probably because of the high percentage of expats there. Also, your restaurant choices are definitely more interesting. You can find a little video of the town square at http://futureexpats.com/pedasi-panama, and I’ll be writing more about it.
Hi. I’m not clear on work permits. If I buy a home in Panama do I then qualify for a work permit. Thank you. -Toney
Hi Toney, unfortunately, property ownership doesn’t give you a work permit. They are not easy to get, although there is one new residency visa that will lead to a work permit. It was created by Executive Order last year, and may be changed or removed after next year’s elections so if you’re planning to move here soon you should apply for it right away. Check into the “Friendly Countries” visa. Here’s some preliminary information about it.